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The discussion of Horizontal and Vertical thinking brings us to one of the most intriguing questions of cognition which science is starting to answer, what is the nature of insight ? Can we do anything to ” trigger” or increase the frequency of our ” Eureka” moments of true discovery when the pieces of the puzzle abruptly slip into place ? My argument is that insight is a biological event and that is triggered not simply by the stimulus of Horizontal thinking alone but by a feedback loop between Horizontal and Vertical thinking that is mediated by a cognitive activity that theorist John Flavell termed “ Metacognition“. Awareness of this insight process should allow us to intentionally construct environments that will increase the probability of generating insight.

Mankind has been aware of the existence of insight for thousands of years and most educated people are familiar with the story of Archimedes leaping from his bath shouting ” Eureka !” ( ” I have found it !”) at his sudden discovery of water displacement. Nevertheless, formally defining insight has proved difficult though everyone seems to recognize insight when they see it, much like the Supreme Court does with obscenity. From the inception of psychology it was questionable whether insight was actually a tangible process happening within the brain or merely a clever concept that described a chance event of recognition. Thanks to modern research the evidence is leaning strongly toward insight being a physical and identifiable brain function.

For some time it has been anecdotally and clinically noted that insight is not a randomly distributed phenomenon throughout the population. It tends to occur more frequently at the upper end of the bell curve; secondly, there are subgroups within the population such as schizophrenics whose abnormal brain function correlates with significantly lower levels of insight yet even here the degree of insight is affected by the schizophrenic’s educational level.(2)

Even greater weight must given to brain imaging testing of insight that have demonstrated that moments of insight correlate with revealed increased activity in the right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus for insight relative to noninsight solutions. (3) The insight event is measurable and reproducible. A physical process is something that we can intentional attempt to trigger in real-world ” applied” settings and not just a research lab.

John Boyd wrote a laboriously researched, epistemological theory he called ” Destruction and Creation ” where he advocated ” smashing ” the conceptual borders of domains – i.e. Horizontal thinking directed synthesis – as the key to learning and the discovery of new ideas and this process was a continuous cycle, a ” dialectic engine “. (4) I believe that Boyd, without benefit of any advanced brain research data, came very close to finding the actual process of insight.

Where Boyd fell short was primarily in developing the details of his cycle. Horizontal thinking does not occur in a void but against an established body of knowledge with which every individual frames their interpretation of sensory information and symbolic communication. In other words, the data provided by Horizontal thinking must be integrated with a person’s Cognitive Map – the repository of Vertical knowledge and past experiences – to become of use.

The act of integration is really a process by which a person engages in both Vertical and Horizontal thinking, simultaneously or in sequence along with a reflective monitoring of their own thinking ( metacognition). To use a spatial metaphor, the Horizontal data gets ” rotated” mentally, measured for validity and placement ( Vertical thinking) or pattern similarity or potential relationships ( Horizontal) with known phenomena (5). When the significance of the data is understood and its logical parameters discovered the thinking process has crystallized into a moment of insight – an insight that can be empirically or logically tested or in turn may suggest other alternatives ( though seeking proof or generating alternatives can also precede and lead to the moment of insight).


If the Horizontal and Vertical feedback loop does in fact result in insight then I would hypothesize that combining horizontal and vertical thinking techniques is the road to becoming more insightful. We can attack our Vertical frames by a forced change of perspective, reversing premises, counterfactuals, brainstorming, forced association and similar techniques. Likewise, I believe that Novelty – starting anew in a different domain from the ground up instead of ” smashing” across it looking for analogous concepts – is the most powerful stimulus that Vertical thinking can offer to complement Horizontal thinking.

Renaisssance men make themselves, they are not born.

2. R MacPherson, B Jerrom and A Hughes. ” Relationship between insight, educational background and cognition in schizophrenia ” The British Journal of Psychiatry 168: 718 -722 1996.

3. Mark Jung-Beeman1*, Edward M. Bowden1, Jason Haberman1, Jennifer L. Frymiare2, Stella Arambel-Liu1, Richard Greenblatt3, Paul J. Reber1, John Kounios “Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight” PLOS Biology Vol 2. issue 4 April 2004

4. John Boyd, ” Destruction and Creation”, 1976.

5. Larry Dunbar, private correspondence to Zenpundit:

I see, vertical thought fills in the blank areas of the horizontal line that flows from the thinker. These blank areas contain the visions that the horizontal thinker โ€œseesโ€. Once the areas are filled in, the vision or pathway is complete. Then we the vertical thinkers may walk the path of the horizontal thinkers. This would be kind of like an Autolisp program written for AutoCAD. The program would ask you the size, shape, and square distance of path, and the AutoCAD application would define and draw it for you. The application would be the vertical thinkers, and you, using the graphical interface of the computer, would be the horizontal thinker. The stepping-stones would be implicit laws that move the trail west

ADDENDUM: The Eide Neurolearning Blog just happened to have a post on Novelty up today with four research links for further investigation.

7 Responses to “”

  1. Stuart Berman Says:

    I liked Barnett’s statements about horizontal thinkers being ‘late bloomers’ – that it just takes a while to sort it all out. Great advice for kids wondering why they just don’t ‘have it together’ like their friends who are ‘on track’.

    It seems that kids that have the personality or are predisposed to understand how something works (as opposed to just accepting that something works) can be encouraged in the process of horizontal thinking.

    It also seems that there are ways to develop our own horizontal thinking:
    Develop deep vertical thinking – understand how we enter a state of ‘flow’ as described by Csikszentmihalyi.
    Leave a field that you have gained expertise in – although this seems like a forfeiture of experience it may indeed be a long term investment in breadth – to immerse yourself in a new expertise.
    Introspection – value your own insights and be wary of following the group opinion (expert opinion) when in conflict.

  2. mark Says:

    On Late bloomers, a friend pointed out to me yesterday there’s something to be said for the mixture of expertise (content knowledge)with experience – that the the perspective of age can actually help in terms of finding vision.

    On your second point, I think that quality of intellectual curiousity is a true spark that causes the person to be a ” scanner” rather than someone stuck with ” tunnel vision” who accepts the parameters or premises as they drive toward a goal.

    I don’t think you have to abandon your prmary field but you do have to put aside your pride as an expert and let yourself step back into the role of student. If you can do that you get the reward of seeing things with if not ” new eyes” at least newer ones. In terms of cognitive benefit, I bet you get your greatest novelty effect at the very beginning as you master the fundamentals – after that diminishing retuirns sets in.

    Check out the addendum I’m adding on Novelty….

  3. Drs. Fernette and Brock Eide Says:

    Hi Mark -It’s Fernette and Brock. Maybe you’d like this quote from Root-Bernstein’s Discovering: “…researchers who continued to be productive past middle age changed fields regularly. In effect, they periodically returned to the state of a novice by taking up a new subject. They broek out of the patterns of work and thought to which they had become accustomed. As Benzer remarked, ‘The best way to have fun in science is to do s omething you are not trained for…’ “

  4. mark Says:

    The Drs. Eide,

    That’s a great quote as well as a great observation ! I’ll have to include that one.

    It probably holds true for the rare double Nobel winners that there is a shift in research interests…it also seems that in math in physics the great breakthroughs frequently come early -in the late grad student to early post-doc years of the twenties.

    Denis Berkson, an advocate for creative thinking, told me about a decade ago that if he had his way he would require all educators to take a year off (with pay) every seven years or so, to learn the fundamentals of a new content field. Said that would do more to improve test scores than any other teacher-training reform.

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