Train Your Brain to Look Beyond the Obvious with Divergent Thinking

Why Your First Idea Isn't Usually the Best One

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

When faced with a puzzle, our temptation is to find a fast, easy solution. As Dr. Restak explains, though, the best or most creative solutions aren’t always the most obvious ones.

Puzzle pieces on dark background
Creativity stems from thinking beyond the obvious analysis, using divergent thinking to arrive at unique solutions to a problem. Photo by Elvira Koneva / Shutterstock

Divergent Thinking and Creativity

Creativity employs divergent thinking, which is linking ideas based on associative memory and novel concepts. Both creativity and divergent thinking involve fluency, which is rapidly producing multiple possible solutions to the problem; elaboration, which is thinking through the details of the problem; flexibility, or entertaining multiple approaches to the problem simultaneously; and originality—coming up with ideas that don’t occur to most people.

The goals for divergent thinking are: 

1) to achieve a spontaneous, random, unorganized (but not disorganized), and free-flowing manner of thinking. 

2) to loosen the control of the left hemisphere and allow the emergence of less structured non-verbal material to emerge from the right hemisphere. Methods include keeping a journal, brainstorming, mind-mapping, and free writing—writing as quickly as you can about things that come to mind.

One way to enhance divergent thinking is through creative play. Puzzles, word games, and humor are marked by uncertainty and ambiguity, which test our brains in unconventional ways. 

We tend to resist not having answers to questions, which leads to premature closure—reaching a conclusion or accepting an explanation before examining the facts and the logical conclusions flowing from these facts. In fact, all of us jump to premature, erroneous conclusions. 

A Librarian or a Farmer?

Here’s an example: Stan is shy and likes to keep to himself. His apartment is always neat and tidy—typical of his need for order, structure, and attention to detail. Based on this description, is Stan more likely to be a librarian or a farmer?

Many people would select a librarian, despite an important consideration. Statistically, there are many more farmers than librarians. 

Words like “shy, “neat,” and “tidy” activate stereotypes about librarians. As a result, we may be less likely to associate these adjectives with farmers than librarians. 

In our desire for a quick answer and the resolution of uncertainty, we trust in stereotypes. We ignore statistics (such as the base rate that there are more farmers than there are librarians). 

Champagne Puzzles and Divergent Thinking

Here’s another example. Champagne will keep its fizz overnight if a spoon is suspended in the neck of the bottle and the spoon does not touch the liquid. Why is this? That was a question written to the “Last Word” column of the New Scientist

To the editors, the proposal seemed preposterous and unreasonable. However, in the interest of not appearing narrow-minded, they decided to test it. 

It worked for 12 hours, with even some fizz after 24 hours. Was this a mysterious insight about spoons and champagne? 

The editors tried a second experiment and asked volunteers to blind taste champagne left overnight with and without a spoon. They found that the spoon had no effect. 

An incorrect assumption was at work here—that champagne quickly goes flat if not corked. Actually, it takes about 96 hours before it goes completely flat. The bottom line is that there is no unexpected “longevity” overnight, and thus the spoon had nothing to do with the findings.

Don’t Jump to Conclusions

We have to train our brain to break through its tendency to leap to premature closure based on seemingly reasonable but incorrect assumptions. A suspension of premature assumptions and judgments is also required for the successful solving of puzzles. 

Puzzle creators like Scott Kim and David L Hoyt ponder a puzzle’s possible solution for weeks. They actively resist premature closure. Let’s explore how we might do the same.

Think back to brain processes involved in solving the librarian-farmer question. We relied on our memory based on past experience about farmers and librarians. We analyzed the question and the description of Stan. We used our verbal reasoning and logic. 

Of course, we had to keep moving it around in our working memory so we could remember all the components. Most importantly, we had to use critical analysis to identify stereotypes, because stereotypes are what threw us off, and divergent thinking to look beyond obvious solutions.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.