3 Tips For Better Lateral Thinking

October 22, 2018

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

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. 



The Stroop task is performed by having subjects read the word of a color in black and white, then having them read the words of the color but in a different color ink. See how well you can do. Read the words below in black and white then read the words that appear in color. The inability of the mind to perform the automated task is called the Stroop Effect. (Scarpina) It is interesting to note that the DMN is activated during a task that seems so mentally taxing to perform.


 READ THE FOLLOWING WORDS: Red, Yellow, Purple, Orange, Green, Violet, Blue, Orange, Blue, Truqouse, Orange, Yellow, Black, Red, Red





Beethoven was fond of taking long walks through the romantic forests of Germany. I conjecture that these walks stimulated many of his creative ideas and kept his perspective fresh. This helped him keep pushing his musical ideas past the obvious notions of the close of the classical era. In an article published online for the Harvard Medical School, Srini Pillay (MD) notes that studies show "that free-walking results in improvements in fluency, flexibility, and originality of thinking." (Here is a link to that article) Of course, Beethoven probably would have been pretty creative without the walks, but walking would have helped him tap into that resting brain function. 


The struggle can be challenging for all of us when it comes to creative thinking but the important thing is to remember that we all have the capacity to be creative. Our brains do much of the non exhaustive cognitive  functions when we stop focusing and allow our brains to be free. I'm not suggesting you don't focus on tasks, but be sure to spend some time doing things like: napping, walking, physical exercise, or constructive daydreaming. Basically, take a step back and allow your brain to relax.





STEP 1: Be Unbiased

One of the hardest things to do when encountering any situation is to be unbiased. Bias is something that helps our brain process information quickly, although inaccurately. If you notice in the past that a certain person used a certain greeting, you expect them to use it again. If you have seen two black cats that are skittish, you may begin to think that all black cats have that trait. In terms of puzzles like the one I introduced in the beginning of the article, bias would look something like trying to formulate what the answer is before you even finish the entire story. Our brains work incredibly fast to form opinions and thoughts. To be lateral in your thinking, you will need to allow some space for your brain to work out problems. This means you should not reach conclusions before spending some time "completing the story". 


STEP 2: Brainstorm The Possibilities

We found that when we were trying to finish these lateral puzzles, we had to brainstorm about 10 possibilities or answers for the puzzle in order to get to the correct one. This is where more of the actual lateral thinking comes in. Spend some time re-examining the puzzle and see how many possibilities for a solution you can come up with. If you are having a hard time coming up with possibilities, spend some time stepping away from the puzzle. Go for a walk or do a task other than the puzzle. Allow your mind to work the puzzle over without you thinking directly about the problem.


STEP 3: Test The Possibilities And Be Patient

We found that lateral thinking wasn't (in regards to solving the puzzle above) about just coming up with possibilities but about exploring them. Remember that being creative involves context as well as non-obvious ideas. For the puzzle above we had to spend a lot of time thinking through the possibilities and running scenarios and reasons why certain answers to our problem fit better than others. Thinking creatively requires a lot of trial and error. Good ideas aren't born from just one simple pass at what could be, but rather, testing is necessary of ideas to see what can actually work. 


Here is the answer to the puzzle listed at the top of the page. To put out the fire they used airplanes to scoop water out of the nearest lake. When they scooped the water out, they scooped him out as well. Water dropped on the fire and put it out but the fall killed the diver. 

The more we did the puzzles the better we got at the above process/steps. Of course, you can do various things to improve your abilities as a lateral thinker, but I do think that at the core of lateral thinking, the above steps and points made in the article can be used to improve your abilities. Thank you for reading my blog post. It's been a while since I have written. It's a privilege to be able to share something with you. Continue to love to learn again, friends.  





Works Cited: 


Anic, Aydin, et al. "Investigating the Role of the Primary Motor Cortex in Musical Creativity: A Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Study." Frontiers in Psychology, 2018. Health Reference Center Academic, http://link.galegroup.com.lscsproxy.lonestar.edu/apps/doc/A556522331/HRCA?u=nhmccd_main&sid=HRCA&xid=4867697d. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.


Consistency and functional specialization in the default mode brain network

Ben J. Harrison, Jesus Pujol, Marina López-Solà, Rosa Hernández-Ribas, Joan Deus, Hector Ortiz, Carles Soriano-Mas, Murat Yücel, Christos Pantelis, Narcís Cardoner

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jul 2008, 105 (28) 9781-9786; DOI:10.1073/pnas.0711791105


Scarpina, Federica, and Sofia Tagini. “The Stroop Color and Word Test.” Frontiers in Psychology 8 (2017): 557. PMC. Web. 22 Oct. 2018.


Shimizu, Taro, and Yasuharu Tokuda. "System 3 diagnostic process: the lateral approach." International Journal of General Medicine, vol. 5, 2012, p. 873+. Health Reference Center Academic, http://link.galegroup.com.lscsproxy.lonestar.edu/apps/doc/A344279403/HRCA?u=nhmccd_main&sid=HRCA&xid=e09b811f. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.


Shourie, Nasrin, et al. "Analysis of EEG signals related to artists and nonartists during visual perception, mental imagery, and rest using approximate entropy." BioMed Research International, 2014. Health Reference Center Academic, http://link.galegroup.com.lscsproxy.lonestar.edu/apps/doc/A427024394/HRCA?u=nhmccd_main&sid=HRCA&xid=5056250e. Accessed 20 Oct. 2018.

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