Seeing the best in life's challenges

Thinking in Color

on October 16, 2013

My latest thoughts on the Linear vs. Conceptual Thinking issue revolve around trying to describe the process of moving past linear thinking to conceptual thinking.  So this is my perspective at this point, me trying to put into words my understanding of what this means.

Linear thinking is the logical step-by-step thinking that we are used to thinking is the meaning of “thinking.”  We do it with the left side of our brains and one thing follows another.  But it’s actually a simplistic way to think, the most basic way of thinking.

Linear thinking reflects the world of duality – the world of right and wrong, the world of rules, the world of good and bad, the world of the spelled-out process of how you get from A to B.

Linear thinking is Thinking in Black and White.

Well most of us realize the world is not black and white.  There’s a lot of grey.  Life is a lot more complicated when we really think about it.

Which brings us to Conceptual Thinking which is Thinking in Grey.  We can know all the facts, the details of an issue or situation, and we can focus on the black and white of it, or we can see the grey.

When thinking about any one issue, it seems that most people include both linear and conceptual thinking.  What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

Linear thinking is safe and certain.  If you know the rules then you automatically understand, because all you have to do is apply the rules.  But really, how well do you understand?  When you encounter a similar situation, will you know how to apply the rules in that case?  What if there are some facts in another situation that indicate that those old rules don’t really fit?

So conceptual thinking is less certain, but leads to greater understanding.

Here I must digress into a personal example that I realize might not resonate with everyone, but it’s so applicable!!!  I took physics in high school, before calculus.  I’ve always been one who is more interested in understanding the process or the reasoning behind something, not one to just memorize.  So, in physics without calculus, you memorize the formulas but you don’t understand where the formulas come from.  You just apply the rules.

Then, when I took physics in college, we used calculus to derive the formulas, and all of a sudden it made total sense!!  Now I wasn’t just using some formula I had to memorize, I understood how we got there, and it ALL made sense!! 

I haven’t done any calculus for 30 years, and I don’t remember the details at all!!!  But I don’t have to remember or know the details, to retain the concept that I learned from that!  Do you see what I mean?

OK, so really probably most people think conceptually a lot of the time.  We are each on a continuum of thinking, using some balance of the two ways, using the type of thinking that seems appropriate in each particular instance.

But the more we think Conceptually, the more we achieve Understanding.

For me there’s a next step that involves what I will call Thinking in Color, and I am going to describe that.  It leads to an even greater level of Understanding.

I have a degree in Earth Science/Geography (what I switched to when I realized I didn’t want to be a physicist….) so I have a fondness and affinity for maps and mapping.  In my mind, Thinking in Color is like layering together lots of concepts on top of each other like overlays on a map.

If you were trying to map a place so that others would understand it, you would start maybe with a road map, then label places and landmarks on it.  You would overlay the topography, satellite images, boundaries of things like school districts or voting districts.  You could add all kinds of socio-economic data – income levels, cultural backgrounds, types of employment, etc.  You could add geological data like types of bedrock, aquifers, soils, and so forth.  You could have a zoning map.  You could show housing prices and ages of buildings.  You could show recreation areas and natural features.  The possibilities are really endless.

Anything we might think about in depth could involve multiple (actually endless) possible concepts or overlays.  If we Think in Color about them, then we would incorporate the various concepts and our understanding of them, and we would have a woven blanket of concepts that all overlapped together in our thinking.  The details would start to disappear as they become a part of the bigger picture.

When it comes down to it, Thinking in Color can’t be done with your brain alone.  It evolves into something that is more like Thinking with your Heart.  It is more like a Knowing.  It’s hard to describe.  It allows Understanding at a much deeper level.

There is a tension between focusing on the details and focusing on the bigger picture.  It’s the details, all the little pieces, that make up the whole of the picture.  The details are important.  But any one little detail might change and not really change the big picture.  The details are important, but not that important.

Let’s look at this as yet another metaphor.  Let’s say life is a giant tapestry, made up of all kinds of threads, woven in all kinds of patterns.

You can focus on an individual thread.  The overall tapestry could not exist without each little thread and its unique color and texture and strength and shine (or lack thereof).  Your purpose in life might even be to make red threads for the tapestry.  It’s what you were born to do.  It’s what you know and love.

But even if you are a Red-Thread-Maker, you can still take a little time out to step back and admire the beautiful, complicated tapestry that you contribute to.

Now, you don’t have to do that.   If you stay with the Linear View, you might get very involved in the Red Thread-Making Society.  You might spend a ton of energy making sure your Red color is consistent and meets the standards.  If you get really carried away in your enthusiasm, you might do a lot of bragging about how your Red Thread is superior to all the other colors.  You might feel threatened when you overhear people talk about how nice the Green Thread looks in that corner of the tapestry.

This perspective is totally valid when you are in the Land of the Linear View.  It’s not “wrong” — it’s just consistent with Linear Thinking.  You are not a bad person because you love your Red Thread.

But again, if you are able to step back and appreciate the beauty of how all the threads are woven together, you will probably be more accepting of the Green-Thread-Makers and their zeal about Green Thread.  You will understand their passion, and you will also start to enjoy how the red looks next to the green, how it is complementary.  You might also start to see how varying shades of red add to the richness of the overall look.

When people who are largely Conceptual Thinkers (or even Super-Conceptual Thinkers — how ‘bout that term!) have to interact with Linear Thinkers, it can be terribly frustrating for both sides.   To me it seems that if both sides were aware of what’s going on — who is thinking which way — life would be a whole lot less stressful.  Which is really why I am writing about it….

Ok, let’s get into a much more sensitive example – the Bible.

With the Bible, do you think God was trying to write a Rulebook, or do you think He was weaving a beautiful, complicated, intricate tapestry of inspiration and hope?

Linear Viewers of the Bible will focus on the details and the Rules.  They will take each verse seriously as a stand-alone statement.  They might even spend all their time on just a few verses, similar to the Red-Thread-Makers.

Conceptual Viewers of the Bible will be aware of the details, but they will be working on seeing the big picture – how all the verses work together.  They will be attempting to understand and see the overall concept or picture or idea that the Weaver was putting together.

The Old Testament is full of rules.  Obviously, at the time, the rules were there to help people live together and live a “good” life.  Some look back at these rules and get very attached to one or more.  Yet, they tend to ignore others that are “obviously” obsolete.  For example, the Bible says very clearly that we are not to braid our hair.

1 Timothy 2:9-10 ESV

Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.

But these rules are details that are part of history.  Jesus is pretty clear in the New Testament that He came to shake things up, to hold us to a higher standard.  He was very clear that Love is more important than The Rules.

Mark 3 (NIV)

Jesus Heals on the Sabbath

3 Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”

4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

Jesus also said that we should be like children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  How do children naturally see the world?

Children love to play and explore.  They love games and mysteries and surprises.  They look at the world with wonder.  Conceptual Thinkers.

We adults teach the children to follow the rules or else.  We harp on the details.  We forget the joy of discovery and get stuck in the details.

So, what’s the point of all this?  Just be aware that there are different ways to view life.  Think about your own perspective and why you have it and how it serves you.  Pay attention to how others see the world, and understand that they act consistently with how they see it.

Maybe play with seeing the world In Living Color.


2 responses to “Thinking in Color

  1. jesson93 says:

    I’m really happy you wrote about this. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past couple years…especially as I have gotten older and realized how my patterns of thinking are often seemingly different from those around me (and oftentimes leads to communication problems and/or conflict). I’ve noticed that if I am thinking linearly…which my brain sometimes craves…that my thoughts become very impulsive. For instance, if in my mind I bring up the topic of WWII, my brain expects to have everything I have ever learned about the subject (detail wise) in perfect, logical order. It wants me just to be able to repeat it. This almost always leaves me feeling very frustrated and agitated…because its not possible for my brain to do all that thinking at once. If I instead slow down and try to think about the concepts behind WWII (for instance…asking myself…okay “why was this important?” “when did it happen?” “why did people care”, etc) I start to have a lot of the knowledge become available to me as I sort of unfold the topic piece by piece.

    I think these two types of thinking have a lot to do with differences in how people process/experience TIME and the past. Whether or not they are more future oriented, etc. If you have ever heard of the psychologist Zimbardo…you should check out some of the stuff on the internet about his theories of time processing for different people. It was fascinating to me.

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