Posted by: pkab | 30 December 2007

Visual and lateral thinking


By: Amaury de Buchet

You have probably often heard many versions of the right side / left side of the brain discourse. It all started with genuine scientific results on the lateralization of brain functions, which were quickly picked up for their apparent simplicity by management gurus :

  • right side being the center for imagination, visual and holistic skills,
  • left side being the center for rational, scientific and linear skills

One famous example on which most of this literature is based is Edward de Bono, a Maltese psychologist who popularize the idea of “lateral thinking” in his 1967 book. In a later one, “Serious Creativity“, he explains that creativity and drawing are learned skills, that they need to / can be trained to be effective, as Dave Pollard described it in his post (if you’re interested you can also read his post on “un-conferences”):

Or, to be more precise, it’s an ‘unlearning’ skill, because it requires you to defeat our natural inclination to view objects as series of icons (a left-brain ‘shorthand’), and instead view them as lines, shades and spaces (a right-brain abstraction). The reason we think we can’t draw, says Edwards, is that when we try to draw, our left brain gets in the way, telling us that what we’re drawing when we draw a face is two eyes, a nose, a mouth etc., which our brain symbolizes in certain iconographic ways, so that our drawing turns out to be a drawing of these symbolic icons, rather than what we really see.

The reality being not so simple as these 2 illustrations show it:

Artist's view of the brain lateral functions Neurophysiological view of the brain functions

It is symptomatic to notice that in the 2 different Wikipedia’s entries quoted (lateral thinking and lateralization of brain functions), the latter gives all the appearance of being scientific based and does not refer to the former one, when the former one has been tagged for lack of external, verified, reliable references. Nevertheless, I believe the use of the lateralization simplification and subsequent metaphor is still of great value as it allows managers to quickly understand the diversity of profiles they have or need to have for specific purposes.

Visual thinking“, or “Picture thinking”, is a similar “meme“, albeit slightly more adopted / less controversial than lateral thinking (judging from the nature of sources quoted in Wikipedia). It refers to the brain ability of a certain category of people to process information in a non-linear / pictorial manner (eg Serbian genius Nikola Tesla), process that seems to be more effective for complex information. It is sometime said that they “see” the result of a certain complex operation, and not strictly process it along usual methods. This is often described as high-functioning autism (eg Asperger syndrome). This extraordinary ability has often been used in Hollywood movies :

  • the 1989 movie Rain Man with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, especially the scene where Raymond Babbitt (played by D. Hoffman) “sees” the number of matches that had fallen on the floor without actually counting them,
  • the 1997 movie Mercury Rising with Bruce Willis, especially the scene where the 9-year old boy “sees” the telephone number encrypted in a newspaper game without actually deciphering it.

As a conclusion I would like to leave the innate / acquired debate and focus on management approaches that can be used to foster creativity as a basis for innovation. The whole purpose of this blog is to identify tools and situations where visual language has proved to be useful in that area.

Source: U Swim


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