By Amy Desselle
That spark of creativity, the moment of clarity – isn’t it what we all want? Unfortunately, it usually comes at the most unexpected moment and we can never really pin down where that spark came from, how to capture it again.
Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine: How Creativity Works” is a stunning piece of journalism that takes the abstract concept of creativity head on. Delving into the complex world of neuroscience and sociology, Lehrer endeavors to explain the mystery behind the spark.
There’s good news and bad news here. The bad news is that creativity takes work. The good news? It isn’t something that some people have and others don’t. We are all creative. The trick is learning how to access it and Lehrer manages to provide a roadmap to success.
In Lehrer’s own words, this book is the “story of how we imagine.” That is one of the greatest successes of this book: it is a story.
He presents a fascinating and diverse range of examples of creativity throughout history; from Bob Dylan’s songwriting crisis and the evolution of a German sex doll (viewed by an unaware tourist) into the Barbie doll and how centrally located bathrooms lead to the creative success of Pixar and more. Divided into two main parts, “Alone” and “Together”, the book presents strategies for creativity in individual settings and for group dynamics.
Lehrer is in absolute control of the narrative. Just when the technical descriptions of the brain start to bog down the writing and the reader, he switches back to the stories – to the characters and their experiences that are so varied that any reader will be able to relate to at least one – and off we go again.
He keeps the language simple and straightforward, only using the technical neuroscience terms when absolutely necessary. There are examples of word problems designed for experiments to measure creativity (the answers are included so you don’t go insane from curiosity) and diagrams of brain sections and graphs of company productivity.
The book is not without its faults, of course. There is no doubt that Lehrer has done his research. It is evident through every anecdote in the book, some of which feature the writer himself as he interacts with the various people he interviewed.
The trouble is that because Lehrer demonstrates a mastery of writing and an ability to explain neuroscience in an understandable way, we accept him as an expert on all of the information in his book. Unfortunately, he fails to list sources for his data, which adds a certain degree of doubt to the information presented.
There is also a tendency toward contradiction in his writing from one chapter to the next. In one chapter, Lehrer recommends taking a hot shower, walking away from a problem for a time and waiting for the flash of creative insight. In the next, he claims the solution is “forcing oneself to pay attention … the answer won’t arrive suddenly, in a flash of light.”
He almost seems to be saying that creativity comes from everything: from being alone and from collaborating with others, in moments of distractions and from hours of focused work, from focusing inward and outward.
And maybe that’s the great mystery: science can track the bursts of gamma rays in the anterior superior temporal gyrus just before an insight and record alpha waves when we daydream, but there’s still something about creativity that just can’t be pinned down despite all the research. As Lehrer says, “It’s almost like magic.”Contact Amy Desselle.