You May Say He's a Dreamer

Jonah Lehrer Dissects Creativity in 'Imagine: How Creativity Works'

by Erin Lyndal Martin

25 April 2012

Jonah Lehrer is a smooth and effortless-seeming writer, gliding seamlessly through his disparate subjects.
Lamp head male writing something on glass board with marker. Image from
cover art

Imagine: How Creativity Works

Jonah Lehrer

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
US: Mar 2012

In Imagine: How Creativity Works, author, editor, and Rhodes Scholar Jonah Lehrer (also the author of How We Decide) examines creativity from myriad angles. Using examples drawn from his own interviews and research, he details breakthroughs from the composition of “Like a Rolling Stone” to the invention of the Swiffer and the Post-It Note. 

The book is divided into two portions, “Alone” and “Together”. (The first is devoted more to individual creativity, while the latter part details the finer points of collaboration.)  Lehrer is a smooth and effortless-seeming writer, gliding seamlessly through his disparate subjects. Yet, one never gets the feeling that he is writing soft science – one may argue that he is not attempting to write science at all, but rather a contemplative study of a mysterious phenomenon.

One of Imagine‘s major strengths is its relevance to people of all trades and even those who aren’t in so-called creative fields. In particular, this book proves an invaluable tool for educators looking to increase their classroom prowess. 

Lehrer tells a striking anecdote about an experiment conducted in introducing a new toy to two groups of four-year-olds. In the experiment, the toy was presented differently to each group. The first group was shown the toy with the teacher feigning surprise over the toy’s capabilities, while the second group was shown the toy in a more traditionally instructive manner. The first group’s interest was sustained for a much longer time than the second group’s was. As Lehrer wisely muses, “When students are given explicit instructions, when they are told what they need to know, they become less likely to explore on their own. Curiosity is a fragile thing” (236).  Similarly, Lehrer’s visits to innovative alternative high schools in New Orleans and California have much to teach about the power of less structured learning.

While there is much to love about Imagine, the book is not without its limitations. At times, Lehrer’s definition of “innovation” is limited to technology rather than artistic creation, especially when he compares innovation among different cities. For Lehrer, a contributing editor for Wired, this is likely his home terrain, but one would like to see a broader definition of what it means to be innovative.  Fortunately, though, the sections about Yo-Yo Ma and Bob Dylan help to redeem what might otherwise be a pitfall.  (There’s also a section on Shakespeare, but that portion largely focuses on the urban, socioeconomic, and political trends of the day rather than Shakespeare’s own creative process.) 

Likewise, Lehrer could have strengthened the book with deeper discussions about how the brain actually works, as the moments in which he does so are some of the most illuminating. For example, he discusses the purpose of interaction between the brain’s two hemispheres and the importance of stimulating the right hemisphere. In a portion of the book prefaced by an interesting discussion of drug use among creators (W.H. Auden is discussed at greatest length), he reveals that ADD drugs like Adderall and Ritalin cause increased focus but limit the brain’s ability to have spontaneous bursts of creative ideas. (Marijuana, on the other hand, does not cause this limitation, Lehrer explains.) 

While the portion of the book entitled “Together” is full of interesting anecdotes and a fascinating look at the inner workings of Pixar, this portion also includes some of Lehrer’s weaker moments. It’s a given that collaboration boosts creativity and movements like the Renaissance happen when artists are allowed to come together and share ideas, so his reiteration of that is a bit unnecessary. His arguments about collaboration are most successful when he studies quirky investigations. 

In the chapter entitled “The Power of Q”, Lehrer relates a study done about the creation of Broadway musicals that attempted to find the perfect level of familiarity among a musical’s production team. “Together” also features some of the books drier moments, such as statistical analysis on different elements of urban life. 

The book’s closing chapter, “Coda” is, unfortunately, one of the weaker portions of the book. After reading so many striking stories, one hopes that Lehrer would use the epilogue to draw stronger conclusions about what he has learned and how it can be applied. Instead, “Coda” is too short and largely devoted to a discussion of the magic of Penn and Teller.

However, these few weaknesses should not limit the mass appeal of this book, which could easily be fascinating to a wide variety of people. And, perhaps, such a vast readership would lead to greater creativity and an enhanced understanding of what constitutes it. Imagine that.

Imagine: How Creativity Works


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