Being Literally Lateral

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Being Literally Lateral

Post  Chris on Thu Feb 14, 2013 8:13 am

I recently spent quite a bit of time thinking about improvisation, order and chaos in performance.

I had read about the dangers of an ordered and locked down mind and wanted to make sure that I wasn't hampering my own thinking by not allowing enough space for lateral thinking alongside the literal.

Literal thinkers are all about order, reproduction of events and replication of results. They are about understanding what has happened and what needs to be done to make that "thing" happen again in exactly the same way. They utilise prevailing logic, looking at things and asking "why" they are how they are. Lateral thinkers have an almost child-like view and are unencumbered by prevailing logic. They are capable of creative solutions outside of the linear solutions offered by the majority.

Take this test as an example of the two types of thought.

A gentleman was visiting a facility offerring care to elderly patients. The manager of the facility showed him one of the tests that they administer to their patients in order to determine the type and level of reasoning each individual employ.
In the room the visitor was shown there was a bath tub. The bath was full to the brim. Next to the bath was a drainage hole. Three items sat alongside the bath, a cup, a jug and a bucket. The manager asked the visitor which item would he use to empty the bath.
Which item would you use to empty the bath?
If you answer bucket, you're a linear thinker.
If you answered that you would have pulled out the plug you are a lateral thinker.
Neither method of thinking is inherently wrong. We utilise both every day and none of us are completely linear or lateral in our thinking. The key is in understanding which type of thinking you are adopting and why.
Here's the kicker. You MUST have both to allow for improvisation within an activity. Lateral thought allows for and often requires the literal activity which builds a base of knowledge. Look at musicians as an example. Hours, days, weeks and months of repetition of an activity. Literal thinking in a pure form. Precise movements and action to deliver a desired result and repeat that result indefinitely provided the action is repeated in the same way.
You can ask a novice musician to take part in an improvisation but without the literal practice he will not have the tools to effectively utilise lateral thought and improvise or create. At least not effectlvely.
You can be an auditory, occular, experience based learner but it remains a truth that you can only create within the boundary of your own understanding. The deeper your understanding the greater your scope for improvisation and creativity. If we come back to the concept of musicianship. Literal thinking is the method by which implementation occurs and lateral thinking is the mechanism for improvement and creativity.

You may feel that you are "thinking outside of the box" but you must be aware that our thinking is compartmentalised, your mind is not simply one box that holds all. We section off and we build a new box with each experience. In addition, we sometimes place those boxes of understanding within other larger boxes like Russian dolls. The key is in really knowing when you are putting youself in a position to utilise existing knowledge to make qualified guesses. The greater the understanding and experience the greater the chance those qualified guesses will bear fruit.

A very well respected self protection instructor once espoused the philosophy of simply applying a conceptual framework through improvisation alone. His assertion being that in extremis instinct would allow for improvisational application of hard skills. Nonsense. You cannot improvise without some measure of literal experience of the events or stimulus. Even Miles Davis went to the woodshed for thousands of hours of repetition in literal tasks to build his musicianship overall. It was Davis who ascertained that he played the gaps in between the notes. The spirit of improvisation and creativity distilled into one succinct comment.

I believe this is the same in combat sports. Training to allow for the ability to see the gaps within the activity. Some believe that winning in a bout comes from knowing more than the other person. I don't necessarily see that as the case. I think it is more a case of knowing "better" or "deeper" than the other person which allows you to focus on higher percentage responses. High pwerformance athletes are incredibly creative in their field. They are prepared for the aspects of training which are literal and they have adopted a mindset which allows them the freedom to create and improvise within the context of their chosen activity.

My long winded way round to saying that you need both literal and lateral thought in your training. The hard won experience is the foundation on which the creativity is built. That experience should not be a box or a cage that restricts. It should be the method that allows you to stand on the shoulders of giants. When you follow a map you still have to take the journey yourself, nobody can travel for you.


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