He had been Standing on a Block of Ice: Lateral Thinking



Thinking can take a number of different forms. Thinking can be linear (or sometimes called vertical), as it must be when we are trying to communicate in speech or writing. It can be associative, as when we jump from one idea to another by way of an association between the two ideas and not through logic (green–grass–badminton–birdie). Or it can be lateral, as in those puzzles with unexpected solutions that still make sense.

Enumeration (or listing) is a form of linear thought as is the grammar pattern Subject-Verb-Object, associative thinking shows up in many children’s games (say the first word that comes to mind), and lateral thinking helps us notice our preconceptions and the significant corresponding details we’ve been trained to ignore.

In this post, a little lateral thinking puzzle to challenge you:

A man and his son are in a car crash. The father is killed and the child is taken to hospital gravely injured. When he gets there, the surgeon says, ‘I can’t operate on this boy – for he is my son!!!’ How can this possibly be?

Lateral thinking gives us a few advantages that we don’t get from linear or associative thinking. Lateral thinking anticipates our preconceptions and uses those to set up a trap. Sometimes called “thinking outside the box,” lateral thought drives us to think in broader form, to examine criteria and categories, to use care in our word choices, and to slip the trap.

The boy’s surgeon is his mother. Surgeons seldom operate on their immediate family members. And our cultural expectation (still) is that surgeons are male.

And the man in the header hanged himself by tying his noose to the rafter and standing on a block of ice. When he was found, there was no chair under him, but there was a puddle of water on the carpet.

If you have a favorite lateral thinking puzzle, share it in the comments.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.