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3 Tips For Better Lateral Thinking

I am sitting in the kitchen with my mother and sister. Before us sits a puzzle book titled, "Mensa: Lateral Thinking and Logical Deduction- Test Your Powers of Thinking With 500 Challenges Problems and Puzzles." Yeah, I know, that's one lengthy title. The book is filled with puzzles that really test your ability to think laterally. Try this puzzle out and see how challenging it is for you. You can skip to the end of the article for the answer to the following puzzle.

Bush Fire

Bush Fire

There was a forest fire in Australia. After the firefighters had managed to extinguish the fire, the search for bodies began. After two days of searching they found a man in complete scuba diving gear. Although he was dead, he had not been burned at all. The forest is 20 miles from any water. How did he get there?


1. The man had not walked to where he was found.

2. The man had not been murdered. It was an accidental death.

3. His wetsuit was not burned or melted.

4. The man had several broken bones.

We can't help but laugh as we try to solve one puzzle after another. Some of them we solve comfortably, especially the ones that involve deductive reasoning. But the puzzles that require lateral thinking often give us a little more trouble. Why is that?

Lateral thinking requires you to not only be a: methodical, analytical, and critical in your thinking, but also creative. I used to have a hard time defining creativity, but as I get older, I think I have a grasp of creativities main parts. To be creative is to be both functional (fits into context) as well as novel/not obvious.

Let's take Beethovens Gross Fugue Opus 133 in Bflat as an example. After writing his 9th symphony (Ode To Joy), Beethoven focused primarily on string quartets. In my opinion, these intimate pieces are some of the most beautiful and profound found in genre. The last of the string quartets, Opus 133, was originally intended to be part of another string quartet, but found its way to the publishers as its own work.

Beethoven chose the structure of the piece to be a fugue. The fugue was a common music form/composition in the Baroque era but it wasn't en vogue in Beethoven's lifetime. When the piece was performed, audiences didn't really understand the piece. It was, well, "gross". The music, compared to Beethoven's other works, was discordant and rather jarring. The creativity of Beethoven comes through in two simple methods: the form he chose to write in and novelty or non-obvious ideas he used to execute the piece. Beethoven used both function (the musical form of a fugue) as well as pushed the envelope (made the music novel/not obvious) of what a string quartet should sound like. No matter how vast and deep Beethoven's talent, his creativity was bound by two concrete notions, functional context and non-obvious ideas.

Why does context matter? Imagine for a moment that Beethoven decided to write a piece of music but he never specified which instrument would be playing, which structure would be used (Sonata, Song, Symphony, Quartet, etc...), which melody would be the primary one, or which harmony to employ. The music wouldn't really make much sense, especially if he wanted others to appreciate it and hear it how he intended. Creativity isn't mindless wandering, but rather the management of various rules and structures within any system. It requires a grasp of what's been done and what potentially could be be done in the future. For classical music, creativity is using tonal centers, rhythmic motives and structural forms in a style that denotes the time period of the Classical Era.

It is important to note that creativity isn't the same thing as creation. You can create things without being creative. To create is to bring something into existence or make something happen. If you have a computer and make it play a piece of music, the computer is bringing into existence the sounds that make the music. But, it wouldn't be appropriate to say that the computer is creative. If you gave the architectural plans for a house to a builder, the builder isn't really being creative if he follows the instructions for building the home. We tend to say that the act of conceptualization, combined with execution of ideas implies creativity. But why does the idea need to be non-obvious?

If someone wishes to be creative, they need to think past what is obvious. For example, examine the following story:

A man walked to the beach. His wife didn't want him to go to the beach but he went anyway. When he arrived, the weather felt nice so he decided to go for a swim. The man tested the waters temperature then jumped in. After he swam, he took a towel and dried himself off. He left the beach that day happy to have swam.

Why was that story not creative? The information presented was created, because I had to write it, it also fit the context of what a story is. It had conflict and resolution as well as a beginning, middle, and end. What was missing? The thing that was missing was the use of non-obvious or novel ideas. The story is so conventional and can be replicated so easily that the story feels uncreative. It's what I like to call boring. To be creative, novel or unique ideas need to be added to the context of whatever venture we devote ourselves to.

Being Creative - The Path To Imagination

In the mind, a lot is happening when someone wants to be creative. For example, creativity in music comes from the executive control network (ECN). "The ECN is located in the frontal lobe and comprises the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and anterior insula cortex.The ECN mediates three distinct cognitive mechanisms associated with creativity: inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility." (Anic, Aydin) Additionally the default mode network (DMN), which houses things like the inferior parietal cortices, posterior cingulate cortex, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and perhaps some others depending on the source material, add to your ability to be creative.

The DMN is thought to be your "at rest brain processes". This is the part of the brain that is thought to activate when brain wandering occurs. This exploration is often thought of to induce creativity. This isn't the same thing as not being able to focus or letting your mind wander about uncontrolled. This is when your mind is at rest with tasks that require minimal to no cognitive effort. (Consistency and Functional Specialization) In the image below there are two brain scans showing the DMN. The DMN is outlined by the white regions on the scan. The color is the activation of the regions of the brain for the task. On the left (labeled A) we can see the results of brain activation during a moral dilemma test given to a patient. On the right hand side (labeled B) we can see the results of a brain during the Stroop task.