What is divergent thinking?

The psychologist J.P. Guilford first used the terms convergent thinking and divergent thinking in 1967. Divergent thinking is also sometimes called ‘lateral thinking’. Divergent thinking is the process of generating multiple related ideas for a given topic or solutions to a problem. Divergent thinking occurs in a spontaneous, free-flowing, ‘non-linear’ manner.

An example of a divergent thinking question is:

“How many unusual and uncommon uses can you come up with for a spoon and a straw”


“How many uses can you think of for a rubber band?”

The number of unique and varied responses, or the number of responses given by no one else, has traditionally provided a measure of how creative a person is.

IQ and creativity

Psychologists have found that a high IQ (like Albert Einstein) alone does not guarantee creativity. Instead, personality traits that promote divergent thinking are more important. Divergent thinking is found among people with personality traits such as nonconformity, curiosity, willingness to take risks, and persistence.

Creative vs logical

Psychologists have proposed that individual differences in creativity are due to differences in whether these kinds of associative networks were ‘steep’ or ‘flat’ – those with ‘flat’ networks have numerous and loose conceptual connections, enabling them to be more creative. Those with ‘steep’ networks tend to have more logical, linear associations between nodes.  A person with a flat network can quickly hop between completely different concepts, such as from a bluebird to crayons to butter to parachuting.

Left brain right brain

The cognitive neuroscientist Mark Beeman (2005)  has brought together in one package the ‘left brain’ vs ‘right brain’ idea, and the steep vs flat semantic network idea. Steep, linear, logical and focused semantic networks is a specialization of the left hemisphere, while flat, diffuse, unfocused semantic networks, connecting distantly related concepts, is a specializations of the right hemisphere. On his account, the left brain is specialized for convergent thinking, while the right brain is specialized for divergent thinking.

Promoting divergent thinking

Activities which promote divergent thinking include creating lists of questions, setting aside time for thinking and meditation, brainstorming, subject mapping, bubble mapping, keeping a journal, creating artwork, and free writing. In free writing, a person will focus on one particular topic and write non-stop about it for a short period of time, in a stream of consciousness fashion.

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