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Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

June 8, 2012


This is another in a growing genre of books that takes a popular approach to science (mainly biology and physiology, mixes in a little psychology, sociology, maybe some economics) and wraps it around a series of anecdotes to explain how or why we behave the way we do. I’d put it on the bookshelf next to Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Outliers), the Freakonomics books and Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain. Jonah Lehrer (How We Decide) has carved out a niche as the brain expert among journalists. I particularly like his style and find his insights more…well, insightful than some of the other books in the genre.

This book, as the subtitle indicates, focuses on creativity. He spends some time describing what modern science can tell us about the topic (which parts of the brain light up when subjects are given a creative task, etc.) and uses that to physiologically support what those of us who work in a creative field experience firsthand—there is a part of the brain that wants to free associate, and there is a part of the brain that wants to shut that down, the naysayer of the brain. That naysayer part of the brain is good for some tasks, but good creative thinkers need to find a way to silence it when they’re thinking divergently (i.e. coming up with ideas).

These types of books fail or succeed with the anecdotes—how interesting they are and how much they support the central premise. This book doesn’t have a central premise, per se. It’s more of an exploration of creative thinking, which is why some of the points made seem to be contradictory. But for the most part, the anecdotes are pretty interesting. You learn some things that are fairly trivial (what color walls best promote creativity), some things that support common stereotypes (research shows a correlation between creativity and melancholy), some things that are nice to hear (brainstorming meetings are a waste of time) and some more surprising stories (Pixar studios was intentionally built with one set of centrally located bathrooms to encourage mingling between different departments). It’s really a broad hodgepodge of topics, which can be entertaining if not completely useful. A few good things to consider if you work in a creative field, but probably more valuable as cocktail chatter.

My favorite section was about the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the way he approaches performance. To him, the emotion of the music is the important part, much more important than technical perfection. Those who approach performance with the goal of being perfect will fail. In fact, Ma says, “I welcome the first mistake, because now I’m free.” A pretty liberating notion. Of all the anecdotes in this book, it may be the most removed from but say the most about how to approach creative thinking.

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