I was a little stuck today for a subject to write about, and it occurred to me that I should apply lateral thinking. Then I thought, no, i’ll just write about lateral thinking. Sometimes the solution is right in front of you and you just have to focus. Still, lateral thinking is great for stretching the mind.
Lateral thinking is a term coined by Edward de Bono, for the solution of problems through an indirect and creative approach. Lateral thinking is about reasoning that is not immediately obvious and about ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic. The term first appeared in the title of de Bono’s book New Think: The Use of Lateral Thinking, published in 1967. By way of explaining it he has said, “You cannot dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.” This means that trying harder in the same direction may not be as useful as changing direction. Effort in the same direction (approach) will not necessarily succeed.
With the traditional argument or adversarial thinking each side takes a different position and then seeks to attack the other side. Each side seeks to prove that the other side is wrong. This is the type of thinking established by the Greeks two thousand four hundred years ago. Plato, Aristotle and Socrates employed it to arrive at the truth of any given matter. Adversarial thinking completely lacks a constructive, creative or design element. It is intended only to discover the ‘truth’ not to build anything.
With ‘parallel thinking’ both sides (or all parties) are thinking in parallel in the same direction. There is co-operative and co-ordinated thinking. The direction itself can be changed in order to give a full scan of the situation. But at every moment each thinker is thinking in parallel with all the other thinkers. There does not have to be agreement. Statements or thoughts which are indeed contradictory are not argued out but laid down in parallel. In the final stage the way forward is ‘designed’ from the parallel thoughts that have been laid out.
In my own attempts at lateral thinking i’ve discovered it’s best to empty one’s mind of all preconceived notions about a situation and simply free associate. I once worked a rather stressful, repetitive job that was enlivened by a co-worker who had memorized lots of lateral thinking puzzles and gave us scenarios in which we had to arrive at the wherefore by working out what had happened by asking only yes or no questions.
Here is an example:
A man and his son are in a car crash. The father is killed and the child is taken to hospital gravely injured. When he gets there, the surgeon says, ‘I can’t operate on this boy – for he is my son!!!’ How can this possibly be?
This one is well know, I first encountered it on All In The Family back in the 70’s. The solution is simple if you stop to consider that surgeons are not all male, the surgeon in this case is the boy’s mother. The point though, is that you can’t arrive at the answer by adversarial thinking, you have to step outside the box.
Here’s a more difficult one:
There are six eggs in the basket. Six people each take one of the eggs. How can it be that one egg is left in the basket?
Again, straightforward thinking will fail you. The way forward is to consider what limitations you may be putting on the problem that aren’t really there. The logical mind will assume that if each person takes one of the eggs, they are taking the egg from the basket. However, if the last person takes the basket with the last egg still in it, then there is indeed one egg left inside. Simple, isn’t it?
You will eventually arrive at the truth if you ask enough questions about the situation. Eventually it would occur to you that the last egg doesn’t have to leave the basket.
A man walks into a bar, and asks the bartender for a drink of water. The bartender pulls out a gun, points it at the man, and cocks it. The man says “Thank you” and leaves. What happened?
This is a tough one. You have to consider the situation being described and ask yourself why the bartender would pull out a gun. Once you’ve done that, you have to consider what the act of pulling out a gun and pointing it at the man might accomplish. We know the bartender isn’t forcing the man to leave, because the man thanks him for pointing the gun at him. Therefore there was no threat. So what does the act of pointing a gun at someone unexpectedly do in most cases? It surprises them. Why would the man thank the bartender for surprising him? Because he needed to be surprised. Why would he need to be surprised? Answer: He had the hiccups.
It’s a wonderful way of exercising your brain, and a great little dinner party game if things are getting slow. Give it a try sometime. There are lots of “situation puzzles”, as they’re sometimes called, online.