“Whatcha’ doing with those tongs, buddy?” I ask.
“It’s a dinosaur,” my son joyously responds. He then roars, pantomiming the bellowing mouth of a dinosaur by fully extending the handles of the kitchenware. When the tongs’ handles retract, the dinosaur falls silent.
I fight the instinct to correct him.
We are all too familiar with the innate creativity of children, but it turns out that we don’t fully appreciate how truly important this quality is. Furthermore, we as adults don’t realize the damage we do in overcorrecting them.
Parents often joke about their children preferring to play with the box that a toy arrived in as opposed to the toy itself. Rather than playing with the pogo stick, Junior is pretending that the original packaging is a castle to defend. Or a space ship to travel faraway galaxies. Or an oven to cook pizza in. Or a robot companion to share his thoughts with.
Psychologists refer to this stream of consciousness as divergent thinking. This is a cognitive process that champions non-linear, spontaneous thinking that generates multiple solutions to existing data. Present a problem to a room full of five-year olds (“The house is on fire!”), give them a couple of nondescript household items (“Use a paper towel roll and a broom to put out the fire”), and watch how this imaginative group of thumb-suckers can squelch this fire with hundreds of MacGyveresque innovations.
This creative problem solving comes naturally for little ones. A study has shown that 98 percent of five-year olds demonstrate “genius levels” of divergent thinking.
But as we get older, our ability to think divergently dwindles. When these same five-year olds are tracked over time for longitudinal studies, that high threshold significantly drops every year. When they turn ten, only 32 percent score at the same level. When they are 15, only 10 percent. The same test was also given to adults, and only two percent of those tested demonstrate the cognitive capacity for divergent thinking.
It’s difficult to say why this downward trend occurs, but a strong argument can be made that we tend overemphasize divergent thinking’s foil: convergent thinking. Convergent thinking prioritizes figuring out the “right” answer. “No, son,” the convergently thinking father retorts. “Those are tongs, not a dinosaur.” All information can be compartmentalized and neatly stored into various categories, according to this standardized train of thought that we have greatly institutionalized throughout our educational system.
The argument being made here is not that one style of thinking is better than another. I can gaze at my navel all day, endlessly imagining how it answers all of life’s foibles. But unless the cure for cancer is conveniently located next to the lint tangled in the hair of my belly button, the whole endeavor is useless and self-indulgent.
Instead, divergent and convergent work best when they are complement one another. Albert Einstein, arguably the greatest mind of the modern era, famously said, “The greatest scientists are artists as well.” And the research affirms this claim. Research found that Nobel Prize winners in the sciences were three times more likely to be engaged in artistic pursuits than the general public.
Divergent thinkers also tend to be successful entrepreneurs. These are the individuals who can take the innovations of science and make them scalable for the marketplace. Creative disruption in the marketplace has helped produce a better quality of life for humanity as a whole.
And divergent thinking doesn’t necessarily have to rise to the prestige of disease-curing scientist or philanthropic capitalist. Divergent thinkers make for great coworkers, offering their critical thinking, creative zest, and thirst for learning in everyday office settings.
I would argue that we currently suffer from a deficit in divergent thinking. And this plays out in unfortunate and observable patterns in modern culture.
A decrease in divergent thinking results in an increase in cognitive rigidity. Gradients of gray disappear into a stark landscape of black and white. Strange dichotomies materialize, pushing us further down a path toward an “either-or” binary, rather than a “and-but” multiplicity. This phenomena is the lifeblood of “us-versus-them” tribalism. Considering how polarized we have become as a nation, a little nuance can go a long way these days.
Cognitive flexibility begets more cognitive flexibility. It is both humbling and empowering to accept the ambiguity of life. The more you learn, the more you realize how much more learning you have yet to do. Just think what the world would be like if more people would openly say, “I don’t know… but I am willing to learn.”
And this is why I fight the instinct to correct my son about his dinosaur-tongs. Instead, I try to prod him into coming up with more creative ideas. Rather than declaring “no, those are tongs,” I try to ask, “What else can it be?”
I have no idea whether these types of exercises will make a difference. I don’t claim to know how to turn your child into the next Einstein, nor am I certain that you would want to in the first place. But all I know is that my son is better at thinking in a way that our world needs more of—and all I can hope to do is not screw that up.