Linear vs Nonlinear Thinking, or Peanut Butter People in a Tofu World

Patient Expert

I am 35,000 feet in the air, headed back from Kansas, where yesterday I delivered two talks and participated on a panel at the DBSA Kansas State Conference. The talks went over very well, but as usual I was at my best interacting with my audience during Q and A time.

On two separate occasions, the issue of creativity came up. This may have been prompted by various references in my talk to being "peanut butter people" in a world governed by tofu.

Any discussion on creativity, of course, involves the obligatory list of stellar achievers with mental illness: Van Gogh, Newton, Michelangelo, Churchill, Lincoln, the ubiquitous and highly prolific Anonymous, and on and on and on.

And, of course, the person who discovered fire. No question about it, I said. You had to be crazy to run outside into a burning forest and bring back a flaming piece of tree to your cave.

Think about it, I said, summing up the accomplishments of those with our diagnosis. We give humanity the gift of civilization, and how do they show their appreciation? They marginalize us.

I got to address the issue again as part of the panel discussion. Nancy Andreasen of the University of Iowa is a leader in researching the creativity connection, I began. Recently, she has been performing brain scans on highly creative individuals.

Dr Andreasen's hypothesis is that those who are highly creative (everyone is creative to a certain degree) are wired to connect two apparently unrelated thoughts into something coherent. Apparently, this has to do with heightened activity in our association cortices.

I simplified this proposition to the fact that a good many of our population are nonlinear. Basically, in contrast to those who must laboriously traverse every inch of the straight line obstacle course to reach a conclusion, we nonlinear types have a way of miraculously appearing at the finish line lightyears ahead of the rest.

Call it intuition rather than logic.

Of course, this can be highly unsettling to people who don't understand how our brains operate. To stick with our peanut butter example, a linear person might move to "jelly", then maybe to "breadâ� and stop right there. We nonlinear types tend to go "peanut butter" ... "Elvis" ... "ultimate universal harmonics" faster than a quark can spin.

The linear types would have gotten there eventually, had they two centuries to kill. You really have to pity them. The catch is "ultimately universal harmonics" comes across as weird and inappropriate when the whole rest of the world is still stuck somewhere between "jelly" and "bread".

As you can guess, I spent a good deal of my life watching people back toward the exits every time I opened my mouth. Eventually, I got smart. If they were on "bread", I might move the conversation along with "sourdough." That would draw nodding heads and and the signal to continue. If I were on a roll, I might follow up with "call me butter" (ha).

There was another angle to this, I went on to explain (with indebtedness to Dr Andreasen). Being nonlinear, a whole range of correct answers presents itself to me, even ones the linear people would regard as wrong. For instance, on multiple choice questions, all four answers may appear equally correct. I was only slightly exaggerating when I related to my audience how "two plus two equals six" can look perfectly okay to me. I can see possibilities that totally elude the nonlinear people.

Likewise, what appears as a straightforward statement to the linear people may be full of ambiguities to me. I encounter this all the time trying to follow written or spoken instructions. The linear people seem to have the capacity to compensate for double meanings and filter out absurd conclusions. They will insert the green lead in the green outlet. I will, well, never mind ...

All this made me the butt of endless jokes when I was growing up. Fortunately, over the years, I have learned to adjust, laughing at my weaknesses and playing to my strengths. But I am the one who is forced to conform, not the linear majority. As I said, we're peanut butter people in a world governed by tofu.

So long as our brains don't become tofu, one of my listeners reminded us. Yes, exactly. Why would I ever want to be one of them?   It was so good to spend a weekend amongst peanut butter people.

Does this resonate with you? Share with us your experiences. Comments below ...