In the last post (part 2), I discussed my definition of critical thinking. Critical thinking is only one skill set in the “took kit of thinking” that I have developed over the last 25 years. In order of our natural tendencies, I usually list the six basic thinking types as follows.

Building Basic Knowledge: Cultivating curiosity is my “snappy phrase” for this. As children, we all want to learn about and explore our worlds. As adults, many of us stop learning new things, but we will be rewarded if we keep learning. As we learn more and different things, we are able to see more and more commonalities in different fields, and we become more able to learn even more, more quickly and effectively. And this helps us to see creative solutions.

Rational Thinking: Compare and contrast; this was described in the last blog. This is the natural way that humans see the world through a filter of previously created knowledge structures. This is based on a genetically inherited foundation: our brain structure.

Creative Thinking: Connect and create; this was also described in the last post. Creative thinking naturally follows from rational thinking because of the physical neural connections that are made in our brains when we engage in rational thinking. Higher-quality creative thinking is encouraged by high-quality basic knowledge. A more wide-ranging built-up structure of neural networks integrates larger portions of our basic knowledge.

Creativity sometimes comes from an inner place – a direct connection to the “collective unconscious,” as Carl Jung called it. I like to think of it as the “collective consciousness.” The myths of all of humanity are stored there, and that is likely the major foundation of creativity, even in science. There is the famous story of Kekula, the organic chemist who figured out the structure of the benzene ring after having a dream about six monkeys holding the tail of the next monkey in the circle. But it was Kekula’s rational thought that allowed him to understand the significance of the dream. The great Indian mathematician Ramanujan also got many of his theorems from dreams. He attributed these dreams as being a gift from the goddess Lakshmi.

Systems Thinking: Contemplate complexity. If we have been working on a significant mental challenge, we need to learn to sit down and look like we are doing nothing. We need to practice taking the time to look at the whole situation. This is not natural to most people. True contemplation requires patience. Donnella Meadows’ book Thinking in Systems is a good introduction to this topic. The important thing is to realize that many actions have unintended consequences. Careful examination of the potential causes and effects in a given situation are important to think over and sleep on.

Here we can introduce the engineering idea of “Failure Modes and Effects Criticality Analysis.” We have to understand that even if the chances of something happening are very low, if the thing is really bad we better do something to prevent it. My supposedly very smart dad drove his car one time after losing his driver’s license because of low vision. He said he could still see. He had apparently not contemplated sitting in jail at the age of 85 if he injured or killed someone. I went to get his car the next week. He had turned down a local offer a few weeks earlier because it was below the “Blue Book.” Now how much would the attorney have cost him?

A few years ago, I heard a story from someone who worked at an appliance manufacturing company. They were considering selling kitchen appliances with a “Sabbath Mode” feature. This allows Orthodox Jews who don’t want to turn electricity on or light a gas spark during the Sabbath to avoid having to disconnect their appliances every Friday evening. The consequences of a failure would be to break one of the Ten Commandments, which would definitely involve committing a sin in the minds of the appliance owner. Severe consequences? The engineers had to consider it as one, at least from a customer service viewpoint, even if they were personally atheists.

Check back next Monday for part 4.