Imagine: How Creativity Works
by Jonah Lehrer
Review by Jamie Dunsdon
If Malcolm Gladwell and Gray’s Anatomy hooked up and had a love child, the result would be Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer.
I am, of course, referring to Malcolm Gladwell - the best-selling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw - and Gray’s Anatomy, the formative textbook on anatomy (not the television series about a hospital in which I pray I am never stuck). In his latest book, Jonah Leher takes on imagination, both as a biological process and a cultural phenomenon. What happens in our brains when we create? What colour should we paint our walls to stimulate creative output? What can math teach us about how creative ensembles function best?
Like Gladwell, Lehrer excels at using story as a hook for those of us who still like characters in our non-fiction. Each chapter focuses on a facet of creativity using case study and historical anecdote to frame Lehrer’s arguments. In order to examine creative insight, Lehrer tells the story of Bob Dylan’s near-retirement from music, and how a change of scenery prompted the most revolutionary artistic discoveries in his career. Want to know where where masking tape came from? Lehrer tells you, explaining conceptual blending and objective creative perspective. Yo-Yo Ma becomes the poster boy for how letting go of perfection leads to artistic excellence, and PIXAR is highlighted for its approach to promoting creative environments.
Also like Gladwell, Lehrer shines when he focuses on social psychology. The most resonant chapters in Imagine are those that paint a broad societal picture. Lehrer does an outstanding job of explaining how an understanding of the the creative tendencies of individuals or small groups can be extrapolated to understand the creative tendencies of theatre companies, corporations, and even large cities. To Lehrer’s tremendous credit, this analysis makes this book accessible to any reader. As a theatre artist, I found both new insight and confirmation of some creative ideas those of us who spend our lives creating probably already know, but this book isn’t just for artists; it’s for entrepreneurs, managers, salespeople, teachers, and mayors. Lehrer tells us the way the world works.
As the author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Lehrer has had past success with a scientific approach to social psychology. However, the biological science is less useful in this book, a disappointing revelation for this reader who is a bit of a neuroscience nerd. The first three chapters of Imagine are layered with more neuroscience than the rest, and they are the most difficult to work through. Ironically, Lehrer’s explanation of creative insight (as explained by neuroscience) lacks insight. He uses Bob Dylan’s miraculous come-back as a case study, which is fine, but goes so far as to detail exactly what was happening in Dylan’s brain at the time. His science may be solid, but his assumption of Dylan’s creative process is a leap. Lehrer gets a bit bogged down by cranial hemispheres and cortexes, making those first three chapters a strange introduction to what is, essentially, an ethnography.
Despite a few leaps on Lehrer’s part, I love the book. I find myself quoting it at least two times a day, a rather good sign that the book has ideas worth discussing, even if you don’t agree with them all. For my arts colleagues, it is full of interesting tools for creative process. One of my favorite parts of the book is where where Lehrer cites and analyzes a study that demonstrates how creative ensembles function over a period of time. Should the ensemble bring in new blood to ensure fresh ideas and connections, or does the group benefit more from the same people working together again and again to develop a group rapport? Lehrer finds that there is a tipping point (pure Gladwell), a “Q” quotient that can mathematically determine what the ideal make-up of a creative group should be for the most interesting output. Lehrer even dives as far into Gladwell territory as to explain how creative outliers, such as Shakespeare, are often born into conditions that nurture artistic genius.
Imagine is an insightful and - forgive me - imaginative exploration of what drives culture: creative innovation. If you can work through the first couple of chapters, and if you can forgive Mr. Lehrer’s editor for not telling him that each of his chapters is about six pages too long (his support material and language does become a tad redundant at times), this book is full of little rewards.
UPDATE. July 31, 2012.
Mr. Lehrer has recently come under fire, and even resigned his position at the New Yorker, for having been caught misquoting Bob Dylan in this book. I did a little research, and perhaps it is somewhat telling that most critics who have reviewed IMAGINE have taken issue with the Bob Dylan chapters in one way or another. However, I stand my by review, above. I think there are some valuable ideas in this book, and still encourage you to read it if Mr. Lehrer makes the appropriate edits. However, it does make one question how one can trust anything Mr. Lehrer writes.
Blast. That sucks.