Year Alpha

Divergent and lateral thinking

By October 30, 2019 No Comments

Dear Students of the Postgraduate School of Thinking,

We will meet on Friday, November 15th, 2019, to discuss divergent and lateral thinking. These metaphorical terms express the human ability to thing in an unconventional and unpredictable way. We think in the divergent way when our thoughts flow in many diverse directions rather than being focused on one specific topic. Still, divergent mode of thinking is goal-oriented, meaning that it serves our needs and purposes. Specifically, divergent thinking is at the core of creativity and creative problem solving. Sometimes a solution to the problem at hand is not easy to conceive on the basis of a regular approach, by which I mean the process of thinking that:

  • Is heavily dependent on acquired specialized knowledge or expertise;
  • Needs logical thinking and reasoning, according to the appropriately applied rules and schemes of reasoning;
  • Is focused on the solution that is temporarily unknown, and thus needs thinking, but whose parameters are presumed from the very beginning;
  • Its effects (i.e., solutions, ideas) may be easily judged on the basis of their appropriateness or accuracy.

Divergent thinking is quite opposite to the convergent process in many respects. First of all, it usually does not require specialized knowledge, and even if it does, such a knowledge is not sufficient. One has to think in an unusual, unpredictable way, taking advantage of one’s imagination and free-wheeling production of ideas rather than the expert knowledge (if available at all). This is why divergent thinking tasks may be successfully resolved by laypersons, including preschool children. Sometimes preschoolers are even better than adults in such tasks. Secondly, divergent thinking does not require logical rules and schemes of reasoning. Such rules are indispensable in many professional and real-life situations, but in divergent thinking tasks they do not work. It is much better to get rid of logic and its rules in order to think unpredictably. Thirdly, whether the effects of divergent thinking will be good or bad is hard to predict. To some extent, all ideas produced through divergent thinking are good because there are no strict criteria to judge their accuracy or appropriateness. Of course, some ideas may be absurd or seem completely unrealistic but they are still valuable as an inspiration for further elaboration and development.

I prepared a set of tasks to solve before our meeting. The first two tasks give you an opportunity to think in the divergent way. Please take a chance to try them out even if these problems are not novel to you.

Lateral thinking is another metaphor that we use to describe the nature of unconventional thinking. It is a process of thinking thanks to which a thinker can avoid a ‘trap’ involved in the problem at hand. Sometimes such traps are deliberately prepared by somebody who wishes to puzzle us or to amuse us. Take an opportunity to solve Tasks 3-5 and you will see what I’m talking about. These tasks are possible to solve only when we find out the trap. As soon as we find it and understand why it initially hampered our thoughts, a solution appears easy and obvious. Therefore, such tasks are sometimes referred to under the term ‘insight problems’ and the thinking process that leads to solution is termed ‘insight problem solving’.

Insight is a complex phenomenon consisting of cognitive as well as emotional components. It is usually sudden and unexpected (the ‘Aha” response), therefore, take enough time to find solutions to the Tasks 3-5. In case of difficulty, take frequent breaks: although they do not guarantee any solution, they increase its probability. Insight is usually associated with pleasant subjective feeling of positive affect and satisfaction, although lack of solution in spite of prolonged endeavor may result in frustration.

In real-life problem solving there is nobody who would be willing to deliberately set a ‘trap’ for us. Rather, such a ‘trap’ is a result of our own thinking processes, particularly, our inability to look at the problem at hand form a radically different perspective. Insightful problem solving in science, arts, business and other domains of creative activity, needs ‘lateral thinking’ because only unconventional approach may help us to neutralize and overcome different ‘traps’ that we tend to produce for ourselves.

Your homework is to solve the tasks that I have attached. It should help us to discuss the peculiarities of divergent and lateral thinking. I will appreciate receiving your work by November 11th but if some of you would prefer not to disclose the results, it’s also an option. Furthermore, it would be great if you could get familiar with at least one of the papers included as reading assignment (preferably both). However, be careful with the sequence: tasks first, reading next!

I am looking forward to see you in Brussels.

Edward Nęcka