Imagine: How Creativity Works

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am


Imagine: How Creativity Works
by Jonah Lehrer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Stop concentrating. Or at least focus less. Because taking a direct approach to solving problems thwarts creativity, according to New York journalist Jonah Lehrer.

'While it's commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus, this clenched state of mind comes with a hidden cost: it inhibits the sort of creative connections that lead to breakthroughs. We suppress the very type of brain activity that should be encouraged,' Lehrer writes in his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works.

His solution: take a walk in the park, say; play ping pong, the way Google staff can; take a shower.

Ideas pop into your head when you are distracted, Lehrer says. Thank 'alpha waves'. Originating mostly from the brain's mysterious occipital lobe, these happen while you are relaxed.

If that sounds New Agey, consider the case of the Zen monk studied by neuroscientists Mark Beeman and John Kounios. They asked the meditation master to solve some compound remote associate problems (CRAP). A classic CRAP riddle is the connecting word between 'pine', crab', and 'sauce'. The correct answer: 'apple'.

At first, Lehrer recounts, the monk floundered, failing to solve dozens of riddles. Then, the scientists saw his alpha waves spike and he promptly solved the next 27 in a row. Kounios described him as an 'insight machine'.

You too can apparently learn to become like the monk, or a Steve Jobs, if you learn to relax.

Forget brainstorming, Lehrer argues, citing a 1958 Yale University experiment. In it, 48 male undergraduates were split into 12 groups of four and given a string of creative puzzles.

The scientists gave the same puzzles to 48 students working alone. Surprise: the soloists came up with twice as many solutions as the groups. Plus, judges rated the individuals' answers more 'feasible'. Instead of unleashing the groups' creative potential, brainstorming hobbled it because criticism was not allowed, the researchers concluded. Follow-up studies echoed their findings.

Brainstorming does not work. Nor do 'muses' or higher powers. And there's no innate creative type. 'The imagination is vaster than we can imagine. We just need to learn how to listen,' Lehrer writes.

That means 'sweat, sadness, and failure'. It might even mean 'shredding' - the editing process pursued by US animation firm Pixar. Every day, its animators gather for a shredding session in a screening room. They analyse the snatch of film animated the previous day, brutally 'shredding' each frame. Even underlings join in.

Everyone, including veterans, undergo heavy, healthy criticism, offset by 'plussing' - positive comments.

Lehrer is previously responsible for How We Decide and Proust was a Neuroscientist. A Wired contributing editor, he has written for The New Yorker, Nature and the Washington Post. The blurb for Imagine calls it a 'sparkling and revelatory look at the new science of creativity'.

Imagine, which features interviews with luminaries including rocker David Byrne, is hard to knock. Critics liken Lehrer to science writing titan Malcolm Gladwell.

Equally engaging and creative, Lehrer suggests imagination-boosting steps you can take: think like a child, daydream, surround yourself with the colour blue, have a laugh, get tipsy.

Yes, alcohol fuels creativity. Whatever your boss says, sitting chained to your desk does not.