Imagine: How Creativity Works
by Jonah Lehrer. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
What do Toy Story II, Post-It Notes and West Side Story have in common? According to Lehrer, they all emerged from a unique combination of context, circumstance and attitude—the stuff of creativity.
In Lehrer’s new book, Imagine, the prolific science writer delves into one of the most familiar—and mysterious—capacities of the human mind: the “ability to imagine what has never existed.” Through a whirlwind tour of innovative personalities, Lehrer covers various facets of creative thinking: the importance of casual conversations that can lead to unexpected ideas, the value of debate and criticism in challenging our assumptions, and the necessity of focusing our attention on a single task. He introduces us to a Pixar computer animator in Silicon Valley who finds his greatest insights when his ideas are ripped to shreds at daily group meetings and to an autistic surfer whose obsession and comfort with the ocean lets him improvise moves never seen before.
Creativity, as Lehrer describes, is not an individual “gift,” a lucky trait that some people are just born with; it comes from a combination of processes. He highlights what spurs creativity on a small scale, noting, for instance, that a small fold of tissue in the brain called the anterior superior temporal gyrus (what he calls the “neural correlate of insight”) becomes active seconds before an epiphany. He steadily works all the way up to a large scale, discussing how serendipitous meetings in a sprawling metropolis can spark innovation by exposing us to unfamiliar ideas.
Lehrer also sprinkles in useful tips to feed our own imagination. Feeling stuck? Go for a walk or take a warm bath. According to a British scientist, interruptions are crucial to forming new ideas because the mental break lets your brain turn inward to notice stray thoughts and insights. Or consider painting the walls blue: one study suggests the color can double your creative output by triggering associations with the sky and the ocean. The mental relaxation associated with these natural milieus helps to stimulate our imagination.
The research that Lehrer describes defies conventional wisdom. The traditional form of brainstorming—free association with only positive feedback—might seem productive, but it does not work. Creativity actually thrives on criticism and debate because it forces us to engage with new ideas.
For a book about creativity, Lehrer’s approach can often feel formulaic: an anecdote here, some history there, a few scientific studies interspersed. Even so, the book is comprehensive, presenting a clear picture of our current scientific understanding of creativity. By exploring the moving parts of creative genius, Lehrer allows us to see what makes our own imagination tick.