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The differential man

Guest post by François Weber

Can contradicting thought patterns be a source of creativity?

How can we allow our contradicting thoughts to be in a productive dynamic interaction? 

The differential gear; mechanical sense versus logical contradiction.

A differential is a set of gears allowing a car’s driven wheels to revolve at different speeds when going around corners since the outer driven wheel needs to travel more distance. How is this possible when both driven wheels are subjected to the driving force of the same engine? The differential gear solves this problem with a simple mechanism (you can even construct it with a Meccano toy kit). The differential gear works in the following way: when one wheel rotates forward it forces the other wheel backward. However, once mounted in a car, the contrary movement put in motion by the differential is only relative to the overall forward thrust of the motor. This is as miraculous as it sounds. It seems to be completely paradoxical that a wheel moving backward can at the same time move forward. We see thus that something that seems counterintuitive at first can be effective once implemented in the right position and proportion. 

A differential gear for our thoughts?

Can we apply the principle of the differential gear to our thinking process? At first, we tend to think we can’t, we like it when all our thoughts point in one direction. Logic prefers to exclude contradictions (cognitive dissonance). Nonetheless, there’s a different lesson to be learned from the business corner.  As Henry Ford said; “When in business two people always agree, one is superfluous”. When we apply that principle to our thinking, we could say that when all our thoughts point in a single direction, we only need one of those thoughts to determine that direction and to adjust that direction, we need another (opposite) thought.

Some scientific support. 

Recent advances in neuroscience suggest that the brain can take decisions without language. With functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) we can detect activity in distinct areas of the brain. It was demonstrated that transitive inference – to draw conclusions only from observation –  uses visuospatial representation areas in the cortex independently from language areas. Thus was concluded that logical decisions could be made in areas in the brain not associated with language. This might suggest that we have unlimited and partly unexplored possibilities to organize our thoughts in a spatial-temporal representation sideways of logical linguistic frames. Similarly, this idea that paths avoiding logical thinking might have surprising effects was already confirmed by artificial intelligence research.

Art leading the path of how to organize logically conflicting thoughts.

Do we have more possibilities to arrange our non-confirming thoughts than the one suggested by the differential gear metaphor? We know that our thoughts are not only contradicting or confirming. Many more subtleties can be hidden in non confirming thoughts. In art one often sees subtleties of the human mind that have not yet made their entrance into logic or psychology. The metaphor of the differential is a somewhat robust example of opposing directions, but the polyrhythms of music bring us another, a more subtle, metaphor for spatial-temporal harmony conceived out of ‘contradicting’ tempi. A well-known example is the Fantasy impromptu of Chopin in which the listener hears harmonic music while the pianist plays four notes with one hand whereas the other hand plays three notes at the same time interval. Implementing this polyrhythmic musical metaphor to thoughts, would allow faster, and slower thoughts (see Kahneman) to be pondered simultaneously, and thus giving a subtle new ‘sound’ to our ways of reasoning. 

The therapeutic application.

In therapy, this principle of using conflicting and non-confirming thoughts creatively is applied in an intuitive way. The client is given the opportunity to express his opposing thoughts and under the encouragement of the therapist to create a mental space in which distinct thoughts are allowed to “live together”. Often, this initiates a new sense of direction leading to subtle alterations in daily life and not the drastic step that a conflicting thought process seems to suggest. Pondering the differential metaphor can inspire gentle handling of contradicting thoughts instead of persistent circular reasoning. Allowing contradictions in the flow of life in order to obtain subtle adaptations is a hidden human resource all the more so because our brain already seems well-equipped with adequate tools (spatial-temporal representation). 

Enhancing the differential man as a metaphor for a modern approach to thinking.

There is a  branch of psychology named differential psychology, which concerns itself with psychological differences between people, rather than on common traits.

In the modern multicultural society, with its many contradictory ideas, it might be of capital importance to become aware that as many different traits exist within ourselves and that this is not necessarily problematic but might be beneficial.

The relevance of the differential metaphor to business consulting.

It is significant in business consulting to be aware that new strategic proposals or solutions can benefit from maintaining and supporting opposing or only partly confirming views. Also, we can benefit from the realization that within ourself we have the equipment to arrange non-confirming or opposing views in such a way that new paths are revealed. For teamwork, the metaphor of the inner differential gear can enhance the process of finding creative solutions. 

Feature image:

In a drawing by Albert Gleizes of the poet Yvan Goll, a differential gear (from the author’s 1966 Meccano leaflet) was mounted in the brain of the poet.

Goll (1891-1950) “Jewish by fate, French by chance, German by administrative border shifts in the world wars”, was how he described himself. Driven by contradictory influences, his poetry written half in French half in German was presented in the famous 1978 Beaubourg exhibition Paris-Berlin as a typical representative of the art that emerged from the clashing cultural flows between Berlin and Paris.


Parietal representations of visuospatial relations during the process of relational integration. Wendelken and Bunge 2009.

Transitive Inference, how the brain makes decisions without language. Terrace e.a. Toronto 2020

Catalogue, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris Berlin. Paris 1978

Counter figures, Pajari Rasanen. Helsinki 2007

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