Thinking About Thinking


Kay B. is assistant editor of a new trade newsletter. As part of her promotional work, she decides to send free copies of the current issues to members of a new group in the field. She receives hundreds of envelope labels with members' names from the group, but shortly before the newsletters are to be mailed she discovers that the company's standard affixing machines will not work on the wax-backed labels. After trying numerous glues on the labels, Kay jokes to office workers that they should iron the labels on the envelopes and melt the wax. When the laughter subsides irons are found and the labels spread all over the office floor. The newsletters are mailed in plenty of time.

George X. is an army officer facing a long weekend drive to his vacation cabin. He wonders how to avoid the cold-and-hungry feeling along the way, without interrupting the ride. His solution is to wrap food in aluminum foil and place the package on the exhaust manifold of his automobile motor. Miles later he stops the car, unwraps the hot beef sandwich, hot dog, or hamburger, and eats his meal enroute.

What is common to these examples? Kay B. and George X. had problems for which no solution appeared—at first. Each was faced with the failure of "structured" thinking—from the facts to a solution—to provide an answer. Kay and George had to think humorously, nonsensically, or unpredictably to solve their problems.

Students of thinking are now discovering that the way in which a person thinks determines the solutions that appear, and that different problems require different methods. At an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium on "The Psychology of Thinking," Roger L. Dominowski, University of Illinois professor of psychology, explains: "It is tempting to think in terms of 'reasoning ability,' to think of some people as systematically reasoning logically and of others as following different, nonlogical systems over a variety of reasoning tasks. There is no strong evidence favoring such a conclusion; there are data indicating that people might perform very well (logically, efficiently, accurately) on one reasoning task while having great difficulty with another."

Everyone "thinks," but the quality of thinking varies. Pick a general topic—education, economics, family life—and try to concentrate on that subject for several minutes without wavering. Try not to wander, and examine the subject from as many vantage points as you can. What happens to many people who try this experiment is humbling. The mind is a drunkard, stumbling after a short while, unable to sustain a notion or generate new hypotheses. Some people report that they are constantly interrupted by petty thoughts of the day and yearnings for escape, such as "What time is it?" "What are my children doing?" and "How long is this experiment going to last?"

We must think about even the smallest items, from what to give the children for breakfast to whether it will rain today, and the larger decisions—should I accept an overseas transfer? In each case there is a common thread: getting started, accelerating, and knowing when to stop and what to do when you've reached an impasse. And yet "the last thing men think about is their own thoughts," writes Henry Hazlitt in Thinking as a Science.

Thinking boils down to the "occurrence of suggestions," according to Hazlitt, and the key element in thinking is association. Thoughts seem to enter the mind on the backs of related, existing thoughts. This is both a blessing and a curse. Association can work well in putting a puzzle together, but it will not always suggest new puzzles or tell you which piece is critical to the whole. Association will help pull in ideas that relate to existing ones, but it will not be much help in producing new ideas with no apparent relationship to existing ones.

Ultimately, the brain is an "inescapably physical system with a mechanical way of working," writes Edward de Bono of the University of Cambridge. The brain has an identity, de Bono writes, and for biological reasons the mind flows from idea to idea, making indiscriminate associations. Then it gets into ruts and tends to regard the same problem in the same way. De Bono calls this "vertical thinking." In New Think he writes, "Just as water flows down slopes, settles in hollows and is confined to riverbeds, so vertical thinking flows along the most probable paths and by its very flow increases the probability of those paths for the future."

To counter this natural tendency, de Bono proposes "lateral thinking," to "alter the flow of the water. The old channels are dammed up in the hope that the water will seek out and take to new and better patterns of flow." Vertical thinking is logical—based on working within a framework and solving problems by carefully examining evidence. In lateral thinking, conclusions are chosen by hunch or chance, and the thinker tries to fit the evidence into this framework. Thinking "up and down" in a single context (vertical) and moving from one entire framework to another (lateral) are useful images to describe mental activity.

For example, a bored housewife wonders how to improve her condition. She varies the housework routine and sets aside reading time to interrupt the drudgery. Having accepted the housewifery framework, she remains stuck in her "vertical" trap. But if she were to think laterally, she might imagine she were single again and might daydream innocently about life without children. She might speculate about life in totally different circumstances. Suddenly she finds herself in a new framework, in which she must get along. She must consider her education, her qualifications for employment, how to support herself.

Now she is back in the present, but it is a different present. She sees an education and a job. Previously these possibilities were outside her vision. She has new goals to which she can "fit" her current situation, instead of "vertically" accepting her condition as given and trying to improve the most uninteresting parts of it.

One precondition for improved thinking is a constant monitoring of thoughts. "Introspection is the first source of one's psychological knowledge," writes Nathaniel Branden in The Psychology of Self Esteem. Introspection means standing back, examining how ideas are "hatched," how problems are approached and followed through, and asking: "Why did I reach this conclusion and not that?"

Sometimes solutions to problems are obscured by strong habits. One of the biggest obstacles to clear thinking is the tendency to repress emotions—especially unwanted ones—and so to obstruct the natural tie between thinking and feeling. It is this tie that makes lateral thinking possible. Frequently an important insight or hunch will appear as a feeling or "sense." When unpleasant feelings are repressed habitually, unpleasant thoughts are soon repressed, says therapist Branden. This turns into a roadblock to creative thinking.

For example, James Bodie (a pseudonym) is a chemical engineer and writer. He moves easily throughout the day despite a desk piled high with unread journals and strict deadlines looming. Bodie's responsibilities are many as senior editor of an engineering publication, and his success or failure is largely dependent on the ideas he can present and execute—and therefore on the quality of his thinking.

But some time ago Bodie found himself tense and less able to make the mental connections that had previously come with ease and enjoyment. He introspected, asking: "Why can't I think clearly?" He concluded that the main reason was his habit of stifling emotions when dealing with his bosses.

Sometimes these emotions took the form of anger or hurt—and were stifled out of politeness. Bodie's solution? Each night he "monitors" his feelings by vividly recalling the emotional moments of the day, and "reliving" them, with all of the original emotional intensity.

Assuming you have cleared away all psychological obstacles and introspection has spotlighted some of your weaknesses, how do you begin to think about a problem? The answer is simple: force a beginning. Begin anywhere. Start with your name, your address, anything. It doesn't matter as long as you get going. Simple as this method sounds, it means getting away from the notion that you must know where you are going before you begin to think.

In this respect, thinking is like writing. Jacques Barzun, university professor at Columbia, in his essay "A Writer's Discipline" says Charles Dickens "forced himself to stay at the desk making false starts, lest by giving up he should give up forever." French writer Andre Gide also had "beginning" problems: 'Too often I wait for the sentence to finish taking shape in my mind before setting it down. It is better to seize it by the end that first offers itself, head or foot, though not knowing the rest, then pull: the rest will follow along."

Editorial cartoonists do this continually. Each day they must comment in picture form on current events. Thinking must begin the moment they awaken. In his book, Zinga, Zinga, Za! Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist John Fischetti, of the Chicago Daily News, describes a typical method of beginning to think:

"The real problem each day is not the almost impossible quest for a great idea; the more pressing problem is to determine the topic.

"My method is to make a list of possible topics down the right-hand side of my layout pad…After I run my list of possible topics down the side, I start doodling. Not the aimless, decorative, geometric doodling that Presidents, Cabinet officers, and tycoons indulge in, but big time, important doodling with real cartoon figures and scenes.

"The object is to constantly occupy yourself with writing lines, drawing figures, just anything, to get in the creative or idea-hunting mood. This works for me. I can just feel when the lines and doodled figures are getting warm, indicating that a useable idea is in the immediate vicinity."

All right, so you begin. But shortly afterwards, if the problem is at all serious, you will be at that inevitable impasse. According to de Bono, one limitation of the mind is that it tends to go over the same mental territory again and again. Knowing this limitation, there are some steps you can take to overcome it.

1. Examine your thinking for common fallacies. Barbara Branden, who offers a 10-lecture taped course on "The Principles of Efficient Thinking," lists the common fallacies as:

Frozen abstractions—treating a particular application of an abstraction as the abstraction itself. One example is substituting a particular morality for "morality," as such.

Frozen absolutes—holding premises that have never been tested in practice (such as assuming that all youngsters by nature are undisciplined, without ever allowing them free time to test the premise).

False axioms—taking a derived concept, such as "property rights," and treating it as a self-evident axiom, out of context. This appears in the form of questions like "Do two men stranded in the middle of the ocean with one lifeboat have property rights?"

Package deals—treating as one unit two or more issues that are different. Words such as "racism" or "sexism" are often used to describe a group of characteristics or actions that are unrelated.

Ms. Branden also advises careful use of analogy ("Frequently the presumption is that two things alike in some respects are alike in all respects," she says) and avoidance of the belief that the failure to prove one position in effect proves its opposite.

2. Think out the problem completely before looking up what others have thought. A classic example is Thomas Edison's search for a carbon filament for his incandescent electric lamp. Edison's technique was to shut himself off from all experience but his own laboratory results. He distrusted books and did poorly in school. In his search for a carbon filament, he tested thousands of materials before settling on carbonized bamboo. The light was not bright and the filament life not long, but it was a giant step forward in the art of lighting.

Related to this is the art of forgetting. Edison was notoriously forgetful. "To undo wrong connections, faulty integrations, is half the game," writes Arthur Koestler. "To acquire a new habit is easy, because one main function of the nervous system is to act as a habit-forming machine; to breakout of a habit is an almost heroic feat of mind or character."

3. Accentuate the negative. In the course of considering alternate solutions, you will reject many. Reject them, but don't forget them. If you are stuck, come back to them, because many may contain the germ of a solution.

The best example is the research of Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir into the gas-filled incandescent electric lamp. Langmuir questioned the consensus of lamp engineers that efficiency could be improved by manufacturing better vacuum in lamps. Besides, he reasoned, no one knew how to produce a better vacuum anyway. Instead, Langmuir began introducing various gases into tungsten filament lamps—a procedure which on the surface appeared to be a foolish way to improve lamp efficiency. But the experiments convinced Langmuir that even a perfect vacuum would have little effect on efficiency, and later he found that lamps were improved by filaments coiled in tight helices and by bulbs filled with nitrogen—and not by high vacuums.

4. Try working backwards. Frequently the stated problem is not the problem at all, but one of many solutions. Only by backtracking to the actual problem can you then go forward and see all possible solutions.

At a Design Engineering Conference in Chicago, Roger L. Barron, president of Adaptronics, Inc., told a session on "The Psychology and Nurturing of Creativity" that his firm developed a formal method of backtracking. Barron said his firm always assumes that the original question raised is "not the most fundamental statement possible." His hypothetical example was of a firm that wanted to develop a powered paint scraper to remove unwanted paint.

Initially, company officials talked about producing a mechanically driven or thermal scraper, until they backtracked. If the real problem is, say, stopping the "flaking" problem of housepaint, there are other ways to do it, they reasoned. The choices now expand in number—to include such measures as removing the old siding on the house or developing a new primer to dissolve the original paint and save all the labor involved in scraping off the old paint. "We say, in cases like this, 'Wait a minute! What are we trying to do? We're trying to remove paint, not develop a new paint scraper.'" "Even if you don't follow up on the new idea," explains Barron, "you have a greater assurance that nothing has been overlooked."

Researchers at Stanford University working on reading problems of the blind took a step backwards before moving ahead—and they recently announced their discovery. Instead of asking, "How can we make more books in Braille available?" they asked, "How can we allow blind persons the opportunity to read books in traditional type?" In other words, the goal is that the blind be able to read, not that they read by any particular method (Braille). Stanford researchers developed the "Optacon," a small sensor that is worn on the tip of one index finger and that converts print to vibrations or impulses that the blind later translate into words. Some blind people trained in using the Optacon can read 90 words a minute.

5. For every problem, ask yourself, "What would be the case if the opposite were true?" This question must be asked, specifically, and the failure to do so is the bane of some of the finest thinkers.

University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman has admitted that he changed his mind on the necessity of compulsory education after discovering new facts about its absence. "I can see a case in principle for compulsory schooling on grounds that, if your child is not schooled, you harm other people in the community.…But work done by [economists] has persuaded me that the overwhelming majority of children would be schooled even in the absence of compulsory schooling."

Planners have long taken for granted that zoning is an absolute necessity in all cities. But law professor Bernard Siegan of the University of San Diego asked, "What would be the case if the opposite were true?" He found a place without zoning—Houston, Texas—and compared its history with zoned cities. Siegan's conclusion: land uses in Houston are about as separated as they are in zoned communities, but apartment rents are lower, more dwelling units are available, and real estate tax revenues are increased without zoning.

6. Use as many senses as possible when thinking. Thought and action are two parts of the same process. The Italian educator Maria Montessori may have said it best. "Till now, almost all educators have thought of movement and the muscular system as aids to respiration, or to circulation, or as a means for building up physical strength. But in our new conception the view is taken that movement has great importance in mental development itself, provided that the action which occurs is connected with the mental activity going on." The most obvious example is the development of speech in children. Speech goes hand in hand with use of muscles to form words and sounds. All body organs work in coordination with one another.

This leads to several suggestions.

Talk your thoughts. First of all, talking creates a crisis, and nothing forces original thinking like a good crisis. You must find the words, and say them. You cannot wander without realizing it immediately. "Talking makes you think," says Nobel prizewinner James Watson, the biologist who at 25 years of age helped discover the shape and form of DNA. "You try to explain something and then realize you don't understand it."

Write your thoughts. This "freezes" thoughts, making them less elusive. We can examine them, as we are now examining thinking.

7. Visualize your thoughts. Try to see the problem—in front of you. This has been called "visual thinking" but it is really nothing more than using an additional sense—seeing—to aid in thinking.

Consider the following. In a famous brain teaser, a monk climbs a mountain at sunrise, walks a narrow, spiralling path to the summit, stopping along the way, and arrives at the top at sunset. Days later he starts out again at sunrise and comes down the mountain along the same path, naturally at a faster speed. Then the teaser: why must there be a spot along the path that the monk will occupy on both trips at precisely the same time of day?

What the thinker is required to do is to visualize at the same time the monk first walking up the mountain and then, superimposed in a transparent image, the same monk walking down the mountain days later. If you have trouble with that image, visualize two trains on parallel tracks starting at the same moment, one going up the mountain, the other coming down at a much higher speed. At the moment they pass each other they will be in the same spot at the same time—just like the monk going up and down, the mountain.

Visual thinking—and the use of several senses while thinking—also improves memory. Studies have shown that mnemonists have the ability to convert random information into images—where their defects of memory are in fact defects of perception.

8. Think nonsensically. The beginning of language, babbling, is nonsense—read that: "not sense." Students of language have noticed that troubles occur later on if babbling is interrupted.

Nonsense has value. It has been used in memory experiments. Both Lewis Carroll ("The Snark was a Boojum") and J.R.R. Tolkien ("In a hole in the ground there lives a Hobbit") have written that much of their work grew spontaneously, a propos of nothing.

Simply imagine the wildest of possibilities, and censor nothing. Pretend to make sense, but don't feel that you must at all stages. This can pay dividends. The businessman, say, faced with the task of training employees at considerable expense to operate a new sophisticated machine, worries about their moving to the competition once the training is complete. Perhaps he becomes less sober for a minute, and starts fiddling with a child's doll, twisting and turning the arms and legs.

Aha! he may say, what if his workers had no legs to get to another job? When the evil gleam in his eye leaves, he may be left with a solution to his problem: hire the handicapped.

Farfetched? But this is exactly what many newspaper publishers have done in order to find linotype machine workers whose hearing would not be damaged by the loud drone of the machines. They have hired operators who are deaf!

9. Drop the problem for awhile. Come back to it later. Who has not been "stuck" on a problem, perhaps to the point of giving up, only to find the solution in some unrelated pursuit weeks later? This occurs because subconscious mechanisms are constantly filtering data from the environment, and making the kind of associations called "flashes of insight."

In an example both of this process and of nonsense, a professor of chemistry discovered that molecules of certain organic compounds are not open structures but closed rings. One afternoon in 1865, Friedrich August von Kekule, relaxing from his molecular studies, dozed off after turning his chair to face an open fire." [T] he atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by repeated visions of this kind, could now distinguish…long rows…all turning, and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes."

If you have worked long and hard on a problem, chances are the brain has standing orders to perceive and grasp any thought or evidence that would untangle the problem. The relationship will seem mysterious to anyone else, but not to you.

10. Practice. "Every man, even the tired business variety, should set aside at least a half an hour a day, or three-and-one-half hours a week," for thinking, writes Hazlitt, just as many do for reading. "A definite program must be laid out," he says. "You will have to put aside something [else].…You cannot expect simply to add thinking to your other activities."

And while you are practicing, exercise. An athlete sometimes works at his specialty even when there is no competition, just to keep in shape or for the fun of it. How many exercise their mental tissues this way? Issac Asimov, who has written over 150 books, asks, "Can mental exercise not be its own reward as physical exercise is?"

Any prescriptions about thinking should be accompanied by an obvious caution: all conclusions have exceptions. Some will apply and some not, depending on individual makeup. There is a case for efficiency, and also one for exhaustiveness. But that does not mean there can be no method. The next choice after choosing to think is choosing how to think.

Dennis Chase is a correspondent for the McGraw-Hill World News Bureau and a frequent contributor to REASON's pages.