Linear thinking. In our conscious thinking, we can only handle one thought at a time, but this thought is not isolated. It instead builds on the previous thought and leads to the next thought, in linear thinking chains based on a broader overall plan, where A leads to B leading to C …
Our linear thinking works both in the small everyday situations and in our big life choices. If our interest is captured by a certain phenomenon early in life, it may be history, politics, motocross, fly fishing, veganism or something else, then the first, often random contact, may sometimes lead on to a life-time interest.
We are drawn to something that is then constantly reinforced by our brain’s tendency to repeat past actions and one action will lead on to the next in a chain that resembles how we speak. Every new thought, way of acting or interpreting our experiences will lead on to the next end until we encounter something that contradicts the previous chain. In that situation, we must either reject the new information or rethink the previous chain, which requires energy as it is already engraved in our thought patterns.
Our life ideology. This phenomenon works in a similar way in all aspects of our lives and eventually all of these linearly constructed experiences are being combined into our personal life ideology. At the bottom we have our innate personality, but our actions patterns, political views, beliefs and life strategies are to a great extent the result of long chains of linear events and experiences. And all this is deeply imprinted in our brain networks. What has begun with some random events has then been strengthened and shaped throughout our lives.
Right at the beginning of such a long chain of events, we can easily change direction. Maybe we get new interests, new friends or maybe meet a charismatic person that makes us change attitude. Further on in life when we are fixed in a certain mindset, it will become more difficult to break loose and think fresh. Our youth experiences are therefore significantly more important than our experiences later in life. The little child sometimes also has easier to see new opportunities and new ways to do things than his little older sibling.
Where it can go wrong. The linear thinking that leads us in a certain direction is often reinforced by a strong tendency to seek everything that supports and confirms our life choices and to reduce or completely neglect all the facts and experiences that speak against them. As we often spend time at work and privately with people with the same background and views on life as ourselves, our basic opinions are further confirmed, and “collective delusions” may easily appear and be very difficult to detect. Therefore, there is a high risk in monocultures wherever they occur.
20-30 years ago, when everyone was reading the same newspapers and watching the same news programmes on TV, we could be more easily exposed to opinions that violated our own. Today, the situation is completely different. More and more of our sources of information come from the web, and the search engines on the Internet also have built-in algorithms that make the information being served to us picked to be aligned with our previous search history. Monocultures in real life are therefore reinforced many times in our virtual “filter bubbles”.
A classic example of the power of linear thinking is Albert Einstein. In his youth, he had a hugely open mind and, with the power of his imagination, his strong intellect and lack of faith in authority, he laid the foundation of the new physics. Although Einstein’s work then paved the way for quantum mechanics, this did not fit into his world view and Einstein’s stubborn refusal to accept this new concept eventually made him more and more irrelevant in the frontline of the new physics.
Breaking loose from engrained thinking. Sooner or later, we will all find ourselves in situations where our past beliefs or approaches no longer work. What determines in these situations whether we will succeed or not is our willingness and ability to admit that we have been wrong and our ability to break loose from the path we are on. Such non-linear thinking, however, requires courage, energy and humility.
This blog post has been inspired by:
Andreasen Nancy C (2005). The creative brain – the science of genius. New Tork: Penguin.
German TP, Defeyter MA (2000). Immunity to functional fixedness in young children. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 7:707–12.
Isaacson Walter (2007). Einstein – His life and universe. New Tork: Simon & Schuster.