Thought Experiments And Thinking Differently

The following thought experiment is attributed to the German Gestalt psychologist Karl Dunker:

One morning, exactly at sunrise, a Buddhist monk began to climb a tall mountain. The narrow path, no more than a foot or two wide, spiraled around the mountain to a glittering temple at the summit. The monk ascended the path at a varying rate of speed, stopping many times along the way to rest and to eat the dried fruit he carried with him. He reached the temple shortly before sunset. After several days of fasting and meditation, he began his journey back along the same path, starting at sunrise and again walking at a varying speed with many stops along the way. His average speed descending was, of course, greater than his average climbing speed. Is there a spot along the path that the monk will occupy on both trips at precisely the same time of day?

Here’s the way to approach thinking about it:

If you try to logically reason this out or use a mathematical approach, you will conclude that it is unlikely for the monk to find himself on the same spot at the same time of day on two different occasions. Instead, visualize the monk walking up the hill, and at the same time imagine the same monk walking down the hill. The two figures must meet at some point in time regardless of their walking speed  or how often they stop. Whether the monk descends in two days or three days makes no difference; it all comes out to the same thing.

As always, it’s easy when you know how!

Applying this to business (or other) problems, the point is to try thinking about the issue from a variety of quite different viewpoints even though that may initially seem quite alien, strange or unproductive.

This situation reminded me of the time when I was an academic and one year there was quite a fuss over a (physics) exam question that had been set. You could work it out from first principles and it would have taken about 30 mins for an average student. This assumes no slips were made along the way (and the greater the number of steps the more likely that this is to happen).

However, by using a conservation principle, you could also work out the answer in about 5 mins! To do this this you needed to think a bit differently right from the start and not get trapped into immediately using the standard approach. Even though some spotted this, as the question was so ‘easy’ using this insight, they were then worried that they were misunderstanding the original question!

As you can imagine, this resulted in a lively discussion of what constituted a ‘fair’ exam question. In practice, it’s helpful to know how to do it both ways of course, as one often elucidates the other.

You can read about the topic of thought experiments in the original post by Michael Michalko here.


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