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Breaking the Pattern of Thought August 19, 2008

Posted by caveblogem in Books, Constructivism, Edward de Bono, how to, Lateral Thinking, Other, vocabulary, writing.

I’ve been re-reading Edward de Bono’s wonderful (if clumsily written) Lateral Thinking recently, while searching for new-but-manageable programming projects that I can do between semesters (so that I can keep learning programming skills). Naturally, de Bono gave me an idea (never fails).

Lateral Thinking‘s first couple of chapters argue, convincingly, that peoples’ thoughts run along established patterns that can make creativity difficult. The remainder of the book presents de Bono’s grab-bag of thinking tools, helpful methods for breaking out of these patterns when necessary (when the vertically-reasoned ideas are not working).

One technique, “Random Stimulation,” helps in a brainstorming process. It works like this:

Randomly select a word from a dictionary and just run with it, trying to connect it to the problem you are working on, for three minutes, following whatever chain of silly connections you follow. Hopefully, out of that massive, ill-considered spray of concepts, something emerges that will help solve the problem.

Here’s de Bono’s example:

The numbers 473-13 were given by a table of random numbers and using the Penguin English Dictionary the word located was: ‘noose’. The problem under consideration was ‘the housing shortage’. Over a timed three minute period the following ideas were generated:

noose – tightening noose – execution – what are the difficulties in executing a housing programme – what is the bottleneck, is it capital, labour or land?

noose tightens – things are going to get worse with the present rate of population increase.

noose – rope – suspension construction system – tentlike houses but made of permanent materials – easily packed and erected – or on a large scale with several houses suspended from one framework – much lighter materials possible if walls did not have to support themselves and the roof.

noose – loop – adjustable loop – what about adjustable round houses which could be expanded as required – just uncoil the walls – no point in having houses too large to begin with because of heating problems, extra attention to walls and ceilings, furniture, etc. – but facility for step-wise expansion as need arises.

noose – snare – capture – capture a share of the labour market – capture – people captured by home ownership due to difficulty selling and complications – lack of mobility – houses as exchangeable units – classified into types – direct exchange of one type for similar type – or put one type into the pool and take out a similar type elsewhere. . . .

From this example may be seen the way the random word is used. Often the random word is used to generate further words which themselves link up with the problem being considered. . . . The word is used in order to get things going–not to prove anything. [174-5]

O.K., so it doesn’t always work. At least I am not convinced that the “housing problem” was adequately addressed through this method. I have used de Bono’s “Random Stimulation” method, however, with excellent results.

So, I developed an online resource that loads a randomly generated word, with its definition. Just click the linked picture below.

So now you don’t have to generate random numbers and hunt for a big dictionary. Indeed, I kept the webpage very small, as well as javaScript-free, so that it can be accessed by web-enabled phones.


1. strugglingwriter - August 20, 2008

Cool application. How are you doing the web query of http://www.mso.anu.edu.au/~ralph/OPTED/ ?

Are you reading the whole thing into an array and then using the random number generator to pick an item from the array? Just curious :)

2. caveblogem - August 20, 2008


First I pulled the whole thing into a database (SPSS), and randomly selected 1500 words, which I put into an array in the PHP file. When the page is opened or refreshed it randomly selects one of them, checks the start of the word to identify the proper page in OPTED (which has a separate page for each letter). Then it concatenates the appropriate url and uses a CURL statement in PHP to pull the definition from OPTED.

OPTED is a little weird, based on a 1913 dictionary, but its HTML is predictable enough to easily manipulate the resultant text strings. And the words themselves are pretty archaic and interesting, I think.

Probably there are thousands of ways to do the whole thing more efficiently. I’m already having second thoughts about having to query another web server each time. It is sometimes offline, for some reason. And sometimes it’s really slow, too. But it has been fun to work on.

3. writinggb - August 26, 2008

I love the idea of getting people to think outside the box or to look outside their line of sight, as it were. A lovely little tool you’ve created. Thanks!

4. grot - October 7, 2008

This is somthing I have been looking for a long time. Thanks!!!

5. meniscal tears - October 7, 2011

excellent post,keep good stuff

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