Imagine: How Creativity Works – Jonah Lehrer


Did you know that the most creative companies have centralized bathrooms? That brainstorming meetings are a terrible idea? That the color blue can help you double your creative output?

From the New York Times best-selling author of How We Decide comes a sparkling and revelatory look at the new science of creativity. Shattering the myth of muses, higher powers, even creative “types,” Jonah Lehrer demonstrates that creativity is not a single gift possessed by the lucky few. It’s a variety of distinct thought processes that we can all learn to use more effectively.

Lehrer reveals the importance of embracing the rut, thinking like a child, daydreaming productively, and adopting an outsider’s perspective (travel helps). He unveils the optimal mix of old and new partners in any creative collaboration, and explains why criticism is essential to the process. Then he zooms out to show how we can make our neighborhoods more vibrant, our companies more productive, and our schools more effective.

You’ll learn about Bob Dylan’s writing habits and the drug addictions of poets. You’ll meet a Manhattan bartender who thinks like a chemist, and an autistic surfer who invented an entirely new surfing move. You’ll see why Elizabethan England experienced a creative explosion, and how Pixar’s office space is designed to spark the next big leap in animation.

Collapsing the layers separating the neuron from the finished symphony, Imagine reveals the deep inventiveness of the human mind, and its essential role in our increasingly complex world.



By Tintin (Chicago IL) – See all my reviewsThis review is from: Imagine: How Creativity Works (Hardcover)
I’m intrigued by the subject matter, so having read several positive reviews and finding myself stuck in an airport, I paid list price for Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works. I’d read Lehrer’s How We Decide a couple of years ago, and enjoyed it. My anticipation, boosted by a recent NPR interview and one in The Economist, steadily disassembled as I read the book itself.

Lehrer does not cite the scientific literature well – there is no list of sources in the back and many claims have no clear references at all. He seems a little gullible (or sensational) in regard to some other studies. One showed that red backgrounds increase test-takers’ accuracy and attention to detail, while blue backgrounds double their creativity. Were it so easy. And a neurologist can anticipate a puzzle solver’s breakthrough 8 seconds in advance. And, he tells us that all the easy problems of the world have been solved, and that cultivation of athletes in the Unites States should be used as a model for cultivating creativity. Here’s my favorite, from a footnote: “Urban areas and the human cortex rely on extremely similar structural patterns to maximize the flow of information and traffic through the system.” (p183) There was no reference.

But my main criticism is that the book relies almost exclusively on anecdote. He trots out case after case of well-known successes (masking tape, Bob Dylan, 3M, Pixar, etc.), and some unknown ones (a surfer, a bartender) –always in retrospect — and draws out what he presents as yet another insight into creativity. But many of these are contradictory. For example, does creativity come out of isolation (p 19) or from teamwork (p120); from breaking convention (p 20) or submitting to its constraints (p 23)? Does it help to be in a positive mood (p32) or a depressed one (p76) or an angry state (161) or a relaxed one (50); does caffeine and other stimulants make the epiphanies less likely (33) or more likely (57)? Should stealing others’ ideas should be encouraged (247) or discouraged (244)? Does broadening one’s set of skills and interests increase creativity (41) or should one concentrate on a single goal (95)? Does relaxation stimulate creativity (p 45) or does difficulty do it better (54)? Does creativity drive toward perfection (p 63) or is it a celebration of errors? (87). Does insight come in a flash (p 17) or is it revealed slowly, after great effort (56)? Must a good poem be “pulled out of us, like a splinter,” (p 56) or is it best “vomited.” (19)

All of these, apparently.

The book boils down in the end to four vague conclusions which he calls “meta-ideas.”
1. Education is necessary
2. Human mixing stimulates creativity
3. Creativity requires willingness to take risks
4. Society must manage the rewards of innovation

For me, the best revelation is on p 159: Brainstorming sessions, in which “there are no bad ideas” do not often result in good ideas, because criticism is essential. This is the key to the growth of knowledge, good government, and much more — and a theme that is developed thoroughly in David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity. That’s a much more stimulating and challenging read, which explains creativity (and much else) far better than this one does.



By Eric Robert Juggernaut

(VINE VOICE) This review is from: Imagine: How Creativity Works (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine™ Program (What’s this?)
`Imagine’ is a light treatment on the creative process. Anyone familiar with Lehrer’s previous work or that of other pop science writers will feel right at home with this book. Lehrer’s writing is clear and his use of New Journalism to convey complex scientific ideas through stories makes what could be daunting material very accessible. As a result, the book spurs ideas on a number of levels–cognitive, artistic, and social. Of course, the style also means that the text is rather superficial and leaves the reader begging for a more penetrating study.

This is not due to the book’s scope. It is aimed at explaining `how creativity works’–an awesome concept to be sure–but Lehrer does not provide a central thesis to this end. He surveys a number of fascinating aspects of the creative process–insight, novelty, hard work, team work, environment, and others–but seems to shuffle through them without truly grasping their essence. As a result, the various themes feel disparate and disconnected.

One example stands out: In the first chapter, Lehrer talks about the necessary condition one must be in for insight to arise and innovation to occur–a stress-free, relaxing environment. Then, in the third chapter, he talks about how this isn’t necessary and how stimulants and other drugs help to narrow focus and thus lend to productivity. Some people are creative because they treat themselves to relaxation; some are creative because they plunge themselves into a stressful, energetic environment. As such, the reader has nothing to hold onto and so does not feel any closer to understanding.

This is reconciled to some degree in the fourth chapter when Lehrer explains how natural conditions such as mania and depression (and manic depressive syndrome) contribute to an organic push/pull of creativity. While it is certainly an interesting thought, the proof isn’t quite complete.

More importantly, the theme deserves a more comprehensive foundation on the science of mental processes. While Lehrer does an admirable job of explaining psychological phenomena with physiological causes, the basics are left rather untouched. We know that the right hemisphere emits alpha waves to spark insight and that amphetamines increase the amount of dopamine transferred between neurons, but we don’t know what a thought is, how we learn, and what is going on in the brain when we imagine something.

As an avid reader of popular neurology, I can say that most of this is far from being understood. But, if it is not understood, it would still help to acknowledge this fact and simply formulate the theory around that contingency. As it is, Lehrer makes it seem as though this foundation is irrelevant.

It must be said that this book is valuable for simply spurring these questions. It is clear that Lehrer has access to some of the best insight in popular science today. Read this book for that insight, and then use it to come up with your own theories on the creative process.


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