Imagine: How Creativity Works

Imagine: How Creativity Works

by Jonah Lehrer

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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 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, and daydreaming productively, then he takes us out of our own heads to show how we can make our neighborhoods more vibrant, our companies more productive, and our schools more effective. We’ll learn about Bob Dylan’s writing habits and the drug addiction of poets. We’ll meet a bartender who thinks like a chemist, and an autistic surfer who invented an entirely new surfing move. We’ll see why Elizabethan England experienced a creative explosion, and how Pixar designed its office space to get the most out of its talent. 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781441864451
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication date: 03/19/2012
Edition description: Unabridged
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

JONAH LEHRER is editor at large for Seed magazine and the author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist. A graduate of Columbia University and a Rhodes Scholar, Lehrer has worked in the lab of Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel and has written for The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe. He edits the "Mind Matters" blog for Scientific American, and writes his own highly regarded blog, "The Frontal Cortex."

Read an Excerpt


Procter and Gamble had a problem: it needed a new floor cleaner. In the 1980s, the company had pioneered one lucrative consumer product after another, from pull-up diapers to anti-dandruff shampoo. It had developed color-safe detergent and designed a quilted paper towel that could absorb 85 percent more liquid than other paper towels. These innovations weren’t lucky accidents: Procter and Gamble was deeply invested in research and development. At the time, the corporation had more scientists on staff than any other company in the world, more PhDs than the faculties of MIT, UC-Berkeley, and Harvard combined.

And yet, despite the best efforts of the chemists in the household- cleaning division, there were no new floor products in the pipeline. The company was still selling the same lemon-scented detergents and cloth mops; consumers were still sweeping up their kitchens using wooden brooms and metal dustpans. The reason for this creative failure was simple: it was extremely difficult to make a stronger floor cleaner that didn’t also damage the floor. Although Procter and Gamble had invested millions of dollars in a new generation of soaps, these products tended to fail during the rigorous testing phase, as they peeled off wood varnishes and irritated delicate skin. The chemists assumed that they had exhausted the chemical possibilities.

That’s when Procter and Gamble decided to try a new approach. The company outsourced its innovation needs to Continuum, a design firm with offices in Boston and Los Angeles. “I think P and G came to us because their scientists were telling them to give up,” says Harry West, a leader on the soap team and now Continuum’s CEO. “So they told us to think crazy, to try to come up with something that all those chemists couldn’t.”

But the Continuum designers didn’t begin with molecules. They didn’t spend time in the lab worrying about the chemistry of soap. Instead, they visited people’s homes and watched dozens of them engage in the tedious ritual of floor cleaning. The designers took detailed notes on the vacuuming of carpets and the sweeping of kitchens. When the notes weren’t enough, they set up video cameras in living rooms. “This is about the most boring footage you can imagine,” West says. “It’s movies of mopping, for God’s sake. And we had to watch hundreds of hours of it.” The videotapes may have been tedious, but they were also essential, since West and his team were trying to observe the act of floor cleaning without any preconceptions. “I wanted to forget everything I knew about mops and soaps and brooms,” he says. “I wanted to look at the problem as if I’d just stepped off a spaceship from Mars.”

After several months of observation — West refers to this as the anthropologist phase — the team members had their first insight. It came as they watched a woman clean her mop in the bathtub. “You’ve got this unwieldy pole,” West says. “And you are splashing around this filthy water trying to get the dirt out of a mop head that’s been expressly designed to attract dirt. It’s an extraordinarily unpleasant activity.” In fact, when the Continuum team analyzed the videotapes, they found that people spent more time cleaning their mops than they did cleaning the floors; the tool made the task more difficult. “Once I realized how bad mopping was, I became quite passionate about floor cleaning,” West says. “I became convinced that the world didn’t need an improved version of the mop. Instead, it needed a total replacement for the mop. It’s a hopeless piece of technology.”

   Unfortunately, the Continuum designers couldn’t think of a better cleaning method. It seemed like an impossible challenge. Perhaps floor cleaning was destined to be an inefficient chore. In desperation, the team returned to making house visits, hoping for some errant inspiration. One day, the designers were watching an elderly woman sweep some coffee grounds off the kitchen floor. She got out her hand broom and carefully brushed the grounds into a dustpan. But then something interesting happened. After the woman was done sweeping, she wet a paper towel and wiped it over the linoleum, picking up the last bits of spilled coffee. Although everyone on the Continuum team had done the same thing countless times before, this particular piece of dirty paper led to a revelation.

What the designers saw in that paper towel was the possibility of a disposable cleaning surface. “All of a sudden, we realized what needed to be done,” says Don Buchner, a Continuum vice president. “We needed to invent a spot cleaner that people could just throw away. No more cleaning mop heads, no more bending over in the bathtub, no more buckets of dirty water. That was our big idea.” A few weeks later, this epiphany gave rise to their first floor-cleaning prototype. It was a simple thing, just a slender plastic stick connected to a flat rectangle of Velcro to which disposable pieces of electrostatic tissue were attached. A spray mechanism was built into the device, allowing people to wet the floor with a mild soap before they applied the wipes. (The soap was mostly unnecessary, but it smelled nice.) “You know an idea has promise when it seems obvious in retrospect,” West says. “Why splash around dirty water when you can just wipe up the dirt? And why would you bother to clean this surface? Why not just throw it away, like a used paper towel?”

Procter and Gamble, however, wasn’t thrilled with the concept. The company had developed a billion-dollar market selling consumers the latest mops and soaps. They didn’t want to replace that business with an untested cleaning product. The first focus groups only reinforced the skepticism. When Procter and Gamble presented consumers with a sketch of the new cleaning device, the vast majority of people rejected the concept. They didn’t want to throw out their mops or have to rely on a tool that was little more than a tissue on a stick. They didn’t like the idea of disposable wipes, and they didn’t understand how all that dirt would get onto the moistened piece of paper. And so the idea was shelved; Procter and Gamble wasn’t going to risk market share on a radical new device that nobody wanted.

   But the designers at Continuum refused to give up — they were convinced they’d discovered the mop of the future. After a year of pleading, they persuaded Procter and Gamble to let them show their prototype to a focus group. Instead of just reading a description of the product, consumers could now play with an “experiential model” clad in roughly cut plastic. The prototype made all the difference: people were now enthralled by the cleaning tool, which they tested out on actual floors. In fact, the product scored higher in focus-group sessions than any other cleaning device Procter and Gamble had ever tested. “It was off the charts,” Buchner says. “The same people who hated the idea when it was just an idea now wanted to take the thing home with them.” Furthermore, tests by Procter and Gamble demonstrated that the new product cleaned the floor far better than sponge mops, string mops, or any other kinds of mops. According to the corporate scientists, the “tissue on a stick” was one of the most effective floor cleaners ever invented.

In 1997, nearly three years after West and his designers began making their videotapes, Procter and Gamble officially submitted an application for a U.S. patent. In the early spring of 1999, the new cleaning tool was introduced in supermarkets across the country. The product was an instant success: by the end of the year, it had generated more than $500 million in sales. Numerous imitators and spinoffs have since been introduced, but the original device continues to dominate the post-mop market, taking up an ever greater share of the supermarket aisle. Its name is the Swiffer.

The invention of the Swiffer is a tale of creativity. It’s the story of a few engineers coming up with an entirely new cleaning tool while watching someone sweep up some coffee grounds. In that flash of thought, Harry West and his team managed to think differently about something we all do every day. They were able to see the world as it was — a frustrating place filled with tedious chores — and then envision the world as it might be if only there were a better mop. That insight changed floor cleaning forever.

This book is about how such moments happen. It is about our most important mental talent: the ability to imagine what has never existed. We take this talent for granted, but our lives are defined by it. There is the pop song on the radio and the gadget in your pocket, the art on the wall and the air conditioner in the window. There is the medicine in the bathroom and the chair you are sitting in and this book in your hand.

And yet, although we are always surrounded by our creations, there is something profoundly mysterious about the creative process. For instance, why did Harry West come up with the Swiffer concept after watching that woman wipe the floor with the paper towel? After all, he’d done it himself on numerous occasions. “I can’t begin to explain why the idea arrived then,” he says. “I was too grateful to ask too many questions.” The sheer secrecy of creativity — the difficulty in understanding how it happens, even when it happens to us — means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force. In fact, until the Enlightenment, the imagination was entirely synonymous with higher powers: being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the ingenious gods. (Inspiration, after all, literally means “breathed upon.”) Because people couldn’t understand creativity, they assumed that their best ideas came from somewhere else. The imagination was outsourced.

The deep mysteriousness of creativity also intimidated scientists. It’s one thing to study nerve-reaction times or the mechanics of sight. But how does one measure the imagination? The daunting nature of the subject led researchers to mostly neglect it; a recent survey of psychology papers published between 1950 and 2000 revealed that less than 1 percent of them investigated aspects of the creative process. Even the evolution of this human talent was confounding. Most cognitive skills have elaborate biological histories, so their evolution can be traced over time. But not creativity — the human imagination has no clear precursors. There is no ingenuity module that got enlarged in the human cortex, or even a proto-creative impulse evident in other primates. Monkeys don’t paint; chimps don’t write poems; and it’s the rare animal (like the New Caledonian crow) that exhibits rudimentary signs of problem solving. The birth of creativity, in other words, arrived like any insight: out of nowhere.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the imagination can’t be rigorously studied. Until we understand the set of mental events that give rise to new thoughts, we will never understand what makes us so special. That’s why this book begins by returning us to the material source of the imagination: the three pounds of flesh inside the skull. William James described the creative process as a “seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity.” For the first time, we can see the cauldron itself, that massive network of electrical cells that allow individuals to form new connections between old ideas. We can take snapshots of thoughts in brain scanners and measure the excitement of neurons as they get closer to a solution. The imagination can seem like a magic trick of matter — new ideas emerging from thin air — but we are beginning to understand how the trick works. 

The first thing this new perspective makes clear is that the standard definition of creativity is completely wrong. Ever since the ancient Greeks, people have assumed that the imagination is separate from other kinds of cognition. But the latest science suggests that this assumption is false. Instead, creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes. (The brain is the ultimate category buster.) Just consider the profusion of creative methods that led to the invention of the Swiffer. First, there was the anthropologist phase, those nine months of careful observation and tedious videotaping. Although this phase didn’t generate any new ideas — the point was to clear the mind of old ones — it played an essential role in the creative process, allowing the team to better understand the problem. And then, when West watched the woman sweep up the coffee grounds, there was the classic moment of insight, a breakthrough appearing in a fraction of a second. But that epiphany wasn’t the end of the process. The engineers and designers still had to spend years fine-tuning the design, perfecting the spray nozzle and the electrostatic wipes. “The concept is only the start of the process,” West says. “The hardest work always comes after, when you’re trying to make the idea real.”

The point is that the Swiffer creative process involved multiple forms of creativity. This is where the tools of modern science prove essential, since they allow us to see how these various forms depend on different kinds of brain activity. The imagination is transformed from something metaphysical — a property of the gods — into a particular twitch of cortex. Furthermore, this new knowledge is useful: because we finally understand what creativity is, we can begin to construct a taxonomy of it, outlining the conditions under which each particular mental strategy is ideal. Some acts of imagination are best done in a crowded café sipping espresso, and some are helped by a cold beer on the couch. Sometimes we need to let go and improvise on our own, and sometimes we need the wisdom of others. Once we know how creativity works, we can make it work for us.

But just because we’ve begun to decipher the anatomy of the imagination doesn’t mean we’ve unlocked its secret. In fact, this is what makes the subject of creativity so interesting: it requires a description from multiple perspectives. The individual brain, after all, is always situated in a context and a culture, so we need to blend psychology and sociology, merging together the outside world and the inside of the mind. This is why, although Imagine begins with the fluttering of neurons, it will also explore the influence of the surrounding environment on creativity. Why are some Lehrer Imagine first pages cities such centers of innovation? What kind of classroom techniques increase the creativity of children? Is the Internet making us more or less imaginative? We’ll look at evidence showing that seemingly irrelevant factors — such as the color of paint on the wall, or the location of a restroom — can have a dramatic impact on creative production.

Furthermore, because the act of invention is often a collaborative process — we are inspired by other people — it’s essential that we learn to collaborate in the right way. The first half of this book focuses on individual creativity, while the second half shows what happens when people come together. Thanks to some fascinating new research, such as an analysis of the partnerships behind thousands of Broadway musicals and an investigation into the effectiveness of brainstorming, we can begin to understand why some teams and companies are so much more creative than others. Their success is not an accident. For most of human history, people have believed that the imagination is inherently inscrutable, an impenetrable biological gift. As a result, we cling to a series of false myths about what creativity is and where it comes from. These myths don’t just mislead — they also interfere with the imagination. In addition to looking at elegant experiments and scientific studies, we’ll examine creativity as it is experienced in the real world. We’ll learn about Bob Dylan’s writing method and the drug habits of poets. We’ll spend time with a bartender who thinks like a chemist, and an autistic surfer who invented a new surfing move. We’ll look at a website that helps solve seemingly impossible problems, and we’ll go behind the scenes at Pixar. We’ll watch Yo-Yo Ma improvise, and we’ll uncover the secrets of consistently innovative companies.

The point is to collapse the layers of description separating the nerve cell from the finished symphony, the cortical circuit from the successful product. Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly. It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other “creative types.” The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y. This book is about how that happens. It is the story of how we imagine.

Table of Contents

Introduction xi
1.  BOB DYLAN’S BRAIN      3
3.  THE UNCONCEALING             53
4.  THE LETTING GO             84
5.  THE OUTSIDER            112

6.  THE POWER OF Q           139
7.  URBAN FRICTION            175

  Coda    248
  Notes  253
  Acknowledgments  263
  Index  267

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide for Imagine: How Creativity Works
In this groundbreaking book, best-selling author Jonah Lehrer reveals the science behind the creative process, lending transparency to "our most important mental talent: the ability to imagine what never existed." Calling for us to reconsider everything that we thought we knew about creativity, Lehrer unravels the myth that creativity is something bestowed by outside sources or bequeathed on a lucky few. We are all, he says, hard-wired for creativity. With cutting-edge scientific research and observations drawn from popular culture, he presents surprising insights about the necessity of failure, the benefits of criticism, the stunning influence of our surroundings, and the even greater impact that we have on one another. "Once we know how creativity works, we can make it work for us," he says, offering practical advice for the ways we can effectively foster our creativity in order to participate in our greatest collaborative project as human beings: using our imaginations to create a better world.

Discussion Questions

What does every creative journey begin with according to Lehrer? What phase, which precedes a breakthrough, do we tend to overlook when we speak of the creative process?

What is the major function of each hemisphere of the brain? What role does each side play in the creative process? Which hemisphere is a "connection machine"? What are the three general phases of the creative process?

The first chapter of Lehrer's book is entitled "Bob Dylan's Brain," but what is so significant about Bob Dylan's brain? What is important about Dylan's composition of his hit "Like a Rolling Stone" in particular? What does it reveal about creative blocks and the role of the right hemisphere?

What lessons can we learn about creativity from Dick Drew's invention of masking tape? What does it tell us about the impact of interrupting one's thought process or having a relaxed state of mind? How do these relaxed conditions affect the activity of the right hemisphere and the rhythm of alpha waves in our brain, and how does this ultimately influence our creative output?

How does mood affect our ability to have insights? Why does there seem to be a link between major depressive orders and artistic achievement? What scientific explanation does Lehrer give for the close association of bipolar disorder and creativity?

What is horizontal sharing and conceptual blending? How does the latter correspond with philosopher David Hume's thoughts on the essence of imagination? How can we get better at conceptual blending?

Discuss the varied effects of alcohol, stimulants, and amphetamines on the creative process, and, more specifically, their impact with respect to our ability to generate insights. What are the effects of color? Of light or time of day? Of architecture? What effect does daydreaming have on our creative process?

What is "working memory" and how large of a role does it play in our creative process? What is the major function of the prefrontal cortex? What other parts of the brain does the prefrontal cortex work with most closely? What does Earl Miller's experiment reveal, however, about the importance of the primitive mid-brain?

What are the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's two archetypes of creativity? What does Lehrer say they are called in modern science?

The artist Milton Glaser says that "we're always looking, but we never really see." What does he mean by this? What does the slogan of Glaser's studio tell us about creativity? What does he mean when he says that "creativity is a verb"? What does Glaser's most famous design project reveal about creativity, perseverance, and the refinement of ideas?

What is "the unconcealing"? Why is this such an important part of the creative process?

What is Lehrer speaking about when he references "letting go"? Which part of our brain is responsible for hindering this? What does this tell us about the constraints that we place on our own creativity? Can these restraints be overcome? What can we learn about this concept from the musician Yo Yo Ma, jazz improvisation, the surfer Clay Marzo, or comedy powerhouse Second City?

Are we "biologically destined" to get less creative as we age? What practical advice does mathematician Paul Erdos offer to maximize our creativity? What effect does being an outsider or thinking like an outsider have on our creative development? How can travel influence our creative output? Why does Lehrer say that we "must constantly forget what [we] already know"?

What do Professor Ben Jones's analyses reveal about trends in scientific teamwork? How should we work together, and what are the ideal strategies for group creativity? What does sociologist Brian Uzzi's study of musicals tell us about teamwork and group creativity?

What is the power of Q? How do levels of "social intimacy" affect levels of creative success?

What lessons can we learn from Pixar? Consider their refusal to form an independent production company, the architecture of their workspace, and their creative methods. What accounts for their unlikely, repeated success?

Although advertising firm partner Alex Osborn's technique of positive brainstorming is perhaps the most popular creative method, is it the most effective means of fostering creativity? What problems are associated with this method? What does the research of psychologists Keith Sawyer and Charlan Nemeth reveal about the effectiveness of brainstorming? What does it tell us about the effects of debate and criticism on innovation, imagination, and the generation of ideas? What is "plussing," and why should this be incorporated in critical discussions?

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term "third places." What are "third places," and what role have they played in the history of new ideas?

What is urban friction and how does it affect our creativity? What can we learn from the research of author and urban activist Jane Jacobs and her ideas about "knowledge spill-overs"? What does physicist Geoffrey West's research reveal about urban patterns of productivity? What does West say is "the single most important invention in human history"?

Lehrer speaks about the development of the Route 128 area in Massachusetts versus the development of Silicon Valley in California. What can be learned about creativity, exchange, and innovation from a comparison of the two?

What accounts for the Israeli technology boom? What does this example tell us about the importance of social circles, information sharing, and face-to-face interaction?

According to the research presented in Lehrer's book, how important is physical proximity between collaborators? What does Lehrer say, then, is the job of the internet and technology?

Statistician David Banks says that geniuses arrive in tight, local clusters, but why is this the case?

What is the Shakespeare paradox? What can we learn about genius from a consideration of Shakespeare's background? What cultural factors played the biggest role in facilitating his success, and what can we conclude about the role of culture and external factors in determining creative output?

Lehrer says, "For Shakespeare, the act of creation was inseparable from the act of connection." There are many other examples, however, of this concept of the link between creation and connection provided in the text. Discuss this concept. What kinds of connections are useful or necessary in fostering our creativity?

Discuss economist Paul Romer's claim that ideas are an inexhaustible resource—a "nonrival good." While ideas may be an inexhaustible resource, Lehrer calls for us to consider how we can "create a multiplier culture." Is a dense population or geographic area sufficient to multiply our creative output? If not, what else is required?

What are meta-ideas and what role do they play in influencing creativity? Discuss some of the examples of important meta-ideas offered in Lehrer's book. What were the most important meta-ideas of sixteenth-century England, for instance, and how did they influence levels of creative or artistic achievement? What four meta-ideas does Lehrer say we need to embrace today? In the Coda to his book, what does Lehrer claim is the most important meta-idea of all?

What does Lehrer's book reveal about traditional methods of education and their effect on creativity? What lessons are offered through a consideration of schools like the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and High Tech High? Can creativity be taught? If so, what tactics or methods can schools implement in order to cultivate and support the creativity of their students?

Lehrer says that "[w]e need to innovate innovation." Considering the many lessons and observations offered in this book, what are some of the steps that we can take to accomplish this?

(Guide written by Je Banach)


"The residue of time wasted": Jonah Lehrer Talks Creativity with the Barnes & Noble Review

Why did Bob Dylan compose the classic "Like a Rolling Stone" only after he had become so disgusted with his own music that he was planning to quit the business permanently? How did Silicon Valley become a hub of innovation while other genius-packed cities did not? And what does the placement of a company's bathrooms have to do with the number of innovative products it makes?

These questions ? and many more like them — are at the heart of Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works. The journalist and author of Proust and the Neuroscientist and How We Decide has taken on one of the most deceptive and beguiling problems in the science of mind, what he calls "our most important talent: the ability to imagine what has never existed." His investigation into how we invent new things, and why some people and communities are more creative than others, takes the reader on a wide-ranging journey through the work of social scientists and neurological researchers ? but also into the lives and insights of inventors and engineers, writers and salespeople, musicians and magicians, teachers and students. The result is a bracing, entertaining and counterintuitive guide to an aspect of ourselves that often seems an unsolvable mystery.

Jonah Lehrer spoke with us via email about his new book, and what he's learned in the making of it. —Bill Tipper

The Barnes & Noble Review: One of the things that stands out in Imagine is how creativity is frequently misperceived, or partly misperceived, as associated with pure freedom of the mind. But in so many cases you highlight the opposite perspective ? the one expressed by Milton Glaser's words as he describes creativity as "a very time-consuming verb": You highlight the effectiveness of the harsh group critique to enable ideas to grow, or the centrality of "grit" as a building block for a young artist to cultivate.

Jonah Lehrer: There are all sorts of romantic misconceptions about creativity. We've long believed, for instance, that the imagination is hindered by constraints and constructive criticism. But the scientific evidence clearly suggests that the opposite is true. We think of creativity as being an innate trait - you either have it or you don't — when studies have consistently shown that even seemingly minor factors, such as the color of paint on the wall, can dramatically increase creative output. And then there's the myth of effort. Because creativity has long been associated with the muses, we've assumed that creativity should feel easy and effortless, that if we're truly inventive than the gods will take care of us. But nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, creativity is like any other human talent — it takes an enormous amount of effort to develop. And then, even after we've learned to effectively wield the imagination, we still have to invest the time and energy needed to fine-tune our creations. If it feels easy, then you're doing it wrong.

BNR: The discussion of brainstorming is particularly counterintuitive; you point to research that indicates how "criticism and debate" — despite the former term's association with repressive negativity — is a more fruitful model for groups working together. If brainstorming is so unsuccessful a strategy for generating innovation, why has it held on for so long?

JL: I think the allure of brainstorming is inseparable from the fact that it feels good. A group of people are put together in a room and told to free-associate, with no criticism allowed. (The imagination is meek and shy - - if it's worried about being criticized it will clam up.) Before long, the whiteboard is filled with ideas. Everybody has contributed; nobody has been criticized. Alas, the evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of these free-associations are superficial and that most brainstorming sessions actually inhibit the productivity of the group. We become less than the sum of our parts.

As you note, researchers have shown that group collaborations benefit from debate and dissent; it is the human friction that makes the sparks. Alas, the presence of criticism means that a few people are going to get their feelings hurt. So I think one reason we've clung to brainstorming for decades is that it increases employee morale, even if that comes at the cost of creativity. That's an unfortunate truth, of course, but that doesn't make it less true. There's a reason why Steve Jobs always insisted that new ideas required "brutal honesty."

BNR: Much of your book explores what might be said to be the central paradox of creativity: it seems to require both resolute, disciplined focus and, in Yo-Yo Ma's phrase, "the abandon of a child." Is this because when we are talking about the imagination we are really talking about multiple neurological functions? Or is it that creativity is a kind of protean idea itself, that changes with the artist — one might approach everything through "getting in the flow" and another who exists in the world of endless, patient, revision?

JL: One of the most dangerous myths of creativity is that it's a single thing, separate from other kinds of cognition. In reality, however, "creativity" is a catch-all term for a variety of distinct thought processes, each of which is well suited to particular kinds of problems. And this is why different parts of the creative process require different kinds of creative thinking. For instance, a big epiphany relies on a very different set of brain structures than the editing that comes afterward. A pianist in the midst of an improvised solo is thinking very differently from an inventor tweaking a gadget, even though both are in the midst of invention. So whether we should aspire to the abandon of a child or seek out focus depends on the kind of creativity we need at that moment. There is no universal prescription for creative thinking.

This also helps explain why there are as many creative methods as there are creators. Some people smoke joints; others chug coffee. Some go for walks; others stay late at the office. Some need collaborators; others need solitude. Creativity, like most interesting things, resists easy generalizations. I wanted Imagine to capture this complexity, not pretend that it doesn't exist.

BNR: Some of the most thought-provoking insights in Imagine describe creative methodologies that seem to aim in one direction, but actually seek to trick (or perhaps hack) the brain's programming. For example, you describe how students of improvisation at Second City spend a brief session before each class sharing maximally intimate confessions from their lives. The point for the actors isn't, as it might appear, to get in touch with deep emotions. Rather, it's to simply shut off the censoring part of the brain, so that in the work that follows, ideas and associations emerge freely. Should more of us be employing these sorts of strategies?

JL: Creativity is so hard that I think we need all the help we can get. Some of the mind hacks I describe in Imagine come from watching the time-tested habits of successful creators, such as those comics at Second City. And other hacks come from science, from the controlled conditions of the lab. Did you know, for instance, that people solve 30 percent more insight puzzles when they're slightly drunk? That's my kind of empiricism.

BNR: So much of your previous book How We Decide described ways in which we have difficulty understanding how our brains are actually working — the "emotional brain" secretly working away inside, with our assumptions about the supremacy of the "rational brain" leading us into constant miscalculation. Imagine has a similar focus on the mysteries of thought, but, perhaps in keeping with the title, the emphasis seems to be more on collaborating with the unknown parts of the self. Did you see it that way? Are your books on a continuum in your own mind?

JL: I think both books revel in the fact that so much of our wisdom — whether it's those inexplicable hunches that lead to good decisions, or that moment of insight that comes in the shower — emerge from mental places we have no access to. This is strange, no? The mind remains a black box, even when it's our own mind!

And this is where modern science comes in handy. All these fancy experimental tools help us peer below the surface of consciousness, illuminating those darkened corners that we're not even aware of. As a result, we're able to understand ourselves in a new way and hopefully squeeze a few more epiphanies from those three pounds of Jell-O inside the skull.

BNR: Although your book is largely not a prescriptive one, an idea that your last three chapters all strongly support seems to be designing ways for more "creative collisions" to occur in schools, at work, and in everyday life. Over the last several years, the focus in many aspects of our culture has been on building a digital "social network." Can this do the work of physical and conversational interaction? Do we need to spend more resources, as a culture, encouraging the power of the "emergent property of people coming together?"

JL: In the late 1990s, when the dot-com fever was at its peak, many technology enthusiasts predicted that cities and physical offices would soon become obsolete, a relic of the analog age. After all, in an online world of email and videochats, why should we sacrifice our quality of life to live amid strangers? Cheap bandwidth would mean the end of expensive rents: The zeroes and ones hurtling across the fiber optic cables would supply us with all of our human interactions.

Of course, this pessimism has not come to pass. More people than ever before are moving to cities; we still commute to skyscrapers. (One of my favorite factoids is that attendance at business conferences has doubled since the invention of Skype.) And I think the reason Skype has not killed off cities and offices is because something magical happens when we cram ourselves together. It turns out that all those random interactions add up, which is why the most innovative cities and workspaces have a way of hurling people together, forcing them to converse and share knowledge.

I'm reminded here of that great Steve Jobs story about the Pixar headquarters. When he was planning the studio in the late 1990s, he had the building arranged around a central atrium, so that the diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other. But Jobs soon realized that it wasn't enough to create an airy atrium; he needed to force people to go there. He began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the lobby. Then he moved the meeting rooms to the center of the building, followed by the cafeteria, the coffee bar, and the gift shop. Finally, he decided that the atrium should contain the only set of bathrooms in the entire building. (He was later forced to compromise and install a second pair of bathrooms.) At first, people hated this design, since it meant they were constantly schlepping to the atrium. But now lots of people have their bathroom breakthrough story, describing how some errant conversation while washing their hands led to an insight.

BNR: Has working on this topic changed the way you think, your approach to "creative" tasks? Do you work differently than you did before you started this book?

JL: It definitely has. I think the single biggest change is how I respond to a creative block. Before, when I was stuck on a piece of writing — and I'm often stuck — I'd chain myself to my desk. I'd drink strong coffee and will myself to focus until I found the answer. I assumed that the answer would only arrive if I searched for it relentlessly.

Of course, I'd often wake up the next day and realize that my "answer" was often an illusion, that I'd stayed up late to get a fix that didn't really fix anything. And so I'd be forced to begin again.

And here's where the science comes in handy. Now, when I'm really stuck, I think about all that research on moments of insight that suggests that insights are far more likely to arrive when we're relaxed, and better able to eavesdrop on the murmurs of the unconscious. Instead of staying at my desk, I go for a long walk. Einstein once declared that "creativity is the residue of time wasted." So I guess you could say I've gotten much better at wasting time.

March 19, 2012

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Imagine: How Creativity Works 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 54 reviews.
humbleSage More than 1 year ago
As an artist, teacher and entrepreneur, this book comes along to scream factually what many of my ilk believed all along - creativity is not some mysterious gift, it is the result of hard-work, perseverance, and socialization. Being creative is not a choice, and it is also not a privilege. Creativity is something we all possess and we all should seek to nurture. Many thanks to Jonah Lehrer for writing this book at a time when these words are so needed. I will be recommending this book as I expand my network, and hopefully my creativity. If you are a curious creative (artist, craftsman, engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, etc.), I highly recommend you read this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well Researched Book Which Deserves A Thorough Reading. As a physician, I was drawn to this book and its analysis of human creativity. In medical school we're taught about neurons and how they function together to control body functions and generalized thought processes, but we're never really educated on what factors truly influence creativity. What did Mozart's brain have that other composers don't? Why do some people appreciate the visual arts more than others? And how is science currently utilized to maximize the creative process? We've been to the moon, had rovers on Mars, and can visualize worlds millions and billions of miles away. Yet the real unexplored frontier just may lie inside our own craniums. A fascinating book. Fans of Malcolm Gladwell will enjoy this book. For readers interested in the making of a doctor, I recommend Dr. Anthony Youn's "In Stitches." It's a great, light-hearted read that would be a nice companion to a more dense, scholarly book like "Imagine."
LinNC More than 1 year ago
The combination of research and stories makes this an easy but informative read and probably appealing to a wide audience of readers. Having dealt for years with the "Yeah, but I'm not creative." complaint/excuse/self-evaluation from colleagues and friends, I found the information Lehrer shares to be extremely helpful in countering similar comments in the future. The meta-ideas are excellent - maybe not necessarily astounding - but sometimes we need to take a closer look to discover those things that should or could have been obvious. Highly recommend this book for anyone who is struggling with how to tap into collective and individual creativity.
DelilahLions More than 1 year ago
This book is fascinating! The stories and research are compelling. i couldn't put the book down. I wish everyone I know could read it. This would be a great book for a discussion group as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you teach or create things, you need this book. If u are interested in how humans think, get this book
DavidWineberg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The writing style is fast paced; it's an easy read. Unfortunately, it's also not a challenging read. And worse, it becomes annoying. I got annoyed at the sweeping general statements like the number of patents awarded in New York City being higher than elsewhere, showing the creativity level of cities to be so much higher than towns or countryside. The simple (unstated) fact is IBM gets almost as many patents as pretty much everyone else combined every year. And IBM is everywhere. However, its patent attorneys are in New York, so guess where the patents get filed? It's not that New Yorkers are madly patenting everything in sight; it's that the corporate lawyers take over from the scientists in California and Texas and upstate New York. Furthermore, the business of the density of cities being such a boost to creativity is totally bogus. If it were true, then Mexico City would be a hotbed. Djakarta would be a positive blur, and Gaza would be paradise. But the simple fact is, it's New York. New York is the most livable, most highly functioning, productive - and yes creative - city in the world. And you cannot generalize from New York. It's unique.The whole business of improv being a groupthink creativity machine is also way too general. Had Lehrer spent any time with the real masters of the art - Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams - his chapter would have looked a lot different. Individuals can be at least as creative as groups. There is no silver bullet, no yellow brick road. Lehrer has not discovered anything here.The farther I read, the faster I read, because the content got to be repetitive and predictable - and less, shall we say - creative.So it's not the best thing since sliced bread, but it is entertaining. There are lots of stories of artists and scientists. And it is fast paced.A mixed bag is the best I can say.
Darcia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating look at how creativity works within our brains. Lehrer argues that there are no 'creative types'. Each of us, in the right circumstances, can be creative in our own way. Using a combination of research and real life examples, Lehrer explores various aspects of creativity. We examine issues such as Bob Dylan's writing process, the invention of Scotch tape, the best way to organize a work place, and how some schools stifle, while others foster, creativity. Lehrer's writing style is entertaining and easy to understand. This is the perfect book for anyone interested in the science behind creativity.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What is creativity? What makes people more or less creative? What brain processes are linked with creativity? How can we bring more creativity into the world?This little book takes a quick look at all of these and more. It¿s not a book for the scientist or the scholar but a book for the everyday person who wants to know a little more about creativity. As an everyday person, I took away a lot from this book. Use blue if you want a more creative environment. A creative answer often comes after one has given up seeking a solution and it comes in a mad tumble of completeness. Working with others, building on ideas as a group, is a good way of enhancing creativity. Urban environments generate more creativity than rural ones. To encourage creativity one must encourage risk.That¿s a nice little list of new information that I took from a two hour read.
Jaylia3 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Imagine is not a how-to book--it¿s an entertaining, research backed exploration of creativity with fascinating anecdotes whose topics range from how Bob Dylan writes songs to how masking tape was invented¿but reading it sent my mind into an idea-generating frenzy, and it¿s filled with information about what environments and states of mind are most conducive to inspiration. As you¿d expect from something as fickle as creativity, those conditions vary widely and even contradict each other. A relaxed, very early morning type of mind can synthesize its way to innovation, but that flash of insight may be based on observations made when the mind was focused, and focus may be needed later to perfect or implement the breakthrough. Then again, focused concentration isn¿t the only way to gather creativity stimulating information, simply wandering around in the world, seeing things, hearing music, or talking to people can be just as fruitful. Some companies, including Pixar, have tried to recreate the conditions of cities where people are crowded together and constantly bumping into each other, because doing so facilitates the exchange of ideas between departments and leads to better products. In Pixar¿s case it was Steve Jobs, on hiatus from Apple, who insisted that it would be a good idea to have everyone in the company use the same central bathrooms and snack bar.There¿s a very interesting section on brainstorming that was used as the basis for an article in the New Yorker. In the classic brainstorming session no ideas are ever criticized, the thinking is that criticism would frighten away good ideas, but it turns out it¿s more productive to discuss, scrutinize and even challenge any ideas put on the table. This discussion can refine, perfect or combine half formed suggestions, transforming them from weak notions to strong proposals.The ideas presented in Imagine are available in other books, some of which cite the scientific literature they are based on which Jonah Lehrer does not, but Imagine is engaging and readable, and its anecdotal style makes abstract concepts about creativity and brain function easy to comprehend.
lincics on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Offers intriguing insights into the psychology of creativity based on an exploration of academic research and case studies of innovative individuals and companies, including Bob Dylan, Milton Glaser, David Byrne, 3M and Pixar. Lehrer succeeds in bringing together a wide assortment of information from disparate sources into a cohesive and easily comprehensible narrative. The book stops short of offering a formula for generating creativity, but provides evidence-based direction for those who seek to foster creative thinking in themselves and others. While not everyone may agree with some of his generalizations, he does a great service by bringing together evidence from hard-core research and illustrative examples that make the concepts he discusses accessible to a general audience.
wbc3 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book attempts to look at the creative process. For me, I read this largely through the prism of what I and my company should do to foster creativity in our workplace. Lehrer looks at creativity through individual examples, like Bob Dylan, as well as the latest in neuroscience and psychology to try and understand the creative process. One of the big takeaways for me is the importance of allowing the brain time to wander. This is related to the phenomenon of having great ideas in the shower. As the author himself would probably agree, I need to let the ideas in the book percolate a bit before deciding what to do with them. I would recommend this book to anyone involved in work that requires creativity and who is willing to think about the best way to maximize creativity. Arguably, pretty much everyone and job would be well served by more creativity!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
ABookishGirlBlog More than 1 year ago
Imagine is an in depth look into creativity and how it seems that some of us are more creative than others. The book goes into great detail about various studies about creativity and their results without being boring and quickly shows how certain brain waves, areas of the brain, and different techniques not only show creativity but that they can make a person more creative, that you can change your mind into that of a creative person. A look at different creative people and the ways that drug and alcohol use made them more creative was a particularly interesting part of the story, almost like a tattler magazine. But the stories about Google and Pixar and the way that the whole environment from the layout to their work schedules promotes so much creativity. The book is broken into two parts: the creativity of the individual and the creativity of a group. I didn't focus to much attention on the creativity of a group part of the book but it was still chock full of ideas of how to promote and create creativity in groups of people. The individual creativity I found so interesting it is amazing how the brain works in regards to creativity and how you can retrain the brain to be more creative. If you are looking for more creativity in your life and would like to understand how creativity works than this is the book for you!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You guys he plagarized the bob dylan quotes and now it's getting pulled off the shelves :O Jonah Lehrer has also plagarized other articles. Don't read this book that's written by a plagarizing liar.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read Imagine in my high school chemistry class this summer and at first, I was reluctant. Even if it meant a generous amount of extra credit, I still could not push myself to open the book. Eventually, I gave in and just after the first chapter, I was hooked! Imagine opened my eyes to the difference between creativity and being smart and learned new things with every turn of a page. It's a quick read but some chapters are a little difficult to get through. Besides some dry parts, Imagine has expanded my creativity greatly. I, without a doubt, reccomend this to anybody who is looking for an intellectual view on creativity and how society and culture shapes it!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The first half of the book was just ok. Did not finish the last two chapters. Either i lost focus or the book did.
Michael_Willman More than 1 year ago
An excellently researched book, perhaps one of the best books to date on the mechanisms involved in creativity. The book argues creativity to be a product of society and personal choices rather than a genetic predisposition and goes through varied examples from scientific case studies to successful business management. The author's uses real world examples helps the reader understand the context of what is being said, but at times it feels like the book is an anthology of short stories rather than a single book. The ending of the book was also a great disappointment to me, as the author switches writing styles from that of a research paper to one trying to argue a political agenda. It was not that the agenda was disagreeable, just that it didn't belong in a primarily research based paper. If the author was arguing politics from the beginning his political views would not have detracted from my opinion of the book so much, but to sneak it in the last twenty pages seemed like the author was attempting to catch the reader off guard. Despite these flaws, the book is a must-read for anyone who enjoys creative new ideas, business management, or sciencey things.
watermelly More than 1 year ago
i feel personally like the first half of the book was what mostly interested me, as it concerned the individual... the second half talked mostly about groups, or cities, and how to have society more open to geniuses. Lehrer does a good job of weaving multiple inspirational examples and telling their stories very craftily to make his points. it's nice to me cause it covers a lot of material fast. good quick read, i finished half of it in the store.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very informative and enteraining, thought provoking too