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Hats Off To Thinking

Written by: Elizabeth Noske, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Have you ever sat in an interminably long board meeting, wondering not only when, but even if a decision is going to be made any time soon? Perhaps you have participated in a staff meeting where despite the widespread sharing of disparate views and endless debates, a consensus can still not be achieved on the subject – I know I have. Or maybe you have attempted to democratically plan a holiday – you know, the ‘big one’ when all the family pics looks just like they should in Facebook. But finally, in desperation, whether you’re CEO, the boss or the parent you give up in despair, make the decision yourself and wait for the complaints, disputes and sabotage to rebound on your best intentions. I assume we’ve all been there; whether as a leader or a participant… So where is it all going wrong?

I’m going to suggest that Edward de Bono (1933 – 2021) had many of the answers to this all-too-common problem. Like many other geniuses before him, neuro-scientifically speaking he was well ahead of his time. While doing my final dissertation for my Executive Master of NeuroLeadership course, I chose to analyze de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats (Published in 1985) with a neuroscience spin that was not available to him at the time, although he did base his method on an understanding of how brain chemicals change with the particular mode of thinking. I was both amazed and delighted at how well the neuroscience I was studying melded with this particular thinking strategy, which I had encountered and used myself many decades before.

Before we launch into a practical example, here’s a few more fun facts about Edward de Bono. He was born in Malta and was a qualified physician, psychologist, author, inventor, philosopher and consultant to governments, corporations, individuals, and groups. He proposed teaching thinking as a subject in schools and is credited with coining the phrase ‘lateral thinking’. In 2000 he suggested to a UK Foreign Office committee that the Arab-Israeli conflict might be exacerbated by the low levels of zinc found in people who eat unleavened bread, as low zinc levels are known to lead to heightened aggression. He suggested sending them Marmite sandwiches to raise their zinc levels. As an Australian raised on Vegemite sandwiches, a taste similar to the British Marmite and equally unpalatable to those not raised with the local delicacy, I totally get the logic of his suggestion. How’s that for ‘out of the box’ thinking!

Brilliant in its clear and precise structure, de Bono tackled what he believed to be one of the main difficulties in thinking and decision making – confusion. Without differentiating and categorizing our thinking our brain easily becomes lost in a jumble of information, emotions, logic, hopes, fears, and creativity. And just like a juggler with too many balls in the air at once, they start to crash down around us. On the other hand, dividing a larger topic into smaller, thematic discussions and concentrating on one aspect at a time removes the tyranny of the neural energy drain we experience through trying to keep unresolved mental loops in our conscious awareness.

De Bono himself proposed a range of options for using Six Hats thinking, depending on the nature of the task, the experience and expertise of the group, and the stage at which the project is currently sitting, or possibly stalled. All six modes can be applied to a topic, or one or more used in isolation, particularly if the group is experienced in using this mode of thinking. Let’s take a run through a possible sequence, using a highly unlikely topic to demonstrate the process.

Topic: All cars registered in Brisbane, Australia should be colored yellow only.

Blue Hat Thinking – Organization of the Thinking Process

De Bono suggested that blue hat thinking be used at the start and again at the end of the discussion or series of meetings. Key questions for blue hat thinking include: What do we want to achieve? What conclusions can we reach? Where are we now? What processes might be needed? What thinking is needed now?

Blue hat thinking will engage the executive functions of our prefrontal cortex; our planning, organizing and decision-making networks are used to decide how the process will proceed. In our example this would include the time available for the discussion, the sequence of using the thinking modes, rules of engagement, who will facilitate the discussion, and what we want to achieve.

There are a few rules essential to the success of the thinking hats process. The main one is that only thinking that relates to the current hat is to be discussed for the duration of that time period, which is usually short, but agreed to by the participants and managed by the facilitator. Deviating from it or drifting into another mode will negatively impact on the success of the process.

White Hat Thinking – Objective Facts and Figures

White hat thinking is a logical place to start. Key questions for white hat thinking include: What information do I have? What are the facts? What information do I need? What else do I need to know?

Our brain likes the certainty of clear, unambiguous facts and information. When our thinking excludes hunches, intuition, judgement, feelings ,and opinions (as valuable as these are in the overall sequence of thinking) our brain is able to focus on analyzing only the actual facts. The right temporoparietal junction is active when facts are being considered, while the process of updating our beliefs (if in fact, we actually choose to do this) takes place in our frontal cortex. Maxine Tully, a PhD student in linguistics tells is that the brain responds more strongly to factual statements than it does to uncertainty.

3% of the cars registered in Brisbane are currently colored yellow is a much stronger statement than there are already many yellow cars in Brisbane. Often there are very few totally indisputable facts in any situation. Ours might include; yellow is a color used by car manufacturers, some people choose yellow when buying a car, and it is technically possible for all cars to be yellow. But that’s probably about the extent of it for white hat thinking. But a more in depth fact-finding process is certainly warranted here.

Red Hat Thinking – the Emotional View

In many societies and work-place cultures, anger and strong emotions are frowned upon. The ‘soft skills’ of tapping into feelings, emotions and intuitions have an unfortunate history of being considered weak, and were often used as put-downs when women were expressing an opinion. Referring to these aspects as ‘red had thinking’ helps to eliminate the prejudices and judgments often associated with them. Our amygdala, deep in our limbic brain is always on the alert for dangers of any kind and is quick to encourage a ‘quick and dirty’ response when a possible threat is identified. Emotional reactions are survival impulses, but they are also an excellent guidance system. Dan Seigel tells us we should teach our children to harness the power of our emotions, rather like surfing the waves. By staying on top of them we can avoid being dumped and churned beneath them and ride them like a surfer until they dissipate at the end of their natural cycle. Jonah Lehrer reminds us that ALL decisions are first made emotionally (and so at a non-conscious level) and are then referred on to our cortical regions for more conscious processing, and confirmation or veto.

Key questions for red hat thinking include: How do I feel about this? What do I like about the idea? What don’t I like about the idea? What is my gut reaction to this proposal? Do I sense any danger here?

In our example you would expect a range of strong feelings and reactions to emerge, ranging from what a great idea through to I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life. Un-expressed emotions will lurk in the background and can sabotage future thinking and planning, so giving participants permission to use red hat thinking will help to bring them out into the open, where they can be examined and discussed. The facilitator may choose to return the group to red hat thinking if it becomes apparent that strong feelings are still affecting the process as the project evolves.

Yellow Hat Thinking – Hope and Positive Thinking

Positive thinking can be seen as a mixture of curiosity, pleasure, reward, and a desire to get the job done. This is a forward-looking hat, where participants project their hopes and expectations into the future. The dopamine-producing neurons in our brain’s reward centers provide a feeling of pleasure and enhance reward-related memories. We remember it and want to feel this way again – and again.

Key questions for yellow hat thinking include: What are the good points? Why is this a good thing? What are the benefits and positive outcomes?

Yellow hat thinking about yellow cars could be that they will cost less, because all the paint can be bought in bulk, or you will save time and energy trying to decide on a color and think how cheerful the city will look but also it could reduce accidents because yellow is a highly visible color. Some people will enjoy yellow hat thinking, but others will find it quite challenging. Don’t blame them – blame their brain. We have survived for millennia by assuming the rustle in the grass could be a danger to us, not by assuming we are safe and thereby ignoring it. While we are physically much safer (most of the time) in our modern world, our ancient brain hasn’t yet had time to catch up with the times.

Black Hat Thinking – Caution and Weaknesses

We still tend to see the negative in a situation at a ratio of about 4:1 or thereabouts. Stanford professor, Clifford Nass explains that the brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres and that negative emotions generally involve more thinking; which means this information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. While making judgments, a peak in brain activation can be observed in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Key questions for black hat thinking include: What is wrong with this? Will this work? What might be the difficulties? Is it safe? What might we need to be careful about?

As with many projects, my ‘yellow cars for Brisbane’ proposal is likely to spark considerably more black hat responses than for any of the other colored hats. With the brain’s propensity to see more threats than opportunities in most situations, it’s not hard to see why this might be the case. Analysis of my suggestion might include: I wouldn’t be seen dead driving around in a yellow car, how on earth would you find it in a large carpark, how can we express our individuality with just one color, the police won’t be able to ask eye witnesses to describe the color of a car involved in a crime. As you can see, the list is practically endless – in fact, I had lots more of my own.

Green Hat Thinking – Creativity and New Ideas

The green hat is concerned with change and some people, often those entrenched in the organization’s leadership positions, will not necessarily find it easy. This is an opportunity to put forward provocative ideas that are deliberately illogical. Green hat questions might include: What new ideas are possible? What are my additional suggestions? Can I create something new, or value add to this? What are the “What If …?” possibilities?

De Bono himself compares green hat ideas as delicate seedlings that need to be protected from the biting frost of black hat thinking. A creative idea might come from nowhere in one glorious “Aha!” moment, or it could be the result of deliberate divergent thinking when multiple different ideas or solutions are generated from a single starting point; or convergent thinking, where multiple and often very different ideas or pieces of information are brought together to find the one solution or idea that links them together in a new and innovative way. It could also involve modification or extension to an idea that didn’t pass the black hat assessment. The hippocampus, deep in the temporal lobes plays a role in piecing together the details and experiences of people, places, and actions. This extends to being able to not only reconstruct past events but to vividly imagine and construct possible future events. The frontal cortex is also associated with creativity, but it networks widely and extensively with many other brain regions that contribute to creativity.

Green hat thinking on the topic of yellow cars for Brisbane could include: multiple shades of yellow might overcome some of the objections, newly registered cars only to trial the yellow-car concept, give a discount to all drivers who register a yellow car or have express lanes just for yellow cars. As you can see, I’m not particularly creative, but the synergy of a team process would doubtless spawn many interesting suggestions.

Blue Hat Thinking – Summary, Review and Next Stage

And so, we come back to blue hat thinking. Perhaps the decision has been reached, or maybe additional information (white hat) needs to be gathered. If emotions remain high further red hat thinking may be warranted, or new, creative ideas are yet to be generated (green hat thinking). Critical analysis (black hat thinking) may have revealed some budgeting or project management issues that need to be addressed before the idea will pass the yellow hat criteria. This is the time to dole out some tasks, set a timeline and agree on when the next meeting will occur.

Six Hats Family Meeting

Now, let’s apply the six -thinking-hat process to a family meeting situation. Let’s say it’s a big-budget family holiday. I find it easiest to use the procedure when there is a definite proposal for consideration; in this case, let’s go on an overseas holiday. Blue hat thinking will set the process and timeline for the discussion and decision-making, and white hat discussion will include the dates and budget. I’ll delay red hat until later in the process and proceed straight to the yellow hat benefits, wish lists and possibilities. Black hat thinking will raise any budget concerns, travel phobias, age-appropriate activities, and travel precautions, while green hat consideration is an opportunity to raise new ideas, build on previous suggestions and look at options from another point of view. Once there is a definite proposal on the table it is time for the emotional responses of the red hat. Most big decisions require a series of meetings to thrash out all the details, so depending how much progress has been made blue hat thinking is used to summarize, allocate research tasks, and set the time for the next family meeting.

And it’s as easy as that. Or it can be. Success depends on the facilitator keeping a tight rein on time allocations, ensuring thinking doesn’t deviate from the designated color mode, and encouraging full and honest participation from all those present. If you want to do your own study, I recommend Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats®, Penguin Books, 1985.

For more information check her out on Linktree @elizabethnoske | Linktree

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Check out her best-selling book Mindfull Parent: Parenting With the Brain in Mind


Elizabeth Noske, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Elizabeth is a unique parenting coach because she:

• Made all the mistakes you could possible make as a young mother

• Finally got her act together and went skydiving, hiking, travelled, SCUBA dived and played team sports with her children during their middle childhood and teenage years

• Has formally studied the neuroscience of teaching, learning and parenting and is passionate about sharing her knowledge, expertise and insights with as many people as she possibly can

• Believes that our brain has a mind of its own

• And the only behavior we can actually change is our own

If you’d like to learn more, schedule a zoom meeting, email at, book a call on Schedule Once, visit her website, or join her on the Facebook Page Mindfull Parenting | Facebook.

Her first book Mindfull Parent: Parenting With the Brain in Mind, is an easy to read neuro parenting book and her Mindfull Parent Turnaround Programs will support you through a process of changing your parenting habits.



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