Q&A: Jonah Lehrer on how creativity works

Science writer Jonah Lehrer recently penned a book on creativity. We spoke to him about flashes of inspiration, how businesses can better foster innovation, and the importance of knowing when to take a break.
Written by Molly Petrilla, Contributing Writer

What makes a person creative? Are some people simply born with ample stores of creativity? Is it something we can acquire or cultivate?

In his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, science writer Jonah Lehrer sets out to answer those and a host of other questions about innovation. As he notes in the book's introduction, Imagine 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."

"[T]he standard definition of creativity is completely wrong," he adds a few pages later. "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 for a variety of distinct thought processes."

Over the next 250 pages, Lehrer leads readers through the science behind creativity and inside the minds of its poster-children: Bob Dylan, Yo-Yo Ma, Steve Jobs. We recently spoke with Lehrer about flashes of inspiration, how businesses can better foster innovation, and the importance of knowing when to take a break.

You've written books on understanding the brain through art (Proust Was a Neuroscientist) and using science to make decisions (How We Decide). How did this new book on creativity come about?

It really grew out of my sense of mystery, especially when it concerns moments of insight. When you have one of those epiphanies in the shower it feels so bizarre. It's like the cortex is sharing a secret with you and you can't begin to explain where the idea came from. I just wanted to know a bit more about how that process worked. Then the book really spiraled out of control from there because you quickly discover that you can't just talk about creativity in terms of moments of insight. There's lots of hard work that comes before and after.

So was it through an epiphany that you thought of writing this book on epiphanies?

No, I wish it was. I really should just make up a story at this point about it. There was no sudden moment of insight about moments of insight. It was more just this growing sense that gosh, these are really strange things and I'd like to know more about them.

Did you hope that your book would help people learn how to enhance their own creativity?

I didn't begin with any grand plans as to what I wanted the book to be. It was more about listening to my curiosity and just trying to tell good stories. That's really how this book grew. In the end, one of the big ideas I wanted to get across was this notion that creativity's not some rare gift reserved for the lucky few. That doesn't mean we're all equally good at it, but it does mean we can all learn to get better at it.


I think the single biggest lesson — the idea I wanted to get across in the book — is that it's about learning how to get the most out of your mind. It's making sure you're thinking in the right way at the right time. We've got this myth that creativity is a single thing, but it's really just a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes. Sometimes you need a moment of insight and sometimes you just need to focus, focus, focus. It's being able to diagnose your problem and making sure you're thinking in the right way depending on the kind of problem you need to solve

What surprised you the most in your research for Imagine?

One thing was the research on moments of insight and how they benefit from states of relaxation. Before I wrote this book, I assumed that if I was stuck — if I didn't know how to begin a sentence or end a paragraph — what I needed to do was chug caffeine and stay up late and just keep on grinding it out. But of course that's the exact wrong thing to do. Now I'm much more willing to take a break. There's this great line of Einstein's that "creativity is the residue of wasted time." In a sense, this research has taught me to make time to waste time. Sometimes it's the most productive thing you can do. That definitely surprised me and changed the way I work every day.

One of the larger ideas that surprised me was just how social and collective creativity often is. I think we have this myth of the singular genius, but when you look at creative people, you find that they're often very, very social. The structure of a social network can dramatically impact creativity. That's why entrepreneurs with more diverse social networks are three times more innovative than those with predictable social networks. That was just an idea I certainly didn't expect to encounter but it's definitely a big theme in creativity.

Which creative person did you most enjoy delving into the mind of for this book?

It really was an honor to talk to them all. Spending time with Yo-Yo Ma was a special pleasure. I've been a huge fan and he's a pretty amazing guy.

What did you learn from him?

He's incredibly eloquent on the need to sometimes let yourself go, the need to just be expressive. Even when you're on stage in front of thousands of people, how important it is to stay loose and relaxed. He told this wonderful story about how before he steps on a stage he sometimes thinks about Julia Child and how she would every once in a while drop a chicken on the floor or make some mistake in front of the cameras. He said, 'How did she react to that mistake? Did she scream in horror? No, no, no, the smile never left her face. She just picked up the chicken, brushed it off and then kept on going with the show.' He said that's the mindset you have to have: You have to be willing to embrace that first mistake because that means now you are free.

How can what you discovered about creativity best be applied in the business world?

One of the models I proposed in the book is that companies should be more like cities. This is the work of Geoffrey West. He's made a very provocative comparison between cities and companies. He points out that cities and companies are both big social organizations, and yet there's one interesting difference, which is that cities never die while companies die all the time. And the reason, he explains, is because as cities get bigger, they make everyone in that city more productive. In companies, the opposite happens. As a company gets bigger, everyone in that company becomes less productive, and this is why companies die.

The reason West gives is that companies get in the way. They stifle interactions. They tell us to brainstorm, and brainstorming doesn't work. They tell us to always focus, to never relax, not to daydream. That's bad advice. They silo knowledge. They become these very vertical, hierarchical places, and many of these things that are done with the very best of intentions actually hold people back. They make it harder to be creative.

I think the best companies find ways to imitate cities. They encourage people from different departments to mix and mingle, to constantly share information. A great example that I use in the book is the Steve Jobs design of Pixar studios. He put everything in the atrium so people would be forced to share knowledge across disciplines. In general, I think that's the mindset to have. You want to be like a city. You want to imitate a great public space in which people are always coming together and sharing information.

I'd love to hear more about that brainstorming piece. It's so popular — and was such a buzzword for a while — but it doesn't actually work?

It's still the most widely implemented creativity technique in the world. It was pioneered by Alex Osborn, an ad executive, in the late 1940s. One important rule for classic brainstorming as he outlined it is no criticism allowed; all ideas are good ideas. The assumption being that the imagination's very meek and shy and if it's worried about being criticized it will just clam up. It's a feel-good technique. The only problem is it doesn't work. Study after study has shown that. The reason it doesn't work really returns us to the very first rule, thou shall not criticize. Studies have shown that groups that engage in debate and dissent come up with about 20 to 25 percent more new ideas and they're rated as more original. That's because debate and dissent — constructive criticism — draws us out. It's invigorating. It forces us to dig below the superficial surface of the imagination, and that's when things get interesting.

I'm also curious: Did you find that there are certain times of day when people are more creative?

There's a study showing that when people are at their groggiest, they're more likely to have moments of insight. So for night people, early in the morning before coffee, and for morning people, late at night. That's quite counter-intuitive, at least for me.

Many people place "creativity" in a totally separate sphere from "science." Based on this book and some of your other writing, I guess it's safe to say you don't agree with that.

Definitely not. Artists engage in experimentation just like scientists, and scientists sometimes have to think totally strange thoughts to explain data, just like artists. So I think they have far more in common than we typically assume.

How did you get into writing about science?

It really grew out of my own struggles to be a scientist. I always thought I'd be a scientist. That's what I always wanted to be. I worked in a lab for a number of years. Then I just realized I wasn't very good at it. I excelled in experimental failure. I think to be a great scientist you have to love the manual labor of science and I just didn't have the patience and the discipline for it. That's when I started thinking about science writing. I love the ideas of science, I love spending time with scientists, I love asking them questions, but I'm not really cut out for the act of daily experimentation.

What are you working on now? Do you have another book in mind?

The book project I'm just starting to think about is on love. Not just romantic love, but love of ideas, love of gods, love of pursuits. The mystery that intrigues me there is that when we say we love something, it's just another name for a pleasure or a source of meaning that doesn't get old. That is very strange because every other pleasure in the world gets old very quickly, whether it's the first bite of chocolate cake, which is better than the second, or the new iPad, which is thrilling for about a week. When it comes to our pleasures, we adapt them, we habituate, and yet when we fall in love with something, for whatever reason, we can stick with it for a long, long time and still get tremendous amounts of pleasure from it. I don't have any answers, it just strikes me as an interesting question I wouldn't mind thinking about for another couple years.

Photo by Nina Subin

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