The most undervalued skill? Lateral thinking.

Our society mostly emphasizes developing logical, procedural thinking skills, but this isn't the only way to come up with great ideas. Forgetting to develop our lateral thinking skills may mean missing out on unexpected innovations.

Lateral thinking
Photo by davisco on Unsplash
  • Lateral thinking is a way of approaching problems. It deliberately forgoes obvious approaches in favor of oblique or unexpected ones.
  • Deliberately ignoring perfectly good but straightforward solutions enables us to find hidden innovations we would otherwise miss.
  • Edward de Bono, who developed the concept of lateral thinking, lays out 4 specific lateral thinking techniques: awareness, random stimulation, alternatives, and alteration.

Here's a puzzle: A man walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a glass of water, who instead pulls out a gun, cocks it, and points it at the man. The man thanks the bartender and walks out. Why did the man thank the bartender?

There's no way to arrive at the answer (which appears at the end* of this article) without asking questions, testing the different elements of the story to see what missing information hasn't been provided. It's an example of a lateral thinking puzzle, a type of puzzle that requires creative, sometimes oblique thinking to arrive at the answer. In essence, lateral thinking is a method of approaching a problem by deliberately forgoing obvious methods of reasoning. It requires one to consider a given issue from unlikely angles, uncovering innovative solutions as a result.

Traditional thinking is vertical, moving step-by-step to a logical conclusion based off of the available data. Lateral thinking, however, is horizontal, putting the emphasis on generating many ideas while de-emphasizing the details of how those ideas could be implemented. Both vertical and lateral thinking are complementary: Without lateral thinking, vertical thinking would be too narrow-minded; without vertical thinking, lateral thinking would produce many possible solutions but no plans to implement them.

Despite their complementary nature, our society really values and focuses on improving vertical thinking. We believe that adequate training on specific techniques and systems will produce a talented engineer, lawyer, or doctor. But when it comes to professions that rely on creative, generative, lateral skills, we tend to assume that only those born with innate talent can excel in them. Even when it comes to the more vertically minded professions like engineering, creativity is seen as a desirable bonus that great engineers are born with.

Two stages of thinking

Psychologist Edward de Bono, who developed the concept of lateral thinking, argued that the brain thinks in two stages: The first is a perceiving stage, where the brain chooses to frame its environment in a certain way, identifying a particular pattern. The second stage uses that pattern, that particular way of looking at the environment, and builds upon it to reach a conclusion. No matter how effective we are at the vertical thinking of the second stage, better vertical thinking can never correct errors that have arisen in the first stage. In order to more accurately perceive patterns in our environment, we have to develop our lateral thinking skills.

In the video below, author David Epstein illustrates this principal through the case of Japanese repairman Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi wasn't a particularly gifted engineer, but he perceived his environment in a way that his more talented and specialized peers were not able to. Because they had specialized so much, these more traditionally talented engineers could only frame their environment in terms of the specific technologies they specialized in. Yokoi, on the other hand, saw how various older — and therefore overlooked — pieces of technology could work together. The result was the Nintendo Game Boy.

Lateral thinking: The reason you’ve heard of Nintendo and Marvel

Learning to think laterally is, almost by definition, counterintuitive. Fortunately, de Bono developed some practical techniques for developing this overlooked capability. In his paper, "Information Processing and New Ideas — Lateral and Vertical Thinking," de Bono described four such techniques. Here they are:

  1. Awareness: Being aware of the way the brain processes information is the first step to improving the lateral thinking process. It's important to recognize the brain's tendency to rely on established patterns of thinking before starting to work on a new problem.
  2. Random stimulation: Often when we're trying to think about some issue, we shut out all outside stimuli so we can focus. However, allowing unplanned, outside stimuli can disrupt our reliance on imperfect frameworks. Paying attention to randomness can propel our thinking to new insights.
  3. Alternatives: de Bono argued that even if there is an apparently suitable solution to a problem, it can be useful to set it aside and deliberately consider alternative approaches, regardless of how ridiculous they might seem. Doing so will help you to consider a problem from all possible angles.
  4. Alteration: This technique consists of the deliberate alteration of available options, like doing the opposite of an implied direction or reversing any relationship between elements of the problem. This can include denying elements that are taken for granted, breaking large patterns down into tiny fragments, or translating a relationship to an analogy and then translating it back again just to see what changed. Arbitrarily altering elements of the problem space can produce novel tools to build a solution with.

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*The man has the hiccups and was hoping to cure it with a glass of water. Seeing this, the bartender decided to scare the man to cure his hiccups. Realizing he no longer had the hiccups, the man thanked the bartender and left.

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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