Optional Thinking to Solve Problems.

Vividly, I’m in a class, the seating seems to go on for an eternity. The convenor asks, ‘Anyone else?’ I wait a while and then put my hand up. Sometimes, I tell the room, I like to approach a situation by questioning if there is an alternative. Journalism is as much about the implicit — the stuff that’s not obvious.

My problem is how do I know my alternative is indeed an alternative and do I truly have the capacity not to think like me.

Instantaneously, I’m standing in front of a door, with yellowish floods of light casting rays on the ground. I’m demonstrating to an elderly man, whose smiling. Sometimes, I say, I like to approach a door this way, as I walk up to the exit. But sometimes, what if, I approach it from another direction? He smiles.

And then, phut! I woke up. I recorded my dream. It’s 6.26 a.m. Sunday morning.

The previous evening I’d been reading Nitzan Ben Shaul’s ideas around optional thinking and narrative movies in Cinema of Choice. Clearly it’s had an impact on me.

Professor Shaul says in his slim but densely packed book,

Optional thinking is the cognitive ability to generate, perceive, or compare and assess alternative hypotheses that offer explanations for real or lifelike events.

He illustrates it this way. When you’re watching a movie you proffer a closed system of thinking to enjoy the film. Intuitively you may even know the outcome, but still enjoy the movie. The movie has a beginning which moves towards an end, which sates your appetite for closure.

Some films don’t do this. They play with alternative plot lines that get you thinking and guessing. They ‘open the mind to thoughts of choice and possibility’. Films such as Rashomon and Inglorious Basterds, or for my money Inception and Interstellar, which were made after Shaul’s book in 2012.

I don’t want to get hung up on whether optional is different to alternative, but how different normative approaches to solutions generate new possibilities.

Take this as a lucid example. A well know break down service offers to check your oil for free after your car breaks down. Do you accept or decline? It’s free after all. Do you ever ask why the break down service is offering a free service? Customer loyalty?

Here’s an optional approach to your predicament. Standing next to your car, your mechanic is burning through the most expensive ethereal commodity, we’ve come to capitalise on this century — time. The mechanic would dearly like to make more money of you, because this is a business.

As it stands if he or she is attending to your tyre, they have no authority to go into your engine, but by agreeing to a free oil check, you’ve just given them the green light. It’s the equivalent of letting a salesperson past the thresh hold of your front door. Ask any friend who’s allowed for an oil check, whether the attendant did not make any attempt to sell something else, even if the oil had been changed that morning.

Here’s an optional way of looking at journalism that I often tell my students. Mostly everyone wanting to become a journalist can write well. When blogging burst onto the world, it proved the point. Who would have thought, the journalism experts posited, that there were millions of people who could write and make films etc. Of course there were. Yes, they might be bereft of law and libel training or how to write a lede, but by and large we read blogs because they’re good to great storytelling.

But whilst providing information about events and news is journalism’s explicit physical end product, journalism is a psychological feat akin to the inception of ideas and thoughts in the reader’s and viewer’s head.

In a 2006 study on the brain, researchers discovered some words, such as ‘garlic’, ‘cinnamon’, and ‘jasmine’ trigger areas associated with the brain, such as the olfactory cortex associated with smell despite the fact the physical object is absent.

Similarly, researchers at Emory University discovered that using metaphors created strong activations in areas of the brain associated with touch. Phrases like ‘he twisted my arm’ yields a stronger cognitive response than say ‘he persuaded me’, which means the former.

Some journalists indeed explicitly employ this optional approach. By systematically using metaphor, for instance comparing humans to rats, and repeating their message, they aim get their messages across.

Journalism therefore is ultimately about inserting ideas, thoughts, hypothesis, and facts into the reader and the more adept ones do this by employing powerful techniques.

Another way of looking at this is to adjust the former:

Journalism is ultimately about addressing fairly those e.g. politicians, PR, businesses who seek to insert their ideas, thoughts, hypothesis, and facts into the reader by employing powerful techniques. The job of a journalist is to mediate this and be fair in their judgement

Sadly this psychological approach is seldom taught at J-schools. Perhaps it should.



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Dr. David Dunkley Gyimah

Dr. David Dunkley Gyimah


Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.