Layers of Thinking

Indy Neogy
Indy Neogy
6 min read

In Edition #010 I mentioned Bülent Duagi's post about 18 types of thinking on LinkedIn and said that I would take it and my own earlier post about mind states and try to make some sense out of all these different terms. Of course, it has been predictably harder to do than to promise. This is very much a beginning not an end.

In this first attempt my main effort has been to try to distinguish things that are parts of other things. This unfortunately builds a hierarchy, but I want to emphasise it's a hierarchy of complexity, that things further up may contain things below. It's not a hierarchy where the top is "better" than the bottom (or vice versa). I have kept text from Bülent's PDF in italics, and my comments and ideas are in normal text.

Level 1 - An Exception?

Meta thinking - thinking about thinking - feels like it encompasses everything else, because it implies an ability to choose any of the other types to use. Of course, at the same time, that act of choosing is something that happens all the time, whatever type of thinking we are doing and we don't always choose consciously. So it sits alone here, first in the list, but could equally be last.

Level 2 - Paradigms

To call these paradigms may be too much, but I so far haven't found a better alternative word. They are ways of looking at the world that make some assumptions about how the world works. Bülent lists two things that I feel have some degree of overlap, especially in the common use of the words.

Complexity Thinking
Focus on understanding a high-number of interconnections, how they interact non-linearly and the emergent behaviors they collectively generate.

Systems Thinking
Focus on understanding and influencing systems and the interconnections of the system parts.

The history of the two fields is quite intertwined. There are simple systems out in the world which do not involve complexity, but many of the most important parts of human life and society do have non-linear and emergent aspects. Strong adherents of either field may be horrified, but for today I'm going to group them together as both being interested in understanding interconnections and the context of a system.

By contrast, what we might call Decomposition Thinking is probably still the most dominant form of thinking in our world today. It has served us well, being the foundation of a modern science. Analysis by breaking things down to the simplest units and drawing conclusions from there.

Level 3 - Methods with Ends or Goals

These are methods with a purpose, they are built around some kind of purpose, goal or solution to a problem. Some of them include a loop where the purpose is first defined, but not all.

Design Thinking
Focus on empathizing for understanding problems and on prototyping solutions.

Entrepreneurial Thinking
Focus on seeing new opportunities, challenging the status quo and going from 0 to 1.

Futures Thinking
Focus on improved decision making by envisioning future scenarios.

Product Thinking
Focus on identifying, creating and amplifying value in business.

Process Thinking
Focus on the present and on how actions taken in steps affect desired outcomes.

Strategic Thinking
Focus on deciding actionable pathways that achieve a purpose and desired outcomes.

Architectural thinking: focuses on how all the solutions of a company fit together and support the business vision in order to balance the dimensions (customer value, finance, sustainability) in a way that optimizes the overall design from an enterprise-wide viewpoint in the short and the long term”?
(This came from a comment on Bülent's original post.)

Creative Thinking
This is a really broad category that covers many things, including the creation of Art and looking for creative solutions to problems (see Creative Problem Solving). I put it here because while creating works of Art might not be the whole point of Art, it is a big part of it. The less directed aspect is listed under Lateral Thinking below.

A mode of thought in which we try to present something in such a way as to get a specific reaction (acceptance?) from someone else.

A mode of thought focussed on synchronising activity.

A mode of thought focussed on intentional acquisition of skills or knowledge.

Understanding is a goal, more than a method, but as a process it likely involves a number of the elements listed below (for example, Analytical Thinking, Conceptual Thinking, Model Thinking) so it belongs here in Level 3, I suspect.

Level 4 - Ways of thinking

While we all know someone who applies one of these to every problem (when you're holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail) in principle using any of the above Paradigms or Methods should mean using a variety of these ways of thinking below on the way to reaching the goal/conclusion.

Analytical Thinking
Focus on deconstructing information into smaller categories in order to draw conclusions.

Conceptual Thinking
Focus on connecting abstract, disparate ideas to deepen understanding and create new ideas.

Concrete Thinking
Focus on using information at face value without thinking beyond or generalizing the information to other meanings or situations.

Critical Thinking
Focus on analysis of facts to form a judgment.

Convergent Thinking
Focus on coming up with a single answer or decision.

This maps to the element I called Convergence:
A mode of thought where the focus is on discarding options from a set.

Divergent Thinking
Focus on generating multiple possible alternatives.

This maps to the element I called Divergence:
A mode of thought focussed on generating new options/possibilities or maybe even items for association?

Lateral Thinking
Focus on finding indirect, non-obvious approaches.

Note the similarity with "Creative Thinking" but here we are defining Lateral Thinking as making interesting connections unrestricted by goal-orientation.

Model Thinking
Focus on making sense of the richness of reality by using useful simplifications.

Note that "Understanding" often involved a combination of Critical, Conceptual and Model Thinking (and often other elements too.)

Heuristic Thinking
Use of pre-existing patterns of thought and sense-making to move quickly to a conclusion. Also sometimes connected to "gut-feel" or "emotional thinking." (See also the basic state of "feeling" below.)

Level 4B - Ways of understanding

These are ways of thinking concerned with using particular tools, with the goal of understanding a situation using those tools. They are "ways of thinking" but more content driven than those above.

Values Thinking
Focus on seeing how people's values affect their decisions.

Visual Thinking
Focus on visually representing concepts, links, thoughts and ideas.

Statistical Thinking
Use of statistics to understand a situation.

Mathematical Thinking
In a way this is another kind of "Model Thinking" but with specific reference to the use of mathematics.

Level 5 - Basic States of Mind

These are states of mind identified by philosophers and psychologists and considered to be basic building blocks of thinking. Obviously they are not the most basic thing, they aren't MRI maps or whatever, but I think it is about as far down as it is useful to go in practical discussions about thinking.

A mode of responding to non-verbal messages, possibly from the environment, or possibly from the inside. Emotion.

Premise Attitudes
A state of mind under which certain statements or propositions are brought together, as elements for reasoning with.

Conclusion Attitude
A state of mind shifted to from a Premise Attitude where the propositions are judged to lead to a conclusion.
From this beginning I'm going to add just more different states and modes that I know about:

Associative Thinking
A state of making connections without the causal claims of reasoning.

Intention State
A state of having decided to act in a certain way.

Decision Making
A mode of choosing an action.

Problem solving
A state directed towards applying some action to create change in a specific way/towards a specific end?

A mode of deconstructing or finding flaws.

Information Gathering
A mode of seeking items that may become part of a thinking or reasoning process. Possibly directed by some goal?

A mode of discovery of the unknown? But may have a hint of mapping also?

A Web of Elements
Possibly the outcome of Associative Thinking (see above) this non-linear collection of items, is sometimes claimed (particularly by the proponents of Mind Mapping) to be how memory and knowledge live in our brains.

Linear Exposition
Most of the ways we communicate the thoughts that may (?) live in our brains as a Web of Elements are linear media, so before communication it may be that some transition from a Web to a Linear Exposition has to happen.

A mode of creating coherence between different ideas.

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Indy Neogy

Indy Neogy is the main author of Mind Atelier. He is a coach, consultant and thinker about better thinking using tools, spaces and principles for thought.