Writing Right with Dmitri: How Do You Think You Think?

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Writing Right with Dmitri: How Do You Think You Think?

Editor at work.

If you said, 'With my head,' good for you. But thinking's really a question of how your mind works – or how you train it to work. I'm always interested in how other people's minds work, because as a writer, I need to be able to communicate with them. Here's something I've learned recently.

Analytical Thinking

Apparently, analytical thinking is cool. It's useful, sure, but cool? What makes it cooler than a gut reaction? And can it really predict whether you believe in God?

Well, not in my case, but then, I'm weird. Let me tell you about the 'test'.

Back in 2012, some researchers in Canada gave 179 university students a test. They asked them questions to see how well they did at analytical thinking. Then they asked them if they believed in supernatural beings. According to the researchers, who published their results in Science, analytical thinking correlated with religious disbelief. Personally, I disbelieve these results, but who am I to argue with Canadian college students?

Here's one of the questions:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

If you said the ball cost 10 cents, you were wrong. It costs 5 cents. (Work it out in your head.) Figuring out the right answer requires analytical thinking –, and, according to the researchers, makes you less likely to believe in the supernatural. Bah. I think there's an underlying fallacy there, one that assumes that most, if not all, people who accept the existence of non-normative realities are sloppy thinkers. Maybe they just know something the math geeks don't. (I got all of the questions right, and I still believe in non-normative realities. So sue me.)

But what other kinds of thinking are there?

Types of Thought

A phrenology chart from 1842.

Maybe we all use different types of thinking at different times. Now, that's a thought.

  • convergent/divergent thinking: Convergent thinking is what we do when we answer multiple choice questions. And boy, do we get a lot of those. This kind of thinking assumes that there is a right answer, and that there's only one, and that the menu of choices is limited. Divergent thinking says, 'Ah, heck, why not do something completely different?' You think this isn't relevant to writing? Think again. Do your storylines tend to choose from a menu of possibilities – or do you try to find a brand-new way to twist the plot?
  • Deductive/inductive/abductive reasoning: You need to decide this if you're writing a detective story. Remember Sherlock Holmes? (You were trying to forget him, right?) He uses deductive reasoning, proceeding from whatever the standard-model reality is to a prediction about a specific case. This is 'scientific', sure. But it's also bogus, because he's dealing with people. He only gets away with it because he's got the writer in his back pocket. (We suspect blackmail is involved, particularly if the writer is Mark Gatiss.)

    In inductive reasoning, you proceed from specifics to make generalisations. Scientists hate that. And it can lead to hilarious results. Suppose, for example, that all the pharmacists you've ever met are tall women. You go to a new chemist's, and the chemist is a short, bald man. You're surprised, and realise you need to revise your model…this, in a fictional character, can be charming. (In RL, you just look silly.)

    Abductive reasoning starts with an incomplete set of data. Just like real life. In this form of reasoning, you find the likeliest explanation for what you're experiencing. It's a good way to form a hypothesis you can test – and it's a terrific way for characters to behave in a ghost, supernatural, or science fiction story. Why? Because they don't waste time running around yelling that 'there are no such things as…' and get on with figuring out how to rid Sunnydale of vampires.
  • Analytic/holistic thinking: In analytic thinking, you break down problems into bite-sized pieces so that you can work on them. This is really useful for doing your maths homework. Or fixing your car. Or solving a particular real-world problem. But it's a handicap when you're looking at something new, unfamiliar, or larger than your inventory. In that case, you (and your characters) are better off with holistic thinking: getting the big picture. Heck, it works in science, too: a biochemist may need a lot of analytical thinking, but if an ethologist can't look at things holistically, that ethologist is going to miss the whole point of animal behaviour.

Aha. Maybe that's why those Canadian scientists were saying that analytical thinking predisposed people not to believe in the supernatural. Now, if they'd given the students a quiz that required them to think holistically first, and then asked them if they believed the noises they heard at night might be ghosts, they might have gotten a whole 'nother answer…

In fact, I'm looking at a webpage right now by a Dr Dewey, who says:

However, nothing like intuition training has become standard in public schools, and researchers have not produced strong evidence that creativity or intuition can be improved by training.

Maybe researchers haven't produced that strong evidence because they keep using deductive reasoning and analytical thinking to produce their training manuals. Just saying. And maybe…just maybe…intuition can be improved by training.

Has anybody asked a writer lately?

Me, I'll stick to being divergent, abductive, and holistic – at least, while I'm writing. It helps to figure out what wild worlds could be lurking out there when I turn my gaze from what is to what, possibly, could be.

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