It’s Easy If You Try

by Joshua J. Friedman ’08JRN
Imagine: How Creativity Works
By Jonah Lehrer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pages, $26
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Lehrer explores other scientific discoveries, too, but he is always eager to alternate between science and the world of commerce to show creative people at work and the conditions that contributed to their success. He tours the campus of 3M, founded in 1902 as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company but today famous for having invented Scotch tape and the Post-it note. He looks in on Pixar Animation Studios, which in the past seventeen years has turned out hit after hit. Here and elsewhere, Lehrer observes employees who are encouraged to vary their routines, take breaks, cross traditional departmental boundaries, collaborate, converse.

It is in his effort to turn science journalism into service journalism that Imagine goes astray. From the start, Lehrer is at pains to assert that the book’s conclusions are counterintuitive. “For most of human history, people have believed that the imagination is inherently inscrutable, an impenetrable biological gift,” Lehrer writes. By letting us peer inside the brain and teaching us how to tap into our inherent creative tendencies, Lehrer tries to show us how to rig an unriggable system. But his cheats are the ones everyone already knows: Take a walk! Take a break! Take a trip!

“There’s something deeply surprising about these data,” Lehrer writes, but not only does Imagine contain few surprises, in attempting to transform small scientific developments into a self-help program, it stretches the science beyond all coherence and utility. Happiness promotes one aspect of creativity, sadness another. Imagination, creativity, genius, and commercial success are hardly distinguished. With all these examples of self-betterment interspersed with stories of genius, how can readers help but take away the promise that they are only a few warm showers away from becoming Shakespeare?

And Lehrer does not shy away from explaining even Shakespeare’s talent, walking us through the conditions that enabled his creativity: a dense urban center, a thriving theater culture, a rising literacy rate, the printing press. Shakespeare borrowed plotlines from other writers and spun them into gold, says Lehrer.

It was the welter of Elizabethan England that inspired him
to become a playwright and then allowed him to transform
himself from a poor imitation of Marlowe into the greatest
writer of all time. Shakespeare is a reminder, in other words,
that culture largely determines creative output.

But who disputes that people’s lives and efforts are influenced by social conditions? How much of Shakespeare’s greatness does that explain? In the end, Lehrer identifies only the characteristics that Shakespeare shared with his contemporaries, leaving us to wonder what distinguished him. Lehrer peels back each layer and gives up when he reaches the one that interests us: the kernel, the spark.

“The source of every new idea is the same,” writes Lehrer. “There is a network of neurons in the brain, and the network shifts. All of a sudden, electricity flows in an unfamiliar pattern, a shiver of current across a circuit board of cells.” But this is not the source of a new idea; it is the parallel story of the mechanics. By intercutting lessons about gamma waves with anecdotes about poets, Lehrer attributes too much explanatory power to these mechanisms. At the end of the book, the imagination seems just as mysterious as at the beginning.

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