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Mystery Cache

Puzzle Solving 101 - Lesson 9: Lateral Thinking

A cache by ePeterso2 Send Message to Owner Message this owner
Hidden : 9/20/2007
3 out of 5
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Size: Size: micro (micro)

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About This Series

The first nine caches in this series will help you build your puzzle-solving skills. Each one contains a lesson focusing on a specific skill, examples of how to use that skill, an exercise to test that skill, and a cache to find as a reward. Study the lesson, complete the exercise, and you'll find the location of a geocache.

Each of those caches contains a piece of information you'll need to take the final exam (the tenth cache in the series). Bring some way of recording those clues for later ... paper and pen/pencil would come in handy, or perhaps a camera. (A hammer, chisel, and very large rock would work but probably wouldn't be very handy.)

Lesson 9: Lateral Thinking


Lateral thinking is a technique used to solve a problem with nontraditional methods. Specifically, it focuses on the solution of a variety of problems according to four critical factors:

  • recognizing dominant ideas that narrowly-focus the perception of a problem,
  • searching for different approaches to the issues,
  • eliminating rigid control of thinking, and
  • using alternative ideas.

The term “lateral thinking” was originally coined by the psychologist Edward de Bono in his 1967 book The Use of Lateral Thinking. In the book, he defines lateral thinking as methods of thinking concerned with changing concepts and perception. It is about reasoning that is not immediately obvious and about ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional logic.

You may have heard this approach described as “thinking outside the box”. That phrase was popularized by Mike Vance during his work with Disney in the 1960s (and was the title of a book he published in 1995). The origin of the phrase lies within the solution to a problem that Mike often used as an example to demonstrate how Walt Disney would tap into his creativity, a problem known as Nine Dots (shown in the examples below).

Lateral thinking should not be confused with critical thinking, which is primarily concerned with judging whether an assertion is true or false. Lateral thinking relates to changing perspectives on the cause or solution of problems.

Lateral thinking problems are some of the most difficult problems to solve because – by definition – they require the use of original, unique, and creative methods. While that attribute makes them difficult and infuriating, it also makes them challenging and rewarding.


Tom Didn’t Find the Cache

Suppose you’re given the question “Why didn’t Tom find the cache?” The two immediate answers that come to your mind are probably “It was muggled” or “He didn’t look hard enough for it.” But those aren’t the only possible reason … taking a lateral thinking approach might yield the following explanations:

  • Tom punched the wrong coordinates into his GPS.
  • The coordinates on the cache page were wrong.
  • Tom went to the movies instead of the cache site.
  • Tom is blind.
  • Tom has no arms.
  • Tom was looking in the dark (and didn’t have a flashlight (nor a cell phone (nor a PDA (nor a lighter)))).
  • While searching, Tom found a young, attractive female cacher and asked her out on a date (she said yes!).
  • Tom was too short to reach the cache.
  • Tom’s arms were too big to reach into the hole in which the cache was hidden.
  • Tom accidentally and unknowingly kicked the cache into a deep, dark, wet hole.
  • Tom ran out of gas on the way to the cache (or got a flat tire (or spun out and flung his car into a ditch)).
  • Tom decided to find a different cache instead.
  • Tom only had the coordinates, which turned out to be the bogus posted coordinates of a puzzle cache.
  • Tom had the wrong solution to the puzzle cache he was trying to solve.
  • Tom didn’t find the cache because he hates everything about caching and only bothered to look for it because his father-in-law wanted to find it and Tom’s wife insisted that Tom go along to keep her father company (and to keep her father from getting lost (again (and to get Tom out of that chair to get some exercise for a change instead of spending all day in front of the TV set (watching football, for crying out loud)))).

The Nine Dots Puzzle

This is the puzzle popularized by Mike Vance as an example of how Walt Disney would “think outside the box”.

On a piece of paper, draw nine dots arranged in a 3-by-3 square, like this:

Now draw four straight lines that connect all nine dots without lifting your pencil. Try it first before scrolling down, since the solution lies ahead.

The implied but unspoken constraint to this puzzle is that the four lines must stay within the edge of the square and that each of the four lines must start or end at one of the dots. However, there is no way to solve the puzzle within that constraint. Consequently, the only way to solve it is to draw lines that extend “outside the box”, like this:

Situation Puzzles

One of the most common types of lateral thinking exercises is the situation puzzle. A situation puzzle gives you a very small amount of information and asks you to develop a situation that could explain that situation. For instance:

1. There are six eggs in a basket. Six people each take one egg. How is it possible that one egg remains in the basket?

2. A baby fell out of a twenty-story building, landed on the ground, and lived. How is this possible?

3. Joe wants to go home, but he can’t because there’s a man in a mask waiting for him. What’s going on here?

The solutions for these puzzles are below.

Warning: Many of these puzzles have a tendency to be kind of morbid. Beware!

Solving Techniques

Because writers of lateral thinking problems try to create unique solutions, it can be difficult to generalize techniques to solve them. The best way to learn how to solve them is by working through examples to get your brain in the right mode. But here's a few guiding principles that may come in handy:

  • Assume nothing.
  • Break the rules, especially the unwritten ones.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Keep a sharp eye out for subtle clues or hints.
  • Try lots and lots of different theories.
  • Work with a partner.
  • Beware of the obvious answer.

Of course, the strategy and tactics discussed in the first two lessons of this series are especially important in trying to solve puzzle caches that involve lateral thinking.

Lateral thinking puzzles are tough ... they'll really put those puzzlehead skills to the test. Which is why they're so rewarding when you finally do solve them.

Solutions to the Situation Puzzle Examples

1. The last person took the basket containing the last egg.

2. The baby fell out of a window on the first floor.

3. Joe is playing baseball. Joe decides to hold up at third base since the catcher has the ball.


Searching Google for the phrase lateral thinking or thinking out of the box will get you well on your wait to building your lateral thinking skills.

Exercise 9: His Birds Tore Us Apart

Professor Arnold Thopter, Ph.D., is the founder, president, and chief executive officer of the Superior Naturalist Outdoor Bird Spotters (SNOBS). As one of the world's leading avian parapsychologists and the creator of the sport of competitive birdwatching, he is widely renowned as a lecturer, researcher, and educator.

Dr. Thopter's recent work has been wholly focused on the effects of enclosed spaces upon the behavior of birds. He discovered that changes in avian behavior did not depend upon the size or shape of the enclosure; rather, what counts is the number of enclosures. He recently published his findings in the book Birds of a Feather Locked Together, which won the National Audubon Society's prestigious "Golden Peacock" award.

Unfortunately, Dr. Thopter has developed a reputation as person who spends more time writing his lectures than he does in being hospitable towards his audience. His post-lecture receptions for the SNOBS are known for their stale pastries, weak coffee, and characterless finger sandwiches. After the most recent meeting of the SNOBS, one participant remarked that the donut he was eating was so stale that he was afraid he had accidentally bitten into his coffee mug!

For the next meeting of SNOBS, Dr. Thopter has found a location that he feels will be far more well-received than that of his past gatherings. But, as a bird-brained puzzle-head, he's written his invitations so that only SNOBS who are truly familiar with his work will be able to locate it. Here's the invitation:

The Superior Naturalist Outdoor Bird Spotters

proudly present

Birds of a Feather
Locked Together

A lecture by Professor Arnold Thopter, Ph.D.
A National Audubon Society "Golden Peacock" Winner

Bird-Spotting Scorecard

Bird Name Points

Reception to follow.

Will you be at the reception, too? I'm sure that the professor will serve you a proper cup of coffee.

I think my favorite lateral thinking puzzle cache is MISSION : Impossible. In fact, I think most if not all of my favorite puzzle caches involve some degree of lateral thinking.

For some truly bizarre lateral thinking fun, why not take The Impossible Quiz? I've gotten to level 65 ... how far can you get?

Oh, by the way, don't trust what Jim Stallard has to say about lateral thinking puzzles.

Additional Hints (Decrypt)

[Puzzle] Gur fbyhgvba qbrfa'g vaibyir jbeqcynl, naq vg'f abg n gevivn punyyratr. Rirelguvat lbh arrq gb xabj gb fbyir vg vf pbagnvarq jvguva gur chmmyr vgfrys.
[Puzzle] Jung jnf gur qvfpbirel qrfpevorq va gung obbx?
[Puzzle] Lbh pna pbhag ba rirel oveq va gur yvfg.
[Puzzle] Jngpu bhg sbe gur fbegf bs oveqf gung yrnq gb n pyhcrn ynprq jvgu zrephel bkvqr.
[Cache] Zntargvp uvqr-n-xrl

Decryption Key


(letter above equals below, and vice versa)



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Last Updated: on 4/15/2018 2:37:36 PM Pacific Daylight Time (9:37 PM GMT)
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