Laterally Thinking

Lateral Thinking, Blue Sky, Out of the Box – we hear these phrases bandied about but what does it all really mean? The term ‘Lateral thinking’ was first coined by Edward De Bono who described it as the process to achieve pattern switching from one way of thinking to another. Ok, but what does that mean and why should we care?

All thinking is an associating process. We think of one tho ught and that leads to another thought and that leads to another and so on. If you could be bothered you could trace your line of thought back throughout the day and you’d see that you live in a continuous associative stream of consciousness.

Playing ‘word association’ is easy – if we had a room of people and I said apple, the next person may say tree, the next could be woodland… etc. It’s very easy because that is how the mind works. If we were to play ‘word disassociation’, we’d find it a lot harder. The only way to do it is to associate to something else to get away from the word. It’s like our mind has rail tracks on which our thoughts travel. We’re essentially heading in a set direction which, like a train, is hard to deviate from without crashing.

This is why so many people do exactly the same things, say exactly the same things and come up with exactly the same solutions when faced with a problem. They don’t have any new ideas because they’re travell ing on the same straight tracks as they always have.

So when we talk about lateral thinking or pattern changing we’re essentially talking about jumping off the tracks onto another railway line that is going in a different direction. This is only possible if the rail network of neurones (brain cells) in your brain is a complex network of intersections instead of a set of parallel tracks.

Einstein’s brain is stored in a jar in Kansas City. It has been studied by many experts for decades. It is by all accounts a very average male brain, the same weight and size as most. But it differs from the average in one important respect. When samples were studied under the microscope it was noticed that the neurones had dramatically more connections to each other than in the average brain.

So how do you form these connections? Like a muscle, the brain needs to be exercised. To make new connections you need to make new associations between disparate things . You need to fantasise, experiment. Force yourself to change habits of action, speech and thought. Do things differently. Do different things. Connect the new experience back to something you’ve done before. Learn to disassociate! Break out of that pattern of thinking by being random. Play!

Here’s a lateral thinking task to end with. What would be a realistic but unusual answer to this problem?

Grandma is knitting but her three year old granddaughter keeps playing with the wool. Father suggests putting the child in the playpen. Mother comes up with a better idea – what is it?

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