Divergent thinking: what it means and how it develops

What is divergent thinking?

Abraham Lincoln , a lawyer and 16th president of the United States, appears to have been in the habit of going out for a walk when faced with a particularly challenging problem . What does this anecdote have to do with divergent thinking ? The lateral, or divergent, modality is connected to creativity and the ability to tackle a problem by contemplating multiple solutions rather than just one.

Here lies the great regenerating power of pauses: when we do something else we use the mind in a different way. Divergent, lateral, instinctive, dynamic, fluid, unconscious thinking : different names to indicate a network of research which, especially since the first twenty years of the twentieth century, have questioned the power of our mind by crossing psychology and, in more modern times, neuroscience. How we use our brains is a mystery that we continue to speculate about. What happens while we do something else? Here is the point. When we are elsewhere with the mind, our brain defuses the thought we normally use and another, new, different modality takes over. Something lives and responds beyond our rational control and it is in this territory that creativity, new solutions, answers that we would not have thought we could know take shape .

“The person capable of producing a large number of ideas per unit of time […] has a better chance of having meaningful ideas”
Joy Paul Guilford

When does divergent thinking arise?

The first to develop the theory of divergent thinking is the American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford, born in Nebraska at the end of the nineteenth century. Famous for his studies on human intelligence , he develops the researches started by Louis Leon Thurstone in the field of psychometrics and psychophysics. Guilford, who entered the US Army in 1941 with the role of Head of the Psychological Research Unit, during the conflict developed a series of tests that would allow an increase in the promotion rate for student pilots. After the Second World War he continued his studies on the factors of intelligence working in the Faculty of Education of the University of Southern California. Here, in California which will be the home of the counterculture of the 1960s, extraordinary impulses in the field of art and research on the mind begin to circulate . Psychology discovers new lifeblood: studies such as the multidimensional theory of intelligence and the theory of multiple intelligences are born. There are questions about new ways to think about the human brain.

“Solving problems means finding a way out of a difficulty, a way to get around an obstacle, to reach a goal that is not immediately reachable”
G. Polya

What is intelligence?

There is no single definition of intelligence, because there is no single way we can be intelligent. The tests for measuring the IQ, IQ, developed by the French psychologist Alfred Binet to calculate the mental age of children and later developed in the United States, actually take into consideration above all arithmetic reasoning, logic and memory, analyzing the brain capacities through the quantitative aspect. But as Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognitivism and Pedagogy at the Faculty of Education at Harvard University would say, we are made of so much more . And what we know how to do is much more.

“Do not stifle your inspiration and your imagination, do not become the slave of your model”
Vincent van Gogh

According to Howard Gardner, our intelligence can be Logical-Mathematical and Linguistic-Verbal, but also Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Naturalistic, Existential, Interpersonal and Intrapersonal: they are all different forms of intelligence . Probably, for example, a dancer or an athlete will have a particularly developed body intelligence. Every child and each of us has every right to see their own way, unique in the world , of interpreting and living life recognized and supported . There is no single way to do it, there are many and we are finally realizing it.

The ability to find solutions

When we are faced with a problem we often think (or rather, from an early age our mind has been set to think) that there is a solution to be discovered , identified and found. Nothing more wrong! Focusing on the exasperated search for the right answer does not allow you to see that… there are many solutions, many more than you think. It is a question of broadening our gaze and embracing a wider horizon, here is the secret.

“Creativity is nothing but intelligence having fun”
Albert Einstein

Fluidity, flexibility, originality and ability to elaborate , that is, knowing how to put an idea into a concrete context by transforming it into a project: four indices that JP Guilford used to measure divergent thinking and that can actually help us to develop it. When we use these skills we approach a different modality, we become more creative because we move away from the habit and discover new solutions. After all, this is the heart of lateral thinking, developed by Edward De Bono, a Maltese psychologist: there is no single possible path. If we free ourselves from the rigidity of the logical chain and from the recurring patterns of thought we discover that we can approach every issue of our life from different perspectives, each one will suggest a different message . Some great scientific discoveries have seen the light in this way, born thanks to the intuition of an idea derailed off the rails of custom.

“The ability to still feel awe is essential in the process of creativity”
Donald Woods Winnicott

Psychologist Rex Jung , who in his researches the neuronal basis of intelligence and creativity, explains that a decrease in the Executive Attention Network corresponds to an enhancement in the Imagination Network, connected to intuition and imagination . The Executive Attention Network is the neural network of attention and is activated in the face of tasks in which focused and voluntary attention is required. Conversely, when we daydream, the so-called mind wandering , we imagine the future or remember the past our mind … wanders. It is unfocused attention.

But the brain remains active even in a state of rest: this condition in 2001 was defined “default mode” by the neurologist Marcus E. Raichle. Initially it was thought that the DMN was active only in passive situations, for example during sleep, in reality the default mode network appears connected to many functions of our mind and appears to be activated on numerous occasions, for example when we watch a movie , we read a book or listen to a story, while we travel with the imagination, remember moments from our past or fantasize about the future, during meditation. In all these moments our attention in a certain sense deviates from the usual paths: it is not focused, it escapes and gets lost. It is in this territory, still in many ways unknown, that new ideas emerge like shadows in the fog . Inspirations to be seized on the fly.

“Don’t think that you will do less work if you sleep during the day. This is what those who are unimaginative think. Indeed, it will be possible to conclude more ”
Winston Churchill

How to develop divergent thinking

The resolution of a problem, in English problem solving , increases when we are able to identify and define the contours of the problematic situation. But don’t think it’s just a mental issue. Your entire experience comes into play : the person you are, your emotions, the environment you are in, the stimuli and the people you meet. Even a stop or a difficulty can help you come up with original answers, because behind an obstacle the crossroads that will lead you to embark on a new journey can hide . What makes a difference is not what you live, but how you live it .

“Creativity is combining existing elements with new connections that are useful”
Henri Poincaré

  1. More minds instead of just one– Brainstorming, “brainstorm”: the method is very ancient because it was already used in medieval universities. It is a group technique and the meaning is… to unite different minds to expand our ideas.
  2. Use creative maps– Use a sheet and… lots of colors! The goal is to write and draw all the possible connections that come to your mind on a certain issue. You will discover paths that you had not considered.
  3. What does your instinct tell you? – The right brain is connected to emotional interpretation. In the case of a deficit in the right hemisphere it has been shown that it may happen that you can describe a face but not be able to recognize it. Let go. Recover the deep sensations of your emotional connections and follow the impulse, even when you don’t know why. The sense will appear.
  4. Try Other– There are people who find creative inspiration… scribbling while on the phone. Sometimes the creative solution comes when you least expect it, in unforeseen situations. Always keep a notepad handy and stop the idea as soon as it comes to mind.
  5. Go for a walk– Take an example from President Lincoln. Changing space will give your mind a new scenario, visually and mentally. Especially if you move. As neuroscientist Norman Doidge, author of the book “The infinite brain” (Ponte alle Grazie) explains, neuronal connections increase with movement and sport.
  6. The benefits of the siesta – When we relax we defuse the fuse of the control (often obsessive!) With which we usually act. This is one of the reasons why rest affects creativity. You consciously divert your attention to turn it to something else and your brain will take into consideration different details, just like during a walk you get involved with the environment.
  7. Feed on new stimuli– Turn on the music, make a phone call, stand up and look out the window, go for a glass of water: these are just ways to do more and give your mind a break. This way you break the beat and just like in a score the pauses will give the music an unexpected trend.

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