Convergent vs Divergent Reasoning

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" Convergent reasoning involves an assembly of known information and results in a solution within the realm of what is already known. Most problem solving occurs this way. It is instilled, for example, in medical school students. If a physician sees a person in the emergency room that has a fever and is comatose, they are taught that there are two possible disorders that might give these signs: an infection or a heat stroke. If this patient is found to have a stiff neck, the physician considers the possibility that the patient’s fever and unconsciousness are related to an infection of the central nervous system, such as meningitis. To obtain further converging evidence the resident doctor may perform a spinal tap; if the analyzed spinal fluid reveals certain indicators there is now sufficient converging evidence to make a diagnosis of meningitis and to start antibiotic therapy.Divergent reasoning, on the other hand, enables a person to arrive at a previously unknown solution (at least unknown to the person who is doing the reasoning). When a person is confronted with a problem and decides that the existing information is insufficient to develop a satisfactory solution, he or she may diverge from the information and imagine,or reason about, new possibilities.

William James, who first put forth the concept of divergent reasoning, stated:

- Instead of thoughts of concrete things patiently following one another in a beaten track of habitual suggestion, we have the most abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another … unheard of combinations of elements, the subtlest associations of analogy … we seem suddenly introduced into a seething cauldron of ideas … where partnerships can be joined or loosened … treadmill routine is unknown and the unexpected is the only law.

The human capability for divergent reasoning results in a nearly limitless range of creative outcomes, from entirely personal to world changing. Surely humanity’s earliest innovations were life altering, as were the many that followed. Recall our eventual acceptance (against initially unyielding church doctrine) of Copernicus’s unfathomable idea that the Sun, and not the Earth, was at the center of our solar system, or Einstein’s affront to the known laws of physics with his concept that matter and energy are different forms of the same thing. But even more mundane activities, like resolving an unacceptable marital situation by seeking conduct on the part of one of the partners that was previously not considered, discovering a treatment solution for a heretofore incurable disease,creating a work of distinctive art, finding an alternative to war in a tense geopolitical situation, a chef’s creation of a new recipe, carefully arranging flowers in vase, or making up a bedtime story, are examples of creative acts resulting from the ability to diverge from current circumstances and consider or enact new possibilities. Certainly, both convergent and divergent reasoning serve to enhance our well being. But it is an individual’s ability to diverge from what is familiar and move beyond the known into a new understanding which is the essence of creativity, and that which gives rise to advancement. In the words of Frank Zappa, “Without deviation from the norm, ‘progress’ is not possible.” Whether a person chooses to question and think on his or her own or remains unconditionally adherent to religious dogma, might relate to how specific areas of the brain are utilized—or not." (