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.

~Cecil “Chuck” McCumber

PS – What is linear thinking? What is non-linear thinking? Want to take a shot at your own definition (like I did)? I’d love your feedback! Comment below!

PPS. I just moved to Nashville to pursue songwriting professionally, and my band’s self-titled debut album, “The Pretty Unknown” was just released!

What kind of music is it?

It’s like if Taylor Swift was the surrogate mother for Michael Bublé and Sarah McLachlan’s love child. Then they raised the child listening The Beach Boys and The Beatles. That’s a technical critique.

So if you’ve found the above article at all entertaining, please considering listening to some of our songs. If you enjoy, we’d be eternally obliged if you supported our music – share with your friends or, better yet, buy an album. Take a listen!

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134 Comments

  1. I’m pretty much a non-linear thinker. I was in a situation where a linear thinker who understood the Socratic method wanted to “find out about” me. Her starting point was that there was something wrong with me which she was going to get me to agree with (I figured all this out later). We were only about a half dozen questions into the process and I could see exactly where it was going and how erroneous her conclusions about me would be if we got there, so I just said, “Oh, I can see where this is going and I’m not going there.” And, boy, did she cook up something special for me after that!

    I found some useful stuff on different thinking styles (do a search on Four Thinking Styles) which are – Concrete Sequential, Concrete Random, Abstract Sequential, and Abstract Random. Very useful information . . .

  2. nerds

  3. Hi 12yearold: thank you for calling us nerds. You do know it is not in any way insulting to someone who values intelligence, right?

    Response to Chris: I am a non-linear thinker as well, try explaining something to a linear thinker! Wow that is hard. It is hugely important in communication that you understand the thought process of the person you are talking to before embarking on your explanation. Poor girl was so confused….

  4. I am a non linear thinker in a linear type of world. I am the one who can find the most logical solution to a difficult problem while cutting through the processes that you would need to follow to do a complicated problem. Once you become adept with your position, your logical starting point does not necessarily need to be A + B = C…you can instead know that C is the logical outcome so why bother with A and B. We both come to the same conclusion…but, I can see the end because I have been working with A + B = C so long that it seems those first two steps are not necessary. People who are linear find the non linear as odd balls…Why is our train of though so wrong when too much structure inhibits creative thought? Further it is easier to put a non linear person on notice, so to speak, because they truly are a threat to every strict linear thinker. I think you find the importance for linear thought in mathematics, chemistry, genetics, etc. It is an important thought process to those sciences. However, a strict linear thinker finds it more difficult to understand those who think different. My best friend in the whole world in linear…because we took a long time to become best friends, we were able to see the value of each others thought processes.

  5. Lol. There is no such thing as non-linear thought. Fools who imagine themselves to be non-linear thinkers don’t know what they are talking about. It is not possible to have two different thoughts at the same time-if u do u are probably mentally ill, or very confused. Most have no idea of the actual nature of thought at all, but imagine themselves to be some intelligent wonder capable of things(non-linear thought) others are not- a common self delusion. This is how and why we see time as linear, because that is the nature of thought.

  6. difficulties defining terms and actions, without brash initial conclusions like… “no such thing as non linear thought”… wasn’t Xerox invented from a dream (non linear thought) of the subconscious?

    non linear or circular thought or random thought… as many discoveries happen… BY ACCIDENT, non linear thought

  7. Hey Neil.

    Sounds like you are one of those folks who, being solidly linear of thought pattern, decide that nonlinear folks are just those bad at thinking in a logical manner, so making up some sort of excuse. Such is typical of linear thought, by definition: it is incapable even of comprehending the existence of anything outside its extremely narrow field of view.

    There are proven scientific examples of the differences of linear and lateral thought. Linear thinking people are, for instace, very good at processing details within a picture, whereas the lateral minded person will process larger, overall shapes that a linear thinking person ignores completely, yet may have difficulty with the details.

    The linear minded person is very good at worming their way through life like a horse with blinders on, going from step a to b to c, because it is directly in front of their face, while the lateral minded person may actually have trouble doing this but is very good at very accurately jumping about between disparate points within a field, oft with minimal information provided. Note that this does not guarantee success in an endeavor where reliable results must be provided like clockwork, but it is none the less a reality.

    I’ve had a similar conversation before with one fellow who was insistent that people only learned in a linear way, and then when I presented him with the fact that people, such as myself can off bypass the prophecies he was claiming were always required for a learning, he got very very angry, decrying anyone who was non-linear as a statistical anomaly, despite such representing a fairly sizeable percentage of any given population. Why? Because he was a very rigid linear thinker, incapable of understanding that people might think about things any way other than how he did.

    Give me a few details and I will spot analogies. That’s how I, and probably many other and probably many other lateral minded folks think: by analogy. This does not mean that I am able to provide deliverables in a regular predictable manner based on standard logical prosesses, though I can to a lesser degree than a purely linear person (and most people are probably a mix of both thought processes tho they will lean one way or the other in most cases). I oft, however, quite successfully spot immediate solutions **without ever having trained the intermediate details at all**, or predict potential issues or advantages far down the road that no one else does, even with minimal information.

    Lateral thinking is very very real even though you are lacking experience in it.

  8. Pure linear thinkers are diversity killers and lack the ability to change their way of thinking. A linear thinker believes in seeing the world as “one truth and one reality based on theories, evidence and facts” and this really reflects their lacking ability to see, understand and respect other peoples perspectives/realities/opinions (multiverse).
    Saying that you’re both a linear and non-linear thinker is perhaps a paradox – Try digg into ‘social constructionism’, ‘system thinking’ etc. and you will realise that this is a non-linear understanding of the world(multi-worlds) which ultimately changes your ways of process-thinking, seeing and understanding phenomenons, people etc. and then look into the concept of ‘realism’ which is linear thinking and which also is a contrary to ‘social constructionism’.

  9. I am a music/guitar teacher/performer/composer and think a lot about how to think about teaching/learning/creating Thank you for the great platform.
    We must strive for balance.
    In response to the the definition::: “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”
    I feel that
    * The study of an expressive art form should allow a multiple choice. The linearity would then “branch out” as in a tree. Much more organic, and balanced. Think HORIZONTICALLY ! Bertrand Laurence, Cambridge MA

  10. What do linear thinkers do when they hit a road block? I wonder also if you can buy a linear chess set.

  11. I do both.

    I’m 50-50.

    Depending upon the substance of the problem or issue I may tack it down logically at pertinent points, then go back and fill in the blanks as my mind expands to search out alternative means, thoughts, ideas etc, once again I find the propensity to categorize people: Classification A
    Classification B, forgetting we’re all on a number line rather than in those boxes mentioned at the beginning of the article, creates in me feelings of frustration because the differencees we all have in our thinking is more than linear vs. Nonlinear. And when one does not fit into either but rather both frustration sets in to be categorized something you’re not, the feeling is “what about me? What about me? You forgot about me” 🙂

  12. random… i just read this and i’m staying in Nashville for another week… thought i’d see if you’re still here? i’m in the process of growing my skills in non-linear think.

  13. This was a great article, and its sad to say that I am a non-linear thinker but i do agree that we need to have both a lineal and non linear on a team.

  14. Sorry, but you are not right. Linear thinking is connected to the five senses, non-linear to intuition. So, both are logical, but not linear.

  15. Thank you Angelica! And why is it “sad to say”? Do you encounter obstacles by being a “non-linear thinker”?

  16. Great thoughts! We are obsessed with ‘left-brain’ linear thinking in our culture today. This cultural bias is also what underlies the overly rational atomistic individuality of our time, which I believe underscores fear and a lot of human conflict.

    We definitely need more non linear thinking if we are going to work together and make the best of each other.

    Thanks for sharing!

  17. Great article. SMILE.

  18. There should not be any debate on whether one is a linear, or non-linear, thinker. Those who are claiming to favor one, or the other, may not be fully aware that he is using both methods in most, if not all, occasions.

    The choice between linear and non-linear approaches to solving problems depends on the actual nature, or degree of difficulty, of the problem. Why would one use non-linearity to determine how much a dozen eggs cost, if the unit price is already known?

    On the other hand, there are situations where linear thinking alone may not be the best approach. Here’s a good real-world example of the danger of linear thinking:

    The Philippine Congress is now debating whether to reenact the death penalty as deterrent to drug use and drug related crimes. At the same time, the lawmakers are also contemplating on reducing the age of criminal liability to cover even the 9 year olds, as deterrent to the rising criminality involving minors.

    The media then ask a congressman if 9 year olds will also be put to death as the direct consequence of the two measures, now pending in Congress. Without elaborating, the congressman responded in the negative, and rightly so. The situation is not linear.

    Here’s why: the possibility of the old, hardened, or drug crazed criminals to change himself is too remote, as compared to youngsters. Obviously, young offenders have more time on their side.

    Again, both measures are mere deterrents and will never eliminate the root cause of bad behavior, i.e. bad environment.

    In closing, it must be noted that within each branch of the non-linear thought process is linearity.

  19. Thanks for the great comment! Very much agree re: linearity within each branch of a “non-linear” thought process. At the same time, I’m not sure any of us “chooses” any type of thought process – rather it seems modes of thought seem to happen to people in varying degrees. That said, perhaps a better categorization of “linear” vs. “non-linear” would be simply the degree to which one stubbornly continues down a linear path once beginning, as compared to the degree to which someone has ADHD.

    I say this somewhat jokingly, but sincerely as well.

  20. Thanks Harsha! In a separate comment one reminded me that within any “non-linear” thought process is the linear thought process, to which I very much agree. That said, I think all our brains are a balance between strict progression down a logical path, vs the urge to re-examine the starting point. It would be easy for a person whose brain tends to walk down a path without flitting around to regard someone else’s brain who flits as, well, flighty.

    And in that same way, our culture seems often to value efficiency over creativity, and condemn those who are more hesitant to pick a starting point.

    Thanks for the comment!

  21. From what I’ve learned today from this blog I consider myself linear in my thinking but with a twist: I’m always open to see how starting points can shift and suggest themselves along complicated situations. Example: if you think that a person is acting crazy be cau se he/she IS crazy you will never try to reason with him/her. Once you become aware of another explanation for the “craziness”, that may be treated as a new starting point in dealing with the situation

  22. Hi Nelson! Thanks for you comment!!

    So, I wrote this article 7 years ago, and with all the comments and feedback I’ve gotten, I tend to think we all think rather linearly, but some of us are more prone to “jump ship” and look for a different starting point should we encounter roadblocks…

    Also, some people just have ADHD 😉 But sincerely, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the article.

    I also wrote this one about pursuing one’s career/bliss and how it can often seem at odds with pursuing a relationship. Would love your feedback!

    http://chuckslamp.com/index.php/2014/02/15/find-valentine-life-partner-stop-find-you-first/

  23. If we think in a linear way we can only remember the past and see the present because it it a step-by-step proccess so our lives are in a line of events but what if…just what if we all thought in a circular way wouldn’t we be able to see our whole life from the beginning to the end.Which means we could then see the future, think of it as language we read and write from left to right so what would happen if we could read,write and communicate from left to right, right to left and in all diagonals possible(∞) wouldn’t we also be able to interact months, years or even centuries worth of communication within an instant this would change everything the way our mind conceives, the way we act and react and even time would matter then.And because the mind controls evertything because even reality is an illusion in which our minds are trapped but if we could think circular we would me able to think out of time and actually be able to travel faster than light or even tachyons only using our minds.I know I might sound crazy if you don’t already think so by now but it.

  24. Sorry I may have some errors in my previous post because English is not my native language🤒

  25. Sounds a lot like the concepts they talked about in the movie Arrival (just came out recently) – cool stuff!!

  26. Imagine you have several jigsaw puzzles and the pieces are all mixed together.
    A linear thinker may start with one piece and then search for pieces that match it.
    A non linear thinker would select the pieces he believes goes with his puzzle and place them randomly. As he adds more pieces, he sees where they fit together. This creates pods of information that can be used to deduce the whole before the puzzle is completed.

  27. really interesting comparison, Dave! That said, I don’t know I’ve ever met someone who does multiple jigsaw puzzles at the same time. They’re out there, I know. We must not run in the same jigsaw circles though 😉

  28. Interesting article. I enjoyed the song, also. Good luck with all your future endeavors!!!

  29. I think within a mostly nonlinear thought process, however, I see merit in both types of thought processes. When you integrate both types of thought processes you can reach any desired outcome with optimum efficiency. Creativity utilizing a nonlinear thought process utilizes the laws of nature. For example if evolution was linear, our race would simply be living in caves. It took creativity to create the thoughts necessary to evolve our lives into what we enjoy today. It took a society of both linear and nonlinear individuals to create the world in which we live today. Nonlinear thinkers to create the future and linear thinkers to make that future happen. As you can see, both types of thought process are necessary for change. Someone merging these two types of thought process has the power to change the world.

  30. Most people here seem to believe they’re non linear thinkers, when, in fact, they’re not!

  31. Haha – well, no one wants to think of themselves as a square. And I think when I first wrote the article, I definitely painted linear v. non-linear as square v. creative.

    I’ve come to believe that ultimately some people are more prone to creative thought / a re-examination of starting points in terms of solving problems. But those same people better have some linear thought processes in them or they’d never finish anything. So there’s a balance in all of us: how often we stay on track and how often we lose focus (and in losing focus perhaps think of a previously unexamined solution). Also, I don’t think there’s much choice in any of this, but like I said when I wrote this article years ago.. I’m no expert.

  32. I have ADHD so with that said a linear thinking person will likely read no further into my comment, possibly even flame or attack me on the offensive just for self gratification.
    But I don’t even care 😜 what matters is that y’all can’t prevent me from expressing my experience. Did I forget to mention I will be 60 this year so I’ve had quite a bit of time & experience with the linear / nonlinear clash.
    Please forgive my Yankee opinion but I see it like this in short:
    Nonlinear people, the minority & usually not taken seriously have a tendency to be open minded, creative, some what compulsive self starters that are responsible for all the great ideas and the arts.
    On the other hand Linear people the majority, tend to be closed minded, one sided, strict, feel superior to others, may have self centered tendencies, are usually in charge & can sometimes be downright demeaning of opposing views but have the dillagance to exploit & profit so to speak from the ideas & creativity of others for the benefit of the psychopaths that are really at the helm of reality.

  33. I think you have come close to the answer…..however, it has been my experience that logic is not just practical…and that linear people can be creative in their applications……it all depends on how logic is applied by the inner process..

    Logic can be all over the place….brain storming with interrelating ideas that are specific to the topic..however in the end the creative process must yield a concrete construct based and supported by logic. If it does not then it is a simple flash in the pan rather than an indepth thought out stroke of genius that carries weight and truth. The end result must forms a pattern that gives rise to a new way to understand…or anew product of value.
    People used to say…I was all over the place. They did not see the connection between the various pieces of experience that were flooding from the right side of my brain..To understand the process a person needs to be capable of following someone’s process of thought…or the concluding explanation ..so brainstorming is just the beginning of the creative process. I am referring to real exploration…not The simple acceptable current business model of “how do we get rid of all these losses?” “let cut them up and sell them as healthy products”
    Thus, logic…must be applied to the big picture….in a very specific frame to culminate in a creative conclusion. For the truth is…one starts brain storming to solve a specific problem…and understanding that creativity that can positively impact the world is a multi-factied process for the non linear mind, a process that in the end must be applied to a specific. The practical linear person is, as you have so clearly stated, better at the management aspect of accomplishing. the creative thinker often does not see or care to see the logical steps of practical accomplishment.
    I believe these are two different types of intelligences that show themselves in the personality. And since the world is largely filled with linear thinkers who easily buy into the myths of society. Non linears are often become, with experience, independent thinkers and therefore outside of the colluded reality, a point Plato so clearly makes in the cave people.

    PS I once read that some people more easily communicate across the two hemispheres of their brain. thus it is information is quickly transmitted from the right brain to the left.

  34. Really insightful comment – thank you so much for taking the time, Ellen!

  35. Thanks for the comment, Clifford! And don’t worry – we don’t have too many trolls on here – just folks who are interested in the subject. Really appreciate your insights, sir – thanks for taking the time!

  36. At the risk of being accused of linear thinking, is there any evidence for this division of thought into only two types? Brain scans? Or objective testing (to the extent that any human-designed test CAN be objective)? Absent some criteria beyond our own observation and internal experience, I’d be forced to question the whole exercise. Logic is a formal system, as are mathematics. An individual has either studied math and can perform operations on numbers, or they have not been so educated. They can either apply the TOOL that is mathematics to problems that call for mathematics (engineering, accounting, etc.) or they cannot. Logic is also a closed, formal system. It’s a tool — nothing more nor less. It has applications in some arenas, but not in others. Unfortunately, the concept of linear and non-linear thought is also used (as per some of the responses above) for divisive purposes. “I am a (fill in the blank) thinker,” each of us says, “and obviously superior to those who are not.” Let’s get some scientific data into the discussion, and maybe we can reason from there to some objective truth.

  37. God that was long to get down here! Lol. I am curious, you did not touch on people who have both traits rather equally. Will there be/is there another article I can read? Thanks!😊

  38. Sorry for the long read! Honestly, I wrote this years ago and think now (probably as I did then) that most people have some balance of both types of thinking. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  39. I’m a non-linear thinker. Love the abstract, the surrealism in art forms. My conversation usually start with a conclusion followed by an explanation on how I got there that are quantified comments of even more obvious conclusions in my patterns of thoughts. Been like this all my life; however, I have also taught myself to recognize the audience and to understand that they vary in their forms of listening. As a result, I have taught myself to recognize to watch people and adjust myself to their patterns of thoughts.

    The point is that I know my non-linear capabilities can be confusing to linear others; therefore, since it’s me that applying and communicating the thoughts, then it must also be me to communicated in a way all can understand it and not the non-linear few.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. One Track Mind (or how to get from here to there) – richrtesting - […] Cecil Charles McCumber: ‘Non-Linear thinking’ – http://chuckslamp.com/index.php/2009/04/11/non-linearthinking/ […]
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