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Review of ‘Imagine: The Science of Creativity’ by Jonah Lehrer

June 5, 2012 1 comment

‘Imagine: The Science of Creativity’ by Jonah Lehrer

Published by The Text Publishing Company, 2012

Reviewed by C P Howe

You can also read and comment on this review here.

Imagine: The Science of Creativity, by an implausibly young Jonah Lehrer (he was just 30 when this book was published,) taps into the increasingly popular genre linking science with popular culture and the arts. Lehrer pitches himself somewhere between Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast, and Slow) and Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Outliers.) Gladwell is even quoted on the cover of Imagine praising Lehrer’s scientific and authorial expertise. Lehrer’s book takes a similar line to Outliers, with its use of well-known people as examples and case studies. With chapter titles like ‘Bob Dylan’s Brain,’ and ‘The Shakespeare Paradox,’ Lehrer is to a certain extent playing down the complexity of the content in order to not scare off readers who might be daunted by more scientific language.

Anyone who has tried to dream up a new product, or write a poem, or put paint on a canvas, knows all too well that the circumstances in which creativity happens are hard to define and predict. Lehrer acknowledges this in his introduction. In a few short pages he promises (in a breathless, fast moving and rather too clean a run through of the way a major US corporation changed the face of floor cleaning products) that his book will tell the ‘real’ story of how we imagine. I was hooked by his introduction, and I think most readers would be. But would the rest of the book deliver on his grand promise?

What Lehrer has tried to do, with some success, is construct a framework to help us understand the kinds of circumstances in which creativity thrives. If we know what these circumstances are we can use them to help us, and the people around us, be more creative. Lehrer says that self-knowledge about the way creative thinking happens is vitally important to ensure we are using the tool inside our head – our brain – to its maximum capacity.

The first part of the book, headed ‘Alone,’ looks at five concepts of solo creativity, and the second part – predictably called ‘Together’ – looks at three concepts for being creative in groups. Inevitably, as with any kind of classification, there will be criticism about forcing people or ideas into boxes. Some will likely say straight away, ‘Only eight?’ or ‘I know of some creative activity that doesn’t fit neatly into one of Lehrer’s boxes.’ But I suspect most people will find themselves nodding in recognition and agreement. From the role of stimulants, to measures of social connectivity as a predictor of the success of Broadway musicals; from learning to let go, to the way Shakespeare’s success was as much about the times he lived in as his talent, it is hard not to find delight as well as inspiration in Lehrer’s account. Like many of the best concepts, they seem blindingly obvious now that Lehrer has turned them into highly readable material, with the added assurance of being backed up by real science.

Lehrer has developed a specific approach to his writing in this book, and he sticks to it. Snappy, short sentences start each section, often dropping a name. ‘Bob Dylan looks bored.’ ‘Mark Beeman was stumped.’ ‘Geoffrey West doesn’t eat lunch.’ ‘David Byrne loves bicycles.’ Lehrer draws you into each chapter with stories about creative breakthroughs that are often part of a shared canvas of popular culture; stories that are, almost, folklore. Once you’re safely in, he throws another, less well known example at you, usually from the world of business and then, when he’s sure you’re past the point of no return, he hits you with a serious look at the science that explains the particular aspect of creativity he’s just illustrated. This is a book that requires some attention; to his credit Lehrer doesn’t skimp on the technical details of the science. The structure of the book also lends itself to dipping in and out. Picking off specific chapters works very well, as they effectively stand alone, and there is an excellent index.

I suspect Lehrer has left out some of the grittier, less satisfying aspects of creativity. He acknoweldges the role of persistence and patience – as long as it pays off in the end – but one of the reasons he is easy to read is that he doesn’t let a great deal of conflict get in the way of his story. The word doesn’t even appear in the index. Lehrer describes a Pixar employee questioning Steve Jobs’ decision to ‘force’ people to interact by designing the new Pixar office in a way that meant people had to ‘bump into each other.’ But before the end of the paragraph we have that employee saying, ‘you know what, [Jobs] was right.’ Lehrer skips over most of what must have been considerable resistance, focussing instead on how Jobs’ ideas support Lehrer’s concepts about how creativity happens – in this case, the way informal interactions allow new ideas to flourish or, as Lehrer calls it, ‘The Power of Q.’ In fact the only real account of conflict happens in the same chapter, where Lehrer describes the Pixar team’s approach to achieving perfection, which involves sharp criticism in early morning meetings coupled with ‘plussing’ – their term for being constructive.

The anecdote about Steve Jobs and Pixar illustrates a specific shortcoming of the book. Although Lehrer includes a list of sources, they are not footnoted, but instead referenced by page number. (This is in addition to the index.) So when we read about the Pixar employee’s comments, we can’t tell where they came from. Did the employee tell Lehrer directly? Or is Lehrer reporting one of the many anecdotes about Jobs that have been published in recent years? If we want to find out, we have to skip to the back of the book, and skim through until we are in the vicinity of the page number. If the page is listed, then we have to read the reference to see if it is about the point we are interested in. Only by doing this can we confirm, or not, whether Lehrer has chosen to reference the point. Many of his sources, including direct interviews or telephone calls, are indeed referenced but some of them – including this one – are not, and I found that frustrating.

What Lehrer does exceptionally well is combine stories about creativity in business, popular culture and scientific discovery with explanations about the way the brain works. He doesn’t gloss over the science, and he writes well. All this makes for a good read and a serious account, as you’d expect from someone with Lehrer’s credentials – a Rhodes scholar at Oxford; a graduate of Columbia University; and a writer with two best selling books on the subject already under his belt. In my view, the first five chapters dealing with individual creativity seem to hold together better than the last three which, if boiled down, all have a similar message: interacting in a variety of places with a variety of people – some of whom we know, some of whom we don’t, some of whom think like us, some of whom don’t – leads to new ideas. Nevertheless, the detail Lehrer gives us in these last three chapters – including Pixar, Silicon Valley, New York, and Elizabethan London, amongst others – are fascinating, entertaining and remarkable.

Less satisfying is the lack of a critical assessment of the science of creativity. Lehrer has chosen examples in science, business and the arts that fit perfectly his eight categories. There are no square pegs here, although there must be in the real world. In this book no-one comes up with creative ideas that turn out to be artistic or commercial failures. Or at least, if they do, they are initial attempts, or exploratory ventures, and their proponents quickly move on to success. There is no acknowledgement, in a concluding chapter or afterword, that there might other categories of solo or group creativity yet to be identified, or that this book might not, in fact, be the last word on the subject. Lehrer concedes at the end that, despite all the studies and the evidence he has gathered, there is still something mysterious about creativity, something magical – and here he uses a story about the magicians Penn and Teller to make absolutely sure we get his point – about the moment when an new idea springs into a person’s mind.

Despite its shortcomings, and despite the fact that I didn’t warm to Jonah Lehrer on the page, this is a great book. Reflecting on my mixed reactions to it, I came to the conclusion that one of the reasons it succeeds is that the reader can live vicariously all the triumphs of creativity it describes – and there are lots of them. If only we had the option of retreating to a cabin in Woodstock, like Dylan, or designing Pixar’s new office, like Jobs, then we too could have been responsible for creating Highway 61 Revisited or Toy Story 2.  The people in this book start off with nothing – relatively speaking – and end up with extraordinary creations. This is a book that makes you believe in yourself and your potential to be creative, and that is perhaps its greatest achievement.

Imagine will entertain, impress and inspire you. You will wonder whether you could be the next Michael Ondaatje, Lady Gaga or Mark Zuckerberg by painting your study blue, taking drugs, or relocating to Greenwich Village. However on the question of which of his eight options you should choose he is virtually silent and, for that reason, I am quite sure this isn’t the last word we’ll hear from Jonah Lehrer on creativity.

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