Book review: Imagine: How creativity works

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Imagine: How Creativity Works

The philosopher and clinician Raymond Tallis has coined the term “neuromania” to describe the widely-held and utterly wrong-headed contemporary belief that everything that makes us human can be understood solely in terms of neural activity. Jonah Lehrer, who is in many ways a very engaging and intelligent writer, and who has some profound and radical things to say, has, unfortunately, a chronic case of neuromania. The opening chapters of Imagine: How Creativity Works are almost a check-list of the symptoms Tallis describes. Thanks to the fMRI and EEG scans the moment of epiphany is found in “the anterior superior temporal gyrus”. Creativity is “built into” the mind’s “operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code”. He says we can “measure the excitement of neurons”, a subtle elision that hides mindfulness, a human I, inside the biochemistry: a neuron can no more be excited than my colon can be lonesome or my epiglottis blissful.

Imagine is divided into two sections: the first looks at the individual and creativity; and the second, creativity in various forms of collaboration. Lehrer’s case studies are pleasingly diverse: Bob Dylan and a surfer with Asperger’s Syndrome; Pixar, a cocktail maker and WH Auden; Yo-Yo Ma, Penn and Teller, Shakespeare and Milton Glaser (the designer who came up with the I♥NY logo). The second part is by far the more provocative and inspirational.

In part, the flaw of the first part is that in trying to “pin down” creativity, Lehrer reveals it is everywhere. The first section deals with the “a-ha!” moment after being blocked. This, Lehrer says, is found in the left hemisphere of the brain, which makes remote and lateral associations, especially in a “conversation” between the prefrontal lobes and the posterior cingulate, medial temporal lobe and precuneus. It can, supposedly, be encouraged with long lies, warm showers, a couple of beers and the colour blue. But after the insight comes the refinement of the idea, and it’s a switched hemisphere, hard concentration, the nucleus accumbens and the ventral striatum, and you might take recourse to caffeine, Benzedrine, red and feeling a bit melancholy. Now, I am not denying that there are many different kinds of mental activity associated with the broad idea of “creativity”, but if it involves the whole brain and requires fundamentally opposite emotional states and kinds of stimulant to activate it, it does not seem to me that we have narrowed down the idea to any significant degree.

The second section, discussing how we interrelate with others in the environment, is markedly less marred by such neuromaniac speculations; and in it, Lehrer offers far more significant and political solutions to the idea of creativity. Sociological studies undertaken by Brian Uzzi on, bizarrely, the hits and flops of musicals on Broadway revealed correlations between how well the different collaborators knew each other and the musical’s ultimate success. If the group knew each other too well, they production team lacked innovation. If the group was made up of relative strangers, they failed to communicate with each other. The “sweet spot” meant a mix of friends and strangers, elastic enough to be challenged and tight enough to be co-operative. This has fundamental consequences for any large organisation, from corporations to government cabinets. The discussion of Pixar explodes a long-standing myth: the idea of “brainstorming”. Developed by advertising executive Alex Osborn in 1942, the idea was that a blurt of thoughts, unhampered by self-censorship or quality control, would lead inevitably to an outpouring of brilliant notions. It is still a prevalent practice, and there is only one snag. Study after study proves that it doesn’t work. By contrast, Pixar’s early morning group meetings encouraged pertinent, exact and exacting criticism, and its results speak for themselves. Again, these findings ought to give pause for thought, especially in educational and pedagogic circles. The seminar, the workshop, and the colloquium might all be profitably reconsidered in this light.

Lehrer also looks at cities as a model for creativity. Despite the prophecy of Thomas Malthus that the city was unsustainable and doomed to extinction, urbanisation has increased exponentially over the 20th and 21st centuries. With urbanisation, Lehrer foregrounds the chance encounter, ethnic diversity and mutual competition as triggers for the creativity of cities, citing, for example, the rise of Silicon Valley just at the time when the pundits were predicting the dominance of the “Magic Semicircle” of Route 128. There is an astonishing statistic on resilience: not even hurricane flooding, firebombing, or the dropping of an atomic bomb obliterated New Orleans, Dresden and Hiroshima. By contrast, 20 per cent of all companies listed on the Fortune 500 will disappear each decade. As cities get bigger they get more productive; as companies get bigger, they get less so. Lehrer argues, rightly I think, that the “horizontal” nature of the city leads to a kind of serendipity, the interplay between daydream and graft, whereas the corporation ossifies into hierarchy and rigid thinking.

The final chapter is inspirational: dealing with creativity and education, it moves between the astonishing conglomeration of talent in Elizabethan and Jacobean London and the visionary New Orleans Centre for the Creative Arts, with its master-apprentice model of teaching and focus on the child’s creativity. Lehrer’s meta-ideas about how to maximise creative potential are thorough and thought through well. In short order, he looks at education (why is it we are better at fostering sports talents than aesthetic or scientific excellence?); the necessity of immigration; risk-taking (not all projects should be linked to commercial utility, a point made by Stefan Collini in his excellent polemic What Are Universities For?); and finally, rewarding invention. He steers a careful course between the current crop of online ideologues demanding completely free content and the restrictive nature of some copyright rules. We cannot predict where geniuses will emerge but we can ensure that when and where they do, they find a responsive environment.

Gordon Lish, the legendary editor, defines for me that the spark is the least important part of creativity: he said, “I see the notion of talent as quite irrelevant. I see instead perseverance, application, industry, assiduity, will, will, will, desire, desire, desire”.

Imagine: How Creativity Works

Jonah Lehrer

Canongate, 280pp, £18.99