"The residue of time wasted": Jonah Lehrer Talks Creativity

Editor’s Note: On July 30, 2012, Jonah Lehrer confirmed a journalist’s report that a number of quotations appearing in Imagine: How Creativity Works were fabrications, and publicly apologized for misleading his readers.  Publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has subsequently recalled all editions of the book. 



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 new book 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 which 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.