Monday, June 14, 2010

Thinking laterally

I attended a class some time back, where the guy asked us a question. He drew a point on a black board and asked whether any one can start drawing a straight line from there and meet the same point again. The exercise was to demonstrate the lateral thinking process. Lateral Thinking is a critical thinking method proposed by Edward de Bono who started a thought revolution, suggesting that thinking as a skill can be taught and practiced. Today Lateral Thinking is practiced in many class rooms and corporate offices all over the world with excellent and effective results. 

People generally associate the process of thinking  as a purely intellectual exercise and believes good thinkers are born genius. de Bono proves it other wise. As per him creativity and genius are not accidents or luck. They are the result of an organized thought process caused by rearrangement of thought patterns... Any one can think critically and get astounding results..

What is critical thinking?
Critical thinking involves judging the thoughts to find out any kind of errors, that is not obvious and can cause a variation in the results.  So when a statement is put forward, a critical thinker deliberately studies it from all view points, thereby determining whether to accept, reject or rephrase the statement... A Critical thinker,  while putting forward an argument ensures that it is logical from all sides and does not contain any factual or judgmental errors. It is self- corrective too. It is like putting forward a scientific theory and proving that it practically works in specified circumstances.Most important requirement for a critical thinker is to be free of bias, ego and having an open mind. Different common mistakes made by people, that obstructs critical thinking is documented in detail by Mr K R Ravi in his book "Thinking About Thinking" published by Jaico in India... Critical thinking is an essential habit to practice lateral thinking... But before knowing about Lateral thinking, it is essential to know about the normal way our mind works, that can be called as vertical thinking.

What is Vertical thinking?
The biggest advantage and disadvantage of human mind is its pattern making ability . Mind works by making patterns with information that it receives. Brain joins together all the stimuli (data) that it receives from different sensory organs in a particular style that is determined by the order in which  it receives them. And a code is assigned to it. When that code is given to the brain in future, it pulls out the whole pattern and then process it by adding or reducing more bits of information thereby constructing more complex patterns.  Language is the best code. When brain hears the word red, it registers immediately a sight that was associated with the word before and interprets the color... This saves a huge amount of time while thinking, when the code is given to brain a thought can be triggered with a huge amount of data associated with it as ready made patterns. So when you hear or read the word "Terminator", immediately the brain associate it with Schwarzanegger  and lot of inter mixed patterns of scenes, dialogues, sounds, images of friends who had accompanied to Cinema all loaded together. Then as per the requirement of the situation, brain takes up the patterns out, adds or reduces data to form a new pattern.

But it has a disadvantage that patterns in course becomes so strong by the addition of various irrelevant data that it becomes difficult to disassociate certain things afterward. Like US airport authorities having a problem with people with beard. All photographs of terrorists they have seen are with beards, so they associate a beard with terrorists, making life hell for innocent passengers. Also another important problem is the difficulty to rearrange the patterns as they are formed in the order data arrives in mind and not in the order of accuracy.

So vertical thinking is the normal method of thinking were information is stacked one above another like a multi storied building. It is difficult to rearrange data in this normal method...and it is where lateral thinking comes into picture.

What is Lateral Thinking?
In this approach we don't go step by step, we go parallel. Instead of relying on ready-made patterns solely, for thinking process, here either existing patterns are deformed and rearranged or whole new patterns are constructed. Lateral thinking involves in creating more paths, to a solution thereby increasing the chance of reaching there.

Vertical thinking is digging deep when no water is found, whereas lateral thinking is digging at a new place when result is not achieved. In  vertical thinking, solution as well as the path for reaching the solution are equally important, but in lateral thinking, only correct solution matters. Distance from problem to solution can be covered in an infinite different ways, if we are ready to break and rearrange the patterns...which brings us to the answer of the question asked to us in the class on lateral thinking... Answer is to draw the straight line in any direction to a distance equal to the circumference of earth and there, the point will be reached due to the curvature of earth. Only one guy answered it that day and humility does not allow me to reveal his identity.

Most of the details expressed in this post and in few others that I plan to make in near future as a continuation to the topic are not original. I had just tried to express the concept of  Lateral Thinking, as good as I comprehend. So all mistakes here are mine and basis of everything else are the work of de Bono and several others working in this field... If you are interested more details on laeral thinking and exercises to practice it can be found in the book Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono

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