Do we think differently? Linear vs. Non-linear thinking

Do we think differently?  Linear vs. Non-linear thinking

Wondering why communication is so hard? Or how two, intelligent, educated people can come to such different conclusions on any given topic? I suggest it’s because we don’t all use the same processes to think. Dive in and comment below – there’s a great debate and we want your opinion!

I was tasked at work to blog on the difference between Linear and Non-Linear thinking, and how it relates to business. Not being an expert in the subject (but not feeling limited in expressing my opinion either) I dove in. Please feel free to comment – I love hearing your opinion.

Logic and Creativity

Some of us pride ourselves on being logical. We think through ideas with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. We enjoy structured thought and evidence-based conclusions. I’m sure you know the type – we plan out every step of a process, follow the Gantt chart to the “t”, and ensure results within schedules and deadlines.

Others of us pride ourselves on being creative. We rejoice in the big ideas, in the new discoveries, and in the satisfaction of creation. We are always coming up with new ways to solve problems, love the questions “what if?” and don’t mind jumping ahead in a conversation to tell you what we just thought of.

I suggest that these two characteristics of humans (logic and creativity) are often correlated with two different, but not disconnected types of thought processes: Linear and non-Linear thinking. Rather than argue that one is more important than the other, I suggest that they are both integral to success in business and, on the grander scale, life.

The Linearity of Logic

“Linear Thinking” is defined as:

a process of thought following known cycles or step-by-step progression where a response to a step must be elicited before another step is taken.

If a = b, and b = c, then a = c. The application of linear thinking can be found in the well known Socratic Method:

a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate rational thinking and to illuminate ideas

Jan Helfeld (pronounced Iain), a rather infamous libertarian reporter, provides an amusing (or infuriating – depending on who’s side you’re on) application of the Socratic method to our political representatives. It’s all very logical, and for those who don’t build their policies or opinions on logic, it’s a game that raises tempers with captivating efficiency. After watching, I tend to wonder if any of our policy makers think through their political conclusions logically. Logic seems lost from our world, like an ancient language that’s spoken only by tribes of some distant jungle.

More important to this blog’s argument however, is that Jan’s use of the Socratic method is also extremely linear. As much as the person in the hot seat wants to jump around and evade, Jan forces them to answer one question before they move on to the next. The videos remind me of walking a puppy – when they want to walk every direction but the one you’re traveling. You rein them in every time before moving forward.

Though you may doubt it after watching Jan Helfeld’s videos, much of our world is indeed structured upon the concept of logic (very basic logic at least). We learn math, deductive reasoning, and tend to apply these logical processes to our everyday life. Our drive to do so comes from our inherent need, as cognitive humans, to categorize our experiences in our minds and make projections about what the outcome of an action will be. We compare our expectations with our experience, weigh the similarity, and adjust our thought processes as needed.

Linear thinkers are very much the same. They start at step one and usually do a good and efficient job of completing the task before moving on to step two. They are driven, focused, and don’t easily get off topic. Does this sound like you? Perhaps. Or maybe it sounds like the person in the office you have a tough time working with?

The Dangers of Logic

There’s a danger in relying too heavily on logic. The danger is in the determination of the starting point. Once a starting point is chosen, there are a limited number of logical conclusions to a problem. For example, imagine a store owner who believes that he must raise his revenues to increase his profits. He tries multiple methods including advertising, increasing inventory, and product bundling to make every possible sale to his customers. But he forgot that he could also reduce his costs to increase profits, and in doing so missed what could have been much less expensive, less demanding options.

This example is simplistic, but it underscores the point that for any logical process, there must be a decided-upon truth as a starting point. And the beauty of logic, is that it allows us to reach an answer from a given starting point. It’s easy, however, to rely upon starting points simply because they’re what we’ve used all our lives – starting points that either may be false, or that limit us from finding a much better answer.

Non-Linear Thinking

Non-linear thinking, a relatively new term, is vague enough (perhaps naturally so) that a simple google search will yield more beatings-around-the-bushes than formal definitions for the phrase. I think of it as follows:

Human thought characterized by expansion in multiple directions, rather than in one direction, and based on the concept that there are multiple starting points from which one can apply logic to a problem.

Non-linear thinking is less constrictive – letting the creative side of you run rampant because of its inherent lack of structure. It’s kind of like letting a puppy run wild on a walk up a mountain – anything of interest will be thoroughly investigated (and perhaps peed on) before jumping to the next, possibly non-related subject! It’s very much like brainstorming – allowing thought to flow, unhindered, in attempts to arrive upon something special in the process.

Non-linear thought increases possible outcomes by not being so certain about the starting point for any logic process. Non-linear thinkers tend to jump forward, and from side to side through the steps of a project, in an effort to see the big picture and tackle those areas where they have the most interest. Where non-linear thinking falters is in finally carrying out the required action, because as a thought process it often encourages a user to agonize incessantly over where to start (that agreed upon truth, from which logic can be applied and action can be taken).

A new form of digital presentation created by the folks at Prezi.com is a great example of non-linear and linear thinking in action. Why? Because rather than a linear slide show, it’s ultimately a picture, into which you can zoom in and out, infinitely. It allows you to present a product, concept, or argument in a logically by moving from location to location what is essentially group of images, but at any point you can zoom out and suddenly, “See the big picture” takes on a whole new meaning – Check it out!

In Conclusion

Again, as in my introduction, I stress the importance of both processes. And what I mean by this is maybe it’s important to have both types of thinkers on a team. Use non-linear thought to reexamine starting points and increase the possibility of finding the best option, and use linear thinkers and their efficient logic-based reasoning, once a starting point has been established, to get the job done in a timely manner. Whatever mixture of these two processes you prefer, take responsibility for your choices and learn from your mistakes, and I’ll bet on your success.

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69 Comments

  1. Dear comrades!

    The mystery of how non-linear and linear thinking differ biologically, has finally been solved by me. It is a very simple science.

    If you want a pictorial description read:

    http://www.djedefsauron.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=200:the-biological-meaning-of-linear-and-non-linear-thinking&catid=43:my-drawings&Itemid=77

    If you want a full length description read:

    http://djedefsauron.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=192:article-2-on-cognitive-neuroscience-&catid=48:the-mysteries-of-the-brain&Itemid=61

    To get complete idea of the first principles you should read the full presentation of the theoretical framework, it is not as hard as it seems:

    http://djedefsauron.net/index.php?option=com_jdownloads&view=viewcategory&catid=3&Itemid=126

    You ask, how to improve the individual / humanity’s nonlinear thinking?

    Answer — nonlinearize ecology — disregard those who linearly say, “white is the best color” — rather, replace 4 white walls substrate with a logical substrate like nature, i can give examples but a nonlinear Utopia is for humanity to devise:

    http://djedefsauron.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=27&Itemid=29

    Thanks for reading!
    Anand Madhu Kumar

    PS: I’m an Aspergian, i.e., mostly nonlinear thinking type person

  2. I am a non-linear thinker though some times feel like I have ADHD as my mind jumps from one subject to another, and I am easily distracted. I wonder if there has been any research on the relevance between what type of thinker you are and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease?

  3. Pretty cool Chuck. Thanks.

  4. This is an excellent article, a logical explanation of non linear thinking! I can relate to the description of non-linear thinking and it has even made me consider my own career more deeply. I’m sure this knowledge could save a hell of a lot of money in productivity…

  5. Thank you, very much, for your understandable and enjoyable article, it has been of great help to me.

    Regarding Jan Helfeld’s use of the Socratic method, you had written “You reign them in …” – that would actually be “rein them in”; if it softens the blow to my image, I’ll admit to having made the same mistake more than once and haven’t mentioned that for the sake of nit-picking. :)

    Kind regards, Chuck.

  6. Many thanks Marc! I’m never upset by a correction to my grammar – I’m very appreciative of those who use language correctly and while I try to keep myself in line, I’m still fallible!

    Secondly – thanks for reading! I never thought so many would read this blog and it’s really taken off.

    Finally, I’m in the process of figuring out where to take this blog site. An aesthetic update is obviously necessary, but I’m finally excited to start writing more about other areas of life for which I’m no expert, but about which I’ve thought a lot!

    All that to say, check in again soon.

    Cheers,

    Chuck

  7. Great article. I’m non linear and love it. Often get bored within the first several minutes of a linear thinking speaker. Thank you for such a well written article.

  8. Thank you for reading, Charlie! Your compliments are much appreciated, especially from one Chuck to another :)

    Chuck
    @chuckslamp

  9. This is an AMAZING article w/ a spot on description of non-linear thinking. While working on a writing project, I realized it was picaresque, non-linear & episodic after attempting to figure out the beautifully chaotic approach to my attempts at streamlining. Sharing this post now & thanks for the concise explanation.

    I also found this blurb on Forrest Gump that I love:
    “The film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, has described the film as ‘essentially a picaresque novel for the screen’. The term ‘picaresque’ refers to a type of novel common in the 18th century. Usually these were lengthy prose works of many hundred pages, following the rambling adventures of some heroic (or unheroic) character. These works were always episodic; they didn’t build towards a grand conclusion, they simply tacked one self-contained scene after another. The novels ended not because the story was over; had the author wished, the story could have sprawled onwards forever.”

  10. I am both.. linear and non-linear. I will often use my creative, non-linear side to get to the starting point and then use logic and reasoning to construct my argument or even something like starting a new business. So I keep the image of the outcome sharp in my mind but I follow or walk towards it logically. See, it is logic that tells me I must first imagine, create the outcome and believe in the outcome.. I will take the logical steps to realize what I have imagined. One needs the other. Otherwise, I am either a machine like robot, just following authority or I am scattered ideas never staying focused long enough to create anything but a mess = ) Balance. Darwinian Evolution isnt logical. Intelligent Design is logical. Now persons to whom linear thinking is their choice, I am a fool, however it requires an abundance of non-linear thinking to accept Darwinian Evolution. Theres the rub.. we are both, all of us, using linear and non-linear thinking everyday. The problem for most is, they dont realize it, thus they dont know how to balance. Very interesting subject.

  11. To think logically, one must first consider the foundation, the point at which he or she reasons from. Critical. I submit most people arent logical. I believe it is very rare to find someone who understands foundations or anyone who actually realizes its not logic if you just start at a point not unbiasedly reasoned. We live in a world built largely on sand and from that sand we build great monuments. Not logical. OH, and by unbiased I mean grounded in truth. Its true that a theory is just that and the logical mind is willing to keep that in mind. The person who forgets theories arent truths and works his or her logic as if theory is truth is what? The majority, to say the least. It isnt logical to assume… we assume when we are being creative.. we find it hard to separate the two.

  12. I am preparing a presentation on the Opportunity Wheel and Impact Wheel and wanted s clear definition of the difference between linear and non-linear thinking. I searched that exact phrase and in the perfect manner of the web, your blog popped up! Great article. BTW, the Opportunity Wheel and the Impact Wheel are great tools to move into the non-linear mode of thinking. See http://minitrends.com/minitrends/impact-wheels/.
    Cheers, Carrie

  13. In addition to “linear thinking”, there is “associative thinking”.
    I’ve observed some people start with one known fact, proceed
    in a rigid logical manner, and then make a general conclusion
    which is completely false.

    They build a “house of cards” in their mind. From a single
    true statement, they create a completely incorrect reality.

    They can’t see the forest behind the tree.

    Richard S.

  14. Great article Chuck. My husband, who is more non-linear, has a quote he uses about his father, who is more linear. “I grew up believing my father was raising me the right way. I now realize there are a lot of right ways”. If you have a chance, check out Paul Sloane’s book “The Team Builders Guide to Lateral Thinking”. Incidentally I am both – most likely because although I naturally lean towards the non-linear side, I took logic in college, and it reined me in as you say. Great analogy using puppies – there is a need and a place for both!

  15. I like the way you think!
    Seems the end goal can be at the end of the line and some will progress toward it step by step. Others will place it in the center of a circle, where it’s approached from a different/creative angle to analyze the cause and effect of each angle on the point.

    I’m innately creative but I find in presentation preparation I like to build the case as a lawyer would to reach a logical conclusion. But along the way of preparing, the creative side kicks in coming up with interactive questions from various angles to illustrate/reach the point.

    Whether circular or linear, the end goal should always be the focus. But we should not be so rigid as to forget that the point/focus could change with varying circumstances/motivations.

  16. YES! Sums it all up nicely. Stumbled on this while researching techniques to improve my communication with an EXTREMELY bright team mate. My own take is that we have these 2 basic types, though just like Myers-Briggs, an individual can possess BOTH with varying degrees. Well worth the read. Also, the example used relating to politics is PRICELESS! Even prompted me to share on FB – a rarity for me!

  17. Thank you Lisa!! Very honored to make the “share on FB” status! Great comment and insight (especially regarding possessing BOTH qualities – which I think is more often the case than not), and glad my ramblings might help your work situation!

  18. Chuck, Great blog. It looks like you have a LOT of very intelligent educated people reading and applying the processes you outline. I am not one of those. I’m just a guy with no education, not a lot of IQ and a lot of strongly held convictions regarding humanity, spirituality, communication and miscommunication. I was searching for linear vs circular reasoning because of the relationship I have with my wife of 38 years. We have never had a peaceful, bucolic relationship (is that redundant?) and it occurred to me that the ways we think and approach issues, problems and relationships were seemingly diametrically opposed. I had a remembrance of a well educated friend’s advice to me that included the concept that since “I see a black swan all swans are black”. He gave a name to this but I do not remember it. It’s purpose was to show my error of thought and it’s construct. I disagree with his conclusion but am very happy to have the concept in my mental vocabulary and even more so to see it drawn out and presented in a way that even a proletariat truck driver can understand and apply it.

    Now all I need to do is find a way to present this to the wife and convince her that reading something other than the Bible and/or Christian teaching books might possibly have some material with which to construct a reasonable point of view!

  19. Ken,

    Thank you for the comment. I’m happy that my little blog might have some benefit to enlighten communication between you and your wife. I’ve definitely found that most of the arguments in my life are consequences of two people starting mostly logical thought from two different starting points, each assuming that their starting from the SAME starting point. I may have written this blog, but I still do it all the time. Sometimes these “starting points” are simply deeply held (often unformulated) desires that are never articulated to oneself or the other. I remember that from time to time – to look at what the driver is (that starting point) for my line of thought, and be honest with myself about it. This can be eye opening and difficult – my drivers are most often selfish in some way, and when my ego is often sated by believing that I’m an unselfish person, I find myself in a conundrum. I think that I’m coming to greater and greater acceptance of the possibility that the ego IS selfish, and that the ego can never really be conquered by a desire to conquer it (because it’s the ego that is doing the desiring…)

    I got a little off topic there, but thank you again for your comment – you may consider yourself a proletariat but you have a healthy command of the English language and a clear line of the thinking!

    Sincerely,

    Chuck

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