Year Alpha

Divergent and lateral thinking – Feedback letter

By November 26, 2019 No Comments

Dear Thinkers,

First of all, let me express my deep satisfaction with our meeting. I enjoyed it very much, mostly because of the fantastic atmosphere of cooperation, exchange of ideas, and intellectual playfulness. I wish I had students like that in other classes I happen to teach.

I assumed that the phenomena of divergent and lateral thinking were not unknown to you before our class. So, my intention was to get you familiar with the cognitive mechanics of these modes of thinking. Being an experimental cognitive psychologist, who only occasionally has a chance to facilitate creative thinking, I am deeply interested in the basic question: How the mind works? As a field of research, we are of course far from knowing everything about this question but the more we know about the mind’s activity the more we are able to teach people how to use their ‘personal computers’ they carry in their heads. So, it seems important to me to remember that divergent thinking may be successfully stimulated by deliberate use of such cognitive tools as:

  • Putting things into surprising or ‘fuzzy’ categories,
  • Making remote associations,
  • Using analogy and metaphor,
  • Inferring conclusions from premises that are unexpected or difficult to notice.

We can train these cognitive skills and processes in order to make them habitual, although it seems to me that you may not need such a training anymore.

Compared to divergent thinking, lateral (or insightful) thinking is a bit more difficult to stimulate. Insight problems usually involve ‘a trap’, which—once noticed—is quite easy to eliminate. The difficulty comes from the fact that noticing such a trap is usually accidental. Therefore, cognitive tricks that are so helpful in the case of divergent thinking may not be that helpful in insight problem solving. Or, to put it in other words, such tricks are less operational in this case. Still, there are practices worth consideration in order to increase the probability of insight. Please remember that insight is based on the following mental operations:

  • Restructuring,
  • Deployment of attention,
  • Cue utilization,
  • Selectivity.

In the parallelogram problem, restructuring is possible in a few ways. For instance, one can realize that the base and height of the parallelogram may be defined in a way that is usually ignored. Or, one can realize that instead of adding the areas of the square and the parallelogram, it is possible to convert these figures into two triangles and arrange them in the form of a rectangle. In the real world, restructuring usually requires putting questions like these: (1) can I convert important issues into unimportant ones, and vice versa?, (2) can I take the background as a figure and figure as its background?, or (3) can I take a new narrative scheme while talking or thinking about the problem? Importantly, we have to realise that impasse is a typical prerequisite of insight, so we must not get depressed while not being able to see a solution.

Deployment of attention usually needs a break, or many breaks. It would be advisably to engage oneself in something very demanding during the break, in order to disengage attention from the original topic and refocus it on something new. Cue utilisation is more likely to occur when we engage ourselves in many different activities, apparently not related to the problem at hand. Reading for pleasure or talking to interesting people may broaden our scope of attention and increase the probability of noticing a cue that may suggest a solution. But remember: Accidental discoveries happen to well-prepared minds (L. Pasteur), so first we have to set our mind for suggestive signals and then we may just assimilate new information. Selectivity in perception, memory, and thinking is probably the most difficult to stimulate; however, it is always good to ask ourselves whether all elements of the problem are equally important, or whether some of them might be eliminated.

We also discussed many issues directly not related to the topic of the seminar, like intelligence, attention, and individual differences in cognition. I hope I could answer your questions and I am happy that cognitive psychology may be interesting to talk about.

With very best wishes,

Edward Nęcka