Linear vs. Lateral Thinking: What’s The Difference?

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Linear and lateral thinking represent different ways in which we perceive and process information. While linear thinking is linked to our left brain, lateral thinking is related to the right brain functioning. 

Both linear and lateral thinking are important thought processes that allow us to register and process information, solve problems, make connections, analyze, and create.

The Oxford psychologist Edward de Bono recognized these two thinking styles in his 1967 book The Use of Lateral Thinking when the author has introduced the concept of creativity in our thinking processes. 

What is Linear Thinking?

Linear thinking is also known as convergent, logical, or vertical thinking. It is a thinking process based on rationality, logic, and rules. Linear reasoning is a distinctive analytic style of thinking associated with the left-brain hemisphere. 

Linear reasoning is the thinking traditionally linked to intelligence. The linear thought process occurs successively, following a sequential progression. This means that you must complete each step in a problem-solving process before another one you take another one.

Such a way of thinking is efficient, selective, progressive, and organized. It follows only one path, using existing knowledge methodically and sequentially. Such a way of thinking is present when you, for example, solve mathematical problems. It is typical for learning at school.

Our modern thinking system is based upon linear logic. This way of thinking is very valuable in business and science. However, as it relies exclusively on the left side of our brain, logical thinking leaves little or no room for creativity and original thought.

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What is Lateral Thinking?

Lateral thinking, on the other hand, is divergent and creative. It is a holistic, non-linear thinking style associated with the right hemisphere of the brain.

Instead of following a step-by-step approach to the problem solution typical for linear thinking, lateral thinking relies on flexibility in searching for creative ideas and original solutions. Such thinking pattern occurs spontaneously, non-linear manner, generating and exploring many different ideas to reach resolutions. 

Lateral or divergent thinking is what we usually call ‘thinking outside the box‘. It is closely associated with creativity and innovation. 

Since Edward de Bono introduced and popularized it in 1967, lateral thinking has been applied in various contexts, from design to business. 

When we engage in lateral thinking, we restructure existing ideas and knowledge to develop original models and approaches. Lateral thinking is mostly understood as being controlled by the right side of the brain. The brain’s right hemisphere is believed to be responsible for imagination, feeling, visualization, intuition, arts, and daydreaming. 

When you activate the right side of your brain, you initiate non-linear thinking that allows you to:

  • Spontaneously produce many original ideas
  • Develop and improve your ideas
  • Produce innovative solutions
  • Come up with multiple ways to solve problems 
  • Use creativity to come to a solution

How to Determine if You Are a Linear vs. Lateral Thinker?

Neuroscience research has demonstrated that some people are more left-brained while others more often rely on the right side of their brain. The following table can help you decide whether you are more of a linear or lateral thinker. 

Linear Thinkers

Lateral Thinkers
You are methodical and rational when approaching life.
You pay attention to how the ideas are linked when searching for the correct solution to the problem.
You rely on evidence and existing knowledge.
You tend to seek solutions through a single, already defined direction.
You use rules, patterns, and consistency to make decisions and solve problems. 
Your approach to life is intuitive, spontaneous, and artistic.
What matters to you is the effectiveness of the conclusion, not the linear steps to follow. 
You are spontaneous and creative. 
You don’t seek to follow a direction while problem-solving. Instead, you tend to restructure, test, and change existing ideas. 
You rely on creativity, spontaneity, and intuition in a decision-making process. 

However, linear and lateral thinking typically complement one another as we most often use a combination of both types of thinking when processing information, problem-solving, and creating.

Linear vs lateral thinking quote

How to Improve Lateral Thinking?

Placing a heavy emphasis on linear reasoning can cause you to neglect your creative and intuitive side. While a linear thought process is essential when we need to follow patterns and directions to reach a solution, following our intuition is equally important. 

When confronted with ambiguous situations, trying to rationalize things and follow the patterns usually doesn’t lead to a solution.   

While the left side of our brain provides rational and logical solutions, the right hemisphere awakens our creativity and imagination, helping us brainstorm original solutions. Paying attention to your intuitive mind can help you see things differently and develop new, creative solutions. 

Meditation can be an excellent way to awaken your creative side, get in touch with your subconscious wisdom, and improve later thinking. 

When faced with a challenge, try focusing on your intuition and interpreting it. Practicing mindfulness meditation can help you reflect on your emotions in the present moment and allow your intuition to guide you. Here are the tips on how to strengthen your ability to think laterally when making a decision or solving a problem:

  • Sit or lie comfortably and take a few deep breaths.
  • Relax your muscles and all of your body.
  • Take a moment to assess your emotions. Stay with them for a moment and mindfully. Focus on how you feel.
  • Pay attention to your body and its sensations. 
  • Focus on your intuitive reactions. Ask yourself where is listening to your gut going to take you? Is there anything discouraging you from following your intuition? 
  • Declare your choice out loud.
  • Pay attention to what your intuitive mind ‘says’ about your decision. 
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When it comes to linear and later thinking, neither one is better or worse. They are simply different ways we think and approach problems in everyday life and, as such, are complementary and necessary.

However, developing the ability to think laterally is an excellent way to get in touch with your subconscious mind, start thinking outside the box, and discover innovative and fresh solutions to your problems.

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Kamini Wood

Kamini Wood

Kamini Wood is a Certified Life Coach, and best-selling author. Her mission is to empower high-performing adults and teens to become resilient self-leaders by reducing stress and anxiety, overcoming imposter syndrome, working through trauma, and re-discovering their AuthenticMe®.

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