the light bulb

Imagine: How Creativity Works
Imagine: How Creativity Works
Imagine How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer is available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. | Photo: | Author, Jonah Lehrer, Imagine,

Jonah Lehrer and the Science Behind Creativity

Imagine: How Creativity Works
Jonah Lehrer
Hardcover. 279 pp.
March 19, 2012. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Like many writers, I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at a blinking text cursor on an empty white document hoping that I will miraculously shift from having no ideas whatsoever into relentlessly filling my computer screen with pure literary brilliance. For as long as humans have created, we have also experienced the frustration of a creative funk. No matter what works we have previously produced all artists or builders understand the hopeless feeling that comes along with a blank piece of paper, an untouched painter's canvas, or a silent musical instrument. We sit, we stare, and we dream that something will spark our imagination and inspire the ideas that we need. We wonder if maybe we're just not the artistic type; if maybe we're not wired the same way as Steinbeck or Van Gogh, Chopin or Rodin.

And, then, an idea hits us and we go to work. Many liken that insight to a light bulb going off, illuminating ideas that seem to be buried within us, brightening the path towards completion, and spotlighting whatever it is we want to express, whatever it is that we want people to feel.

Where do these ideas come from? What is it exactly that sparks our creativity? In Jonah Lehrer's new book Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), the New York Times best-selling author draws on his background in neuroscience and his first-rate abilities as a writer and journalist to break down the science behind the creative process and illustrate how the imagination works by sharing the extraordinary stories of creative people from all walks of life.

Often, we tend to think that creativity is a rare gift bestowed upon a lucky few. In Imagine, Lehrer argues that creativity and imagination aren't attributes exclusive only to a small collection of artistic types. We are all capable of creating. Some may be more talented than others, but creativity isn't a serendipitous occurrence that strikes the fortunate like a bolt of artistic lightning. Nor is it a transient state of awareness or fleeting opportunity that may never call again. Instead, it is a physical action. The ability to use our imagination and create something new is hardwired inside all of us. We can be confident that all of our minds are capable of accessing that ability and even triggering it. In fact, the science behind the creative process allows us to take the analogy of a new idea or fresh insight being like a light bulb going off in our head a little further. The creative process in our brains is wired like an electrical system and if a new idea means that light bulb brightens we ourselves have the ability to flip the switch.

As he has done in previous books like How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist, as well as in his frequently articles featured in The New Yorker, Wired, the Wall Street Journal, and, Jonah Lehrer introduces us to examples and experiments that back up the science he is trying to explain with writing that is lucid and vivid, as if he were reporting on the details of a basketball game rather than neuroscience or cognitive psychology. While some of Lehrer's examples spring forward from stories about familiar people like Bob Dylan, Yo-Yo Ma, and William Shakespeare, Imagine also highlights the unlikely creation of well-known objects like masking tape, Post-It notes, Barbie dolls, and Nike's "Just do it" slogan. As with Lehrer's other books, though, these subjects are not the focus of Imagine. Instead, they are the vehicles that Lehrer utilizes to take us into our own heads so that we can understand the structure and mechanics of our brain, how ideas or insights are formulated, and where creativity comes from. Because Lehrer is so good at what he does, any casual reader with little background in science is able to understand the language and lessons that he uses.

Being able to translate complicated science into books like Imagine comes from more than the author possessing a vast amount of knowledge on the subject -- a feat that would be impressive enough on its on. It requires the immense talents of a great writer. And that is exactly what Jonah Lehrer is. There is not a long list of writers whose works I make a point not to miss, but Lehrer is on the list. Whether it is in one of his books or one of his articles, I consistently find myself learning from Lehrer's writing. Usually, I learn something directly about neuroscience and, indirectly or subtly, I learn something about writing from his entertaining and fluid style. In Imagine, the same thing holds true, but there is also a lot of science in this particular book which I feel might directly help in the writing aspect, too. Imagine isn't meant to be a self-help or how-to book, but by revealing some of the mysteries behind creativity, Lehrer provides helpful hints on how to access those parts of the brain which can trigger imagination or insight and help creative people produce more effectively, or more often. After reading about the possible benefits of focused daydreaming, I've started doing something similar to what one of the scientists in Lehrer's book does to help with creativity. Instead of taking walks with Jay-Z or 2Pac on my iPod, I've left the music at home and felt that it helps sharpen my focus and my thoughts are more organized if I come home and start writing afterward.

By breaking Imagine into two sections, Lehrer gives attention to all types of creative thinking. The first part of the book focuses on individuals and the second part looks at how people think or create when working together. For people who work closely with others, the second half of Imagine could help with making the most out of teamwork and be essential to those trying to build a successful and innovative company. For those who especially dislike meetings, don't miss the part about why brainstorming doesn't work. In both parts, Lehrer relies on years of research from scientists around the world and supplements his stories with academic information and testimony from some of the top researchers studying the brain and creative thinking.

This is now the third book of Jonah Lehrer's that I have read and I regularly check out the articles that he publishes and I'm just constantly jealous of his ability. It's almost unfair, really, that someone like Lehrer can be so smart and ALSO be a fantastic writer. I don't know what the science is behind those feelings of mine, but the annoying thing is that Lehrer probably does -- and he could explain it to me. That's one of the most amazing thing about Lehrer's writing. He not only finds compelling stories to tell or captivating people to write about, but he is able to either pull the science out of those stories or find science to explain them, and then translate that science to people like me. And that's not an easy thing to do at all. Imagine is not only informative, but for creative people or those looking to be more efficient, it is also potentially helpful. For those of you wondering why that light bulb of imagination shines, or how to turn it on, Imagine is an excellent start.

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer is available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. You can order the book now from Amazon, or download it instantly for your Kindle. Jonah Lehrer writes the "Frontal Cortex" column and is a contributing editor at Wired, writes the "Head Case" column for the Wall Street Journal, is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and Grantland, his website is, and he is on Twitter @jonahlehrer.

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:14 PM EDT | More details


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