What are the mental health advantages and disadvantages of divergent thinking?

Jason Brien.

Convergent thinking is the process of figuring out a single, concrete solution/answer to any problem. It is a straight forward process that focuses on figuring out the most effective answer to a problem using step-by-step analysis. Convergent thinking will often lead to one clear answer and thus by doing so it leaves no room for ambiguity. For example, 2 + 2 = 4. There is no alternative answer. Humans are complex creatures however and human behaviour is not easily understood if we relied solely upon convergent analysis. 

For example, convergent thinking would be useful if we wanted to analyse how a person kicked a ball for example. In theory we could derive a set of calculations which would predict with relative accuracy where the ball is going to go, at what angle and at what speed. However convergent thinking would be inadequate if we wanted to understand WHY the person kicked the ball - the motivation behind the action. This is where divergent thinking comes in.  

Divergent thinking involves exploring multiple possible solutions from multiple perspectives in order to generate multiple solutions/answers. Divergent thinking is the ultimate brainstorming activity. It requires the mind to ‘expand’ in multiple directions and to conceive all possible possibilities. For this reason, divergent thinking is often referred to as ‘outside the box’ thinking. Outside of the box thinking requires a high degree of cognitive flexibility and this cognitive flexibility is characteristic of creativity. That is, enhanced creativity can be the consequence of divergent thinking. 

What are the mental health advantages of divergent thinking?

Researchers have proposed that divergent thinking increases positive mood whilst convergent thinking decreases positive mood. Some researchers suggest that divergent thinking increases dopamine levels whereas convergent thinking reduces dopamine levels. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter released by the brain which, in simple terms, provides us with pleasure. So, how can we incorporate divergent thinking into our everyday lives? 

Cognitive restructuring/reframing requires divergent thinking. The very aim of cognitive restructuring is to generate ideas about how an event or thought can be interpreted or viewed differently or from a different perspective. If it is accurate that divergent thinking increases dopamine levels, and cognitive restructuring/reframing requires divergent thinking, then it is not a great leap to surmise that cognitive restructuring/reframing will increase your dopamine levels and thus make you feel ‘better’. 

Likewise, engaging in creative activities which require divergent thinking can help to increase your dopamine levels. For example, pattern recognition activities can help you to see the order within chaos. To recognise the order, you must first combine the different elements of the chaos. Much like solving a jigsaw puzzle requires making order out of chaos (rearranging scattered jigsaw pieces in such a way that they eventually resemble a coherent whole). 

What are the mental health disadvantages of divergent thinking?

Divergent thinking can have its downsides though. Analysis paralysis is divergent thinking gone haywire. Analysis paralysis is the act of over-thinking about a decision so compulsively that ultimately a choice never gets made. Hence the notion of paralysis. The overthinking individual gets so stuck in the exploring and figuring out all the options stage that they cannot mentally progress onto the actual selection of a decision. Analysis is often the result of abuse and consistent invalidation.

Similarly, disordered divergent thinking can underline psychosis and the associated delusions. Paranoid thinking is the consequence of making associations between seemingly unrelated events. Rather than a benign act or event being exactly what it is, a benign act or event, paranoia engages divergent thinking in order to extract some kind of significance, meaning or relevance. For example, a store clerk might be innocently asking all customers for their postcode as part of collecting information about where their customers are coming from. For a person suffering from paranoid ideation, their disordered divergent thinking would be conceiving off all possible malevolent reasons the store clerk is asking them for their postcode. 

Likewise, schizotypal personality disorder, which is characterised by a misinterpretation of reality leading to ‘odd’ or unusual beliefs, has been linked to divergent thinking and creativity in a number of studies.  Magical thinking and ideas of reference are common symptoms of Schizotypy and both of these symptoms require making associations between seemingly unrelated events – divergent thinking. Whilst normal divergent thinking is outside of the box thinking it is constrained within the ‘box’ of reality. Unrestrained or disordered divergent thinking extends outside of both the box and reality.