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More on Spiral Thinking

Spiral thinking is simply a tool to help you think better, and must be distinguished from Spiral Dynamics- a complicated, all encompassing, theory about the way the world works. I’ve written a little about spiral thinking before- an idea generated by myself and my good friend and Brookes University Business Studies Lecturer, Richard Mohun.

Spiral thinking simply utilises the analogy of the spiral to generate better ways to think, the spiral being ubiquitous in the natural world and a form very suggestive of dynamic, creative forces. One need only pick up a cone shaped sea shell to see the spiral lines inside, indicating the way it has formed, one can imagine, like a speeded up film, the slow turning and growth of the shell as it spirals out from tiny beginnings.

Continuing in this vein, one can picture vertical thinking as simply drilling straight down at a single spot, lateral thinking as making several test borings in a certain area, or, perhaps, randomly, but spiral thinking has no such limits- it simply grows and grows, spreading ever outward, until, like the spiral arms of the galaxy it encompasses a solar system.

It’s good to have a sense of the limitless possibilities of thinking- and the spiral encourages that. In my earlier post I suggested one imagined onself spiraling around a subject to get a better idea about it. In this one I want to look at other aspects of the spiral.

    Snakes naturally form into spirals, its what any dynamic line does. In native rock art it is one of the most common symbols encountered.If you map this spiral along one axis you get an increasing wavy line. Two spirals and you get two wavy lines. We're back to snakes again: the overlapping wavy line of two snakes escaping ->


Suggestively this is also a common rock art and textile motif in every part of the world. If these snakes continued maybe they would circle back to form a helix, a spiral in three dimensions. But look at it another way- the wavy line snake is really a series of ‘nodes’ and ‘packages’. Which is one of the most fundamental ways to represent thinking on almost any subject. You could represent a story as a single line, moving from plot point to plot point. But then you’d miss out the ‘bulk’ that gives weight and meaning to any single plot point. Instead, think of a story as a series of packages- where narrative is bulked up but not advanced, and nodes- where something happens that is important. Then imagine that snake spiralling around- allowing for return and repetition of events and ideas. Stanley Kubrick stated that a good film needed 'nine or ten non-submersible units'- packages with node points.

You can use the wavy line snake diagram to map out any project. Take an expedition. The packages are general areas that need addressing route, supplies, people. You write in stuff within each ‘bubble’ area of the package. At the node points you identify single issues that are crucial, bottlenecks if you like, essential to be fulfilled if the project is to progress.

If you are building a house the node points might be: get foundations in, do wiring, get bricks delivered. The package areas are for all the accompanying detail that also needs to be done but doesn’t require specific timing.

By using these wavy line diagrams, and by spiralling them back on themselves- so you revisit the same areas again, a bit further progressed; you get a much better idea of visualising how a project will unfurl. People are notoriously bad at imagining projects in the future- we are usually way too optimistic on timing- but using the wavy snake, and then further torturing it into a spiral, you can really visualise the quantity of work ahead.

From the above images you can get some idea, be reminded of, the number of natural spirals there are in the world. If you get into the habit of collecting such images you may find one that seems to suit some problem you are working on, may suggest a kind of solution, a way forward. I use the spiral idea in constructing stories- when I’m at an impasse I simply look for something that has featured earlier- I then repeat it- but with differences caused by the story having moved on a bit. You can spiral round three times and create a very satisfying shape to a tale this way- think of stories as diverse as the three bears and King Lear.

Mapping a spiral net gives a preset form to organising data for a non-fiction book or report. Inchoate material CAN be linked using a Buzan mind-map, but I find I usually just end up with a vast mess on the page- a load of overlapping lines like an insane circuit diagram. It just doesn’t help me. By using a spiral net as above, one assigns topics of decreasing necessity – judged intuitively- as the shape spirals out. You then look at connections both laterally and vertically along the lattice lines. This is a great prompt for further ideas and can suggest fortuitous links you may not have suspected.

Any regular shape, if you rotate it enough times with an increase at each step (in this case the golden mean is the increasing factor) will result in a spiral. It may well be suggestive to think of your project as having four corners, that you can rotate and enlarge over time.

Just as lateral thinking sought to connect creativity to linking random ideas together, spiral thinking seeks to do the same but using the anchoring notion of the spiral. This results in more usable ideas as the spiral already exists as one the strongest organising structures in the universe.

So this is the theory- now, if you have particular experiences when spiral thinking prompted a new idea or helped organise a project, please let me know- the email is at the foot of this page.

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Reader Comments (2)

I work anonymously with a music project contributing ideas, doing some visuals, etc. They had a working title for a song, 9-8-7, which was based on the beats in the first three measures of the initial riff. I’m not really a musician and perceive the songs more holistically or even synesthetically so to me it felt like the song had a spiral feel to it. I was listening to them work on the song in their rehearsal space and during a break I drew the fibonacci series on a white board they used for song schematics and outlines. I also drew a spiral using the gnomic growth of some squares and then showed them that 987 was the 16th number in the Fibonacci series. The bass player and drummer thought it was cool, the guitar player who kind of does most of the song arranging said I needed to get a girl friend (which was true, but hurtful). I told the lead singer about how the guitar player hurt my feelings, he sort of cared, but he really liked the spiral thing so he designed the lyrics for the song around it. If you go to youtube and put in “Fibonacci Lateralus” the song should come up with a breakdown a fan made (Phil Riehl) of the pattern in the lyrics.

I also want to say thanks for writing this blog and inspiring books! I think this particular entry will help me with something I’ve been working on — it has already reminded me of how well things worked out when I've used spiral thinking in the past (btw, I did find a girlfriend and eventually we tied the knot).
December 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter777
There's a lot to it. In educational research 'Kolb' developed a theory of learning in a spiral. My take on this is to think of it as catching a thermal. These does networked theory suggests that how we learn and think is best described as an interconnected network.
December 19, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjonathan vernon

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