Creative thinking requires the skilful blending of linear and non-linear thinking. In more commonly used language, this means we must combine logical thinking with associative thinking. Before we go on, let us be clear that associative thinking is not the same as intuition. Associative thinking brings related ideas and events together in imagination or memory in ways that are not necessarily logical. Association may link a red barn with a red car (because they are both red) even though there is no logical reason to connect them. The associative connection may not be rigorously logical, but it is definite and understandable. Intuition is more emotional, more vague, a mere feeling or inarticulate hunch.
We are all familiar with logical thinking, however poor our actual skills may be. Associative thinking looks weird to the rational, logical conscious mind. Geniuses become skilled users of associative thinking, which in part, may explain the popular habit of linking genius and madness.
For most of us, associative thinking can be difficult to access in a useful way. Humankind has struggled with the problem for millennia. Such ideas as the mystical state of “non-thinking,” omnivalence (combining in all ways), the possibility cloud, and so on, are just other ways of describing (obscurely) associative thinking. Napping to get ideas, “sleeping on it,” and slipping into half-asleep states are ways of shutting down logical thinking in favour of associative thinking, schemes made necessary by our inability to deliberately think in an associative fashion while conscious and awake.
However, there are ways to improve our ability to make use of associative thinking. The best way is by paying careful attention to “stray thoughts,” the tune we are humming, our dreams and daydreams, our fantasies, slips of the tongue, and unconscious acts, anything and everything, in other words, which is not the product of the logical rational mind. Pay especially close attention to seemingly irrelevant thoughts or ideas that may cross the mind when working on a project. By pondering our ideas while keeping a sharp lookout for stray thoughts, we can bring both modes of thinking to bear. I should add that learning to spot the relevance of associative thoughts, ideas, and images takes a bit of practice!
In terms of enhancing creativity, the concept of complementarity applies. When both are used, logical and associative thinking complement one another enormously. The mind becomes a synergistic system.
Where do these two modes of thinking arise? Associative thinking usually occurs below the level of awareness. Research suggests the brain as a whole is an associative system at the “hardware” level. Mind would also seem to be associative when considered as a whole, hardly surprising given its total dependence on the brain. Strangely, in spite of our heavy dependence on reason, explaining logical thinking is proving quite difficult!
One more difference between logical and associative thinking is relevant to our discussion. Logical thinking is not input sensitive; that is, a small change in what we start with has only a minor effect on our conclusions. Associative thinking is quite different. Input sensitivity is acute with this mode of thinking. Small changes can have immense consequences. This means associative thinking is unpredictable, but for that reason capable of producing striking creative effects or ideas.
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