When we have to solve problems, we often rely on logical reasoning. It is understandable since society has spent centuries extolling reason. Without a doubt, logical or vertical reasoning helps us to solve problems in a relatively simple, fast and direct way.
However, when things get complicated or the solution is not so obvious, logical reasoning can run aground, leading us to a dead end. Then we have to activate what the psychologist Edward de Bono called “lateral thinking”.
This concept refers to our ability to solve problems by resorting to original solutions that go beyond logical and deductive reasoning. In simple terms, it refers to activating creativity to examine things from different angles that allow us to solve the most complex challenges in an original way.
In fact, neuroscientists from the University of Colorado, found that lateral thinking follows completely different neural circuits than logical and focused thinking. While reasoning and attention are primarily confined to the prefrontal cortex, lateral thinking recruits larger areas of the brain. This ability to involve brain areas responsible for processing different types of stimuli is what allows us to create new associations, have a more global vision or think outside the box.
Lateral thinking allows us to find solutions to problems that are not obvious to most people, so it is not only a particularly demanded skill in the labor market, especially in times of change like the present, but it also helps us to better face life’s challenges.
How to develop lateral thinking on a day-to-day basis
When the young Albert Einstein worked as a clerk at the Berne Patent Office, an occupation for which he was overqualified, he would often finish his homework in a few hours and then spend time watching the trains arriving and leaving the station.
Back home, he told his wife Mileva Marić: “Today I thought of something unusual…”. “What would happen if a train traveled faster than light?” “What would happen to the earth if the sun suddenly disappeared?” “Is falling the same as floating in space?” Walter Isaacson, who wrote Einstein’s biography, stated that “Those mental visualizations are behind the most beautiful and innovative theories that Einstein gave to science.”
Like Albert Einstein, some people have innate lateral thinking. They are able to ask questions that almost no one else asks or make entirely new connections to solve problems creatively. Others need to develop lateral thinking, something that doesn’t happen overnight but, with perseverance and the right forma mentis, can be achieved.
1. Modify the solution pattern
The first step in developing lateral thinking is to be aware of how we process information. Before trying to solve a new problem, we must investigate the thought patterns that we usually activate. Then we must try to reverse them.
One technique for developing lateral thinking is to deliberately modify the available options. That is, do the opposite of what we usually do: if we try to solve a problem by looking at the small parts that compose it, we must see it in its entirety. We can also break large patterns into smaller chunks, reverse any relationship between problem elements, or even negate features we’ve taken for granted. Many times, when we change the way we see things, things change.
2. Expose yourself to new stimuli
Sometimes, when we have to solve a problem, we focus so much on finding the solution that we end up obsessed. However, lateral thinking needs oxygen. This means that disconnecting from the problem is also positive, we need to expose ourselves to completely new stimuli that can activate creativity.
We must give our mind a chance to wander. To develop lateral thinking we must allow new random stimuli to break into our lives so that they stimulate a more original way of thinking. It’s about doing whatever takes our mind off the problem, from taking a walk to practicing mindfulness, taking a different route to work, or daring to try something new. That period of disconnection to discover different stimuli can become a valuable source of new ideas.
3. Always look for new alternatives
Lateral thinking is also a mental disposition. It is not limited to creativity, but goes much further to include curiosity and the desire to explore. Lateral thinking is not just a way of operating or a pattern that our brain follows but, above all, an a attitude with which to approach problems.
For that reason, when de Bono proposed the concept of lateral thinking, he suggested that we always try to look for alternatives. Even when we find a suitable and obvious solution, it is worth considering alternative approaches since in this way we get used to evaluating problems from all possible perspectives and increase the chances of finding more original or efficient solutions.
4. Ask yourself random or even arbitrary questions
Lateral thinking thrives heavily on originality, the seemingly unconnected, and even chaos. Its solution method is not linear, so if we want to develop lateral thinking we must get used to the uncertain and fortuitous. In fact, by arbitrarily changing elements of the problem we can generate unexpected and original answers.
An exercise to develop lateral thinking consists precisely in using seemingly unconnected stimuli to solve a problem. We could consider apparently wrong solutions, such as: what is the only thing we cannot do in this situation? Although in traditional logic that question would not make sense, in the field of lateral thinking it could generate new associations. Asking questions like this can help us discover links between items that seemed unrelated to each other.
5. Get out of your skin
Sometimes, especially when the problem is close to us, it is difficult to assume the necessary psychological distance. We let ourselves be swallowed up by the problem and, immersed in that tension, we are incapable of generating original ideas that allow us to go beyond the most obvious solutions.
One activity to develop lateral thinking is to identify with creative people. Basically, when we are faced with a challenge, we can ask ourselves how that person would solve it or what solutions they would come up with. In this way we are able to detach ourselves from our rigid thinking and open up to new, fresher and less biased perspectives.
Andrews, J. R. (2011) The Brain’s Default Network and Its Adaptive Role in Internal Mentation. The Neuroscientist; 18(3): 10.1177.
Lindell, A. K. (2011) Lateral thinkers are not so laterally minded: hemispheric asymmetry, interaction, and creativity. Laterality; 16(4):479-98.