Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer

Update, July 30, 2012:

On Sunday, July 29, Jonah Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker over reuse of his own material in his New Yorker blog posts, and after an article in Tablet magazine — “Jonah Lehrer’s Deceptions” — revealed that he had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan for his book Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Lehrer’s troubles are detailed in a New York Times post, “Jonah Lehrer Resigns From The New Yorker After Making Up Dylan Quotes for His Book.”

This is a book which should be read by every educator, and most managers. It might also be valuable to anyone who ever wants to create anything.

In Imagine: How Creativity Works, author Jonah Lehrer sketches out the basic creative processes by which consumer products are invented, Broadway musicals are produced, economic centers are stimulated, poetry is honed, jazz is improvised, puzzles are solved, advertising slogans are birthed, hit movies are crafted, logos are designed, and rock anthems are hurled.

Lehrer discloses that these pathways are now finally beginning to be mapped. His book is a captivating anecdotal tour of assorted creative wonders in the Western world. Touching on research into creativity and examining the residue of genius itself, Lehrer takes us inside Bob Dylan’s house in Woodstock, New York in 1965, as he writes “Like a Rolling Stone.” We visit an EEG laboratory at Goldsmiths, University of London to learn about the brain’s alpha waves and their role as a precursor to insight. We study the work culture and the physical layout of companies including 3M and Pixar Animation Studios.

Like an obsessed scientist connecting cables to produce a brilliant spark of life, Lehrer describes two distinct processes occurring in two separate regions of the brain, both of which can result in creation. One is the revelation — the epiphany, the sudden blot of insight out of the blue (literally, the color blue) which, it turns out, is often the result of letting one’s mind wander playfully. The other is a persistant chipping away, a steady process of revision eventually arriving at perfection. Understanding both modes — as well as how and when to engage either of them — could be as helpful to an aspiring creator as it is for a handyman to know which screwdriver to use.

Because modern problems can increasingly be too complex for any single genius to solve, Imagine also walks us through the kinds of environments which either nurture or inhibit group creativity. (If you’ve ever been forced to sit through a brainstorming session sensing it was completely worthless, there is evidence here to back that up.) One key is working with the correct mix of people, and this is examined in the book’s chapter on “Q.” Also, since these group settings can range from offices to corporate campuses to entire cities, the principles of creative friction Lehrer lays out ought to interest architects and city planners everywhere.

Schools, of course, should be wombs of creativity, and the public education investment which produced not only William Shakespeare, but also Christopher Marlowe, John Milton, Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Nash, John Donne, Francis Bacon and others, is offered as an example of how a society benefits by nurturing as many young minds as possible, rather than letting them waste. Then Lehrer shows us present day programs at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and San Diego’s High Tech High that are paying big dividends in the arts and tech sectors.

It’s kind of breathtaking when Lehrer points out that the United States already has a highly effective system in place for developing the talent of our youth to the utmost — but that, bizarrely, we only utilize it for sports.

However, sermons and scientific jargon are kept to a minimum in Imagine: How Creativity Works. Instead, the book breezes by, hopscotching around the country and the world, telling delightful stories about creativity. We meet the man who invented masking tape. We learn the importance of staying loose to Yo-Yo Ma’s onstage performances.We hear how Pixar’s Toy Story 2 went from “suck to non-suck” — how the failed movie was completely overhauled to become one of the most successful animated films ever made, even scoring an impossible 100 percent among critics at RottenTomatoes.com.

After this energizing experience, I’m sort of itching to read Jonah Lehrer’s previous book, How We Decide.

What do you think — should I?

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