Linear Thinking: What It Is and How It Can Help You

linear thinking feature imageHave you been told that you’re a linear thinker?

You might have received it as a compliment or a criticism.

Either way, people use the term in so many different ways, it can be hard to figure out what exactly linear thinking is supposed to be.

Well, if you want to become a better thinker, you’re in the right place.

We’re about to think linearly about linear thinking together.

And we’re going to think about it in some alinear ways too.

The best part?

By the time you finish reading this page, you’ll be equipped to think in a variety of ways, in any direction you wish.

Perhaps even in an “impossible” direction that follows no line at all because it is completely free from having a point of view.

Intrigued?

Let’s get started!

What is Linear Thinking?

Before defining linear thinking, let’s take a step back. Ideally in a “straight” line.

When trying to define any kind of thinking, we’re assuming that there are multiple kinds of thinking or thinking styles.

This means that we have to sort out the relationships between these thinking styles. But more importantly, we have to think about who is creating their definitions.

Linear Thinking in Entrepreneurialism

Researchers Charles Vance, Kevin Groves and Herb Kindler devised the LNTSP or Linear-Nonlinear Thinking Style Profile.

Their assumption is that linear thinking is characterized by logical and analytical thinking. Nonlinear thinking, they claim, is defined by intuition, insight and creativity.

In a follow-up study, they proposed that entrepreneurs would think more linearly than actors. As a subset of this, they predicted that entrepreneurs would also think more linearly than accountants and managers.

Is it really true that thinking styles exist? And what did they find out?

The answer is complicated because entrepreneurs are often visionary in nature. They respond in off-the-wall ways to unseen market demands only they can perceive.

Creativity Can Be Linear

The notion of “creativity” when it comes to acting is also problematic.

For one thing, there are many different kinds of actors. Method actors, for example, might need to be incredibly logical in order to play the role of a certain character, but use creativity and intuition in order to create the illusion that they are such a person. In other words, actors often “reverse engineer” characters they did not create and base them on studies of people who actually exist. This approach often involves just as much mathematical precision as it does going with gut instinct. Even a highly responsive comic like Robin Williams knows the structural rules that govern how a joke works.

Thus, Vance et al’s study ends with the call for more research, noting that educational background experiences might hold the ultimate key to why some people wind up thinking in the ways that they do.

If we were to think in a “straight line” about these findings, we would want to note that these researchers are using their own definition of linear thinking. And they’re using their tool for testing their hypothesis. I’d humbly suggest that the entire study is suspect at best, a case of inventing solutions for invented problems without carefully demonstrating that thinking styles exist in the first place.

Linear Thinking In Philosophy

Now, I’m not saying that thinking styles don’t exist. But as Tesia Marshik has shown in her TEDx Talk and other research about learning styles, such notions are complicated.

When it comes to linear thinking in philosophy, Patrick Finn sees linear thinking as a negative aspect of critical thinking. In Critical Condition, he indicts “regulated systems of education” as using “a muscular, linear form of thought” to “control information and training citizens to think in a particular way.”

He sees this as a problem in politics, science and especially education. As he points out, universities are no longer related to the meaning of the word:

Universitas: the whole. The word for university came from this Latin root. To be educated at the university was to engage with the whole – the whole being, the whole body of knowledge, and the whole of society.

group students are studying in a university

Although I don’t disagree with Finn’s discussion of the meaning of this word, it’s not clear to me that knowledge is a “body.” But if it is, it probably doesn’t have any straight lines, and his point is taken.

The notion of knowledge as being rounded, rather than straight, is a point made by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus and other co-author works. They think of knowledge, not as a top-down structure, or a tree as Renaissance scholars like Petrus Ramus described it.

Linear Thinking As Escape or Destination?

Rather, Deleuze and Guattari think of knowledge as rhizomatic, a lattice-like structure that travels in multiple directions at the same time. In another book called What is Philosophy?, they claim that “to think is always to follow the witch’s flight.”

I’m not sure, but I think they are referring to the Wicked Witch in Wizard of Oz, who sometimes chases after Dorothy in a straight line. But other times, she flees in frustration from Dorothy, as if trying to escape.

This means that thinking is not always directed at arriving somewhere. Sometimes we do it just to flee the present conditions, commonly known as escapism.

The witch also disappears in a puff of smoke after she’s killed. Perhaps Deleuze and Guattari are referring to their notion of deterritorialization as the thoughts of an individual ultimately disappear after they die.

Or they might be thinking about philosophy’s ability to neutralize unwanted thoughts, which was the subject of my TEDx Talk. In it, I discuss the highly linear use of good thoughts to remove unhealthy and unpleasant thought patterns – as if they were disappearing into a puff of smoke.

Linear Thinking And Time

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a lot about what he called the Eternal Recurrence of the Same. He challenges us to think about how we would live today as perfectly as possible so that we could make full use of it should a “curse” cause it to repeat again and again. In other words, he’s anticipating the movie Groundhog Day by over 100 years. 

But his concept is a bit more complex than that. As Heidegger explores this idea in his second commentary on Nietzsche, Heidegger suggests that all of the past appears in the present.

In other words, all thinking is both linear and alinear. If time is traveling in a straight line, then all thought unfolds as having a beginning, middle and end. Yet, if the entirety of the past is contained in each present moment, then any thought you have in the present moment has perhaps transcended any and all notions of the straight line as we understand it.

Linear Thinking In Art

Art is either representative or abstract. Representative art is often called pictorial, but art that seeks to explore the representation of representation itself is often called an example of linear thinking.

That said, M. C. Escher often used linear thinking in pictorial ways. He frequently drew upon the impossible cube as a reference in many of the rooms he created featuring people navigating impossible staircases, or waterfalls that fed themselves after flowing upwards.

impossible cube as linear thinking example in art

Linear Thinking in the Movies

Many movies start at the beginning and conclude at the end. Or at least, movies typically start when a character encounters a problem they need to solve and then end when the solution is found.

But not all movies work this way. There’s a great western called The Searchers. Like a Greek tragedy, it begins in medias res, or in the middle of things. A lot of subtle clues in the dialog and how the character Ethan dresses fill you in on what his past was like. You need to think in a nonlinear way to properly understand the complexity of his motivations.

David Lynch makes movies that mess with time in very intense ways. Both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive employ a fugue narrative, or what is sometimes called a Möbius strip applied to a story.

mobius strip visual example of nonlinear thinking in David Lynch movies

It’s difficult to explain, but if you read the plot of Lost Highway, you’ll get a sense for how two things are happening at the same time. But you can only really think it through when you see the movie for the second time.

More recently, Christopher Nolan has made films that employ similar nonlinear plot devices, such as Inception and Tenet. In fact, Nolan’s The Prestige is adopted from a Christopher Priest novel. Priest has been playing with such nonlinear narrative structures since at least writing his novel The Affirmation.

All of these movie and novel examples give you the opportunity to experience nonlinear thinking, noting that it all takes place or unfolds in linear time in your mind. David Lynch uses words like “melt” to describe the effect he’s trying to create, as in story, time and your mind fusing into something else as you experience recursion.

By “recursion” I mean the term in the sense of programming where you define a problem in terms of itself, usually a simpler version of the problem. Storytellers using this kind of narrative form ultimately construct an experience of consciousness itself by creating a simpler version of what we imagine consciousness to be in story form.

An excellent book that will help you understand this aspect of self-referential thinking further is Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel Escher Bach.

Linear Thinking in Magic

In a book called The Illusionist Brain, Jordi Cami and Luis M. Martinez detail how magicians take advantage of how people think.

Magicians are incredibly linear thinkers, even if they appear quite creative. This only highlights the problem of trying to divide linear and nonlinear thinking.

magicians are performing with a white circle

Magic is an example where logical and linear thinking is used to establish astonishing feats of creativity.

There are many books in the world of magic that demonstrate just how logical and linear true creative thinking needs to be. A few quick suggestions include:

  • Designing Miracles by Darwin Ortiz
  • Shattering Illusions by Jamie Ian Swiss

In sum, magicians often describe an illusion they want to create and then call it a “problem” they need to solve. There are often many possible solutions, and magicians use linear thinking to find the best possible strategies for creating the illusions, both as individuals and as communities.

The community aspect is part of what can make their linear thinking seem alinear. Different magicians sometimes arrive at various solutions independently and only work out later how to attribute “credit” for the solution to an illusion. This process sometimes creates controversy in the magic community, but they typically use logical reasoning to sort things out charitably in the end.

Understanding the Linear Thought Process

With all these definitions in mind, let’s look at linear reasoning as a process.

Typically, we use reasoning to solve problems. One of the best ways to start is by gathering as many possible solutions as possible.

This stage of the process is called divergent thinking. You’re literally focusing on quantity over quality.

During the convergent thinking process, you filter those ideas, combine and refine them.

Linear Thought Process Example

I do this week after week on my blog, podcast and YouTube channel using mind mapping.

linear thought process example using mind mapping

Mind mapping using linear and nonlinear thinking at the same time in order to help create multimedia content.

Using the topic as a central keyword, I move outward in clockwise formation. Each tributary is an idea that helps explain the central concept.

Once a set of divergent ideas have been collected, I let them sit for a while. And I often come back and add a few more ideas, stimulated by having the mind map in my environment.

Then, I converge the ideas into a linear outline. Finally, I write the article and record the audio visual component.

Ultimately, this is a linear thinking example even though it contains some alinear elements. Using a circle instead of top-down structure in the beginning makes it easy to incorporate arrows that show connections at a glance. If it were created in a document, it would wind up “locking” material onto individual pages.

Either way, the process unfolds over time and is much more linear as a result. And even if people consume my content “out of order,” they still take in the snippets according to the flow of time.

Linear Analysis

Of course, creating diverging ideas and synthesizing them through convergence is not enough.

Once you’ve arrived at the final product, you need to put it out there and analyze the response.

Depending on your field, there may be just a few diagnostic tools you use. Or you might need to combine dozens in order to get a picture of what the data is telling you.

When it comes to a mental performance activity like memory training, the metrics for analysis are usually quite simple. You have very few gray areas because you’ve either remembered something or you haven’t. 

But you can test how much of a Memory Palace worked vs. how much gave you issues. And you can look at how many of the Magnetic Modes you used and chart out a path for improvement by making sure you also include more.

In the case of the mind mapping I use before creating content on this blog, I analyze multiple metrics, including:

  • How many people visit the content
  • How long they interact with it
  • Have they interacted with other content before and what kinds
  • What part of the world they’re from
  • What time of day they visited
  • Did they leave comments or not
  • Did they share or not

Because I have thousands of multimedia articles I’ve produced over the years and they are all live and online at the same time, the data pool is intense.

To help think through everything as thoroughly as possible, my team and I visualize the data by transforming the raw numbers into charts and graphs.

linear reasoning example

A linear reasoning example using a graph to help make decisions about content creation.

Using linear reasoning, it’s useful to think about what kinds of content to create more of and what to deemphasize.

Although this kind of data science sometimes leads to brutal decision making that temporarily feels like it’s squashing your creativity, that’s not really the case. True creativity comes back to solving problems like a magician in order to achieve your goals.

Expect in this case, there are no illusions and the success is real.

Linear Thinking vs. Nonlinear Thinking

As we’ve seen, some scientists approach the definition of these two kinds of thinking quite simply. They divide logic and rationality from creativity and intuition.

But as I’ve shown, there are many creative arts that involve strict linearity in order to create innovations.

Ultimately, I’m not convinced that “nonlinear” thinking exists, if only because the stuff of thought unfolds in time. We not only think forwards, but also consume and interpret information following time’s arrow.

Plus, just because we might be consciously aware of having followed our intuitions, this does not mean that the unconscious mind that gives birth to intuition isn’t linear.

Although controversial, this was the great contribution of psychoanalysis, which boils down to the idea that a hidden part of our mind makes calculations on our behalf. One thinker, Jacques Lacan, argued that the unconscious is in fact structured like a language.

Symbolic Thinking

Instead of approaching it as the difference between linear and nonlinear thinking, he thought it was more a matter of deep structures and surface structures – but not quite.

nonlinear thinking example from Jacques Lacan

Imagine that you have three different kinds of minds at the same time. One is tracking the real world, one is creating the world as it needs to be in order to avoid overwhelm, and the third is constantly tapping into a mind that symbolizes the entire species.

Lacan called these three kinds of simultaneous thinking:

  • Symbolic
  • Real
  • Imaginary

Many cultures, philosophies, and thinkers have presented similar ways of describing thinking.

What makes Lacan’s interesting is how he discussed the impossibility of speaking the truth for human beings. We cannot represent the real in human language because, as he put it, there are simply too many words. We always have to choose a certain set of words at the expense of not using others.

Let’s face it:

Reality is not made of words, or at least it doesn’t seem to be. And no one has time to speak or listen to an attempt at arriving at the truth through words. It would take too long and there are too many potential words a person could use.

Yet, the brain uses imagination to help us approximate the experience of truth at a metaphorical level.

And the symbolic thinking level, sometimes called the “Big Other,” is a mental representation of the human species at large. If it exists, this “Big Other” helps us behave properly, according to this theory, because it creates the sense it monitors our every move. It helps us feel guilty when we transgress social codes and encourages us to follow the moral compass our cultural upbringing has helped us imagine.

In this way, we can say that there is a lot of nonlinear thinking going on, insofar as Lacan and similar thinkers are correct. Jung’s collective unconscious is another, similar model from the 20th century, and you can look to schools like Zen and Advaita Vedanta for earlier examples from different parts of the world. They all share the linguistic character of Lacan’s approach.

Paraconsistencies

Another example of nonlinear thinking comes from the world of Dialetheism, a branch of logic. This term descends from the ancient Greek word for truth, and “di” means “two.”

In other words, we’re talking about two seemingly contradictory things being true at the same time without contradiction. A simple example is trying to quit caffeine for health reasons. You can both want and not want caffeine at the same time. Both states are true without any contradiction.

Where nonlinear thinking comes in is how you’re going to find strategies for one of those truths to win. If you want to avoid drinking coffee, for example, you have to think ahead of yourself to build strategies that prevent you from letting one truth out-truth the other.

Now let’s circle back to where we started:

It’s perfectly possible for linear thinkers to be creative and follow their intuitions in linear ways. You can analyze creativity in a linear fashion and reproduce the creativity of others by unfolding specific steps with the exact timing they used.

This kind of analysis is possible in just about every field of performance, from martial arts to chess, music, philosophy or learning a language.

Thinking from No Point Of View

A.W. Moore is a highly accomplished philosopher who thinks it is possible to think from no point of view at all.

This is the subject of his excellent book, Points of View.

One issue more raises involves the fact that some knowledge cannot be put into words. He talks about physics and how it uses symbols to represent truths about how the universe works.

But there is more. We have knowledge about our own experience and what it is like to be alive. Yet, this experience is “ineffable” and impossible to describe. Jacques Lacan would say that there are too many possible words for any individual to even get started explaining the experience of life.

The paradox Moore is gunning for is that we know what life is, yet when we try to describe it, either nonsense comes out or we can only get at part of the description. Although Moore does not use the terms Dialetheism or paraconsistency, much of what he’s talking about gets at the same point. The only way to think linearly about complex issues like the nature of being is to allow for and even embrace contradictions.

And in order to do that, you need to change your point of view and turn toward the concept of infinity so you can at least try and experience what it would be like for all possible combinations to play out. As another philosopher named Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz put it, “Everything possible has an urge to exist.” When we think about this from the perspective of infinity, which is from no perspective at all, it is possible for us to think in all possible directions at once.

You Are A Linear Thinker

As a result, I feel we can all rest assured that each and every person is a linear thinker.

Certainly, you can go with the uncomplicated science story that divides the two. But the research we looked at above is ultimately inconclusive and seems to contradict itself. At best, it reveals a paradox, which we have used linear thinking to identify as a paraconsistency.

If nothing else, I hope you walk away from this article with a new way of thinking about thinking itself.

I realize that some of these ideas are complex, so if you’d like to understand them better, here’s why I suggest.

Learn to improve your memory. The more memory power you have, the more you can rotate these ideas around in your mind and experience deep knowledge.

For that, I have a free memory improvement kit you can sign up for here:

Free Memory Improvement Course

Give it a try and just take it one step at a time.

The more you think about memory itself in a linear fashion, the more you’ll be able to experience and use your mind in both linear and nonlinear ways. 

Even better, you stand a chance to go quite beyond this world of name and form as you experience the unfolding plane of thinking itself.

After all, thinking is what we use to solve problems. And what bigger problem do we have than solving, like a magician, the mystery of why anything exists at all?

If just one of us can do that, perhaps all of us can be free.

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