Sunday, 18 November 2012

Dabbling Creatively

Imagine: How Creativity WorksImagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jonah Lehrer. Imagine: How Creativity Works. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Book Review by Kate Robinson

As a creative writer, I am perennially fascinated by imagination and the science behind it. Jonah Lehrer, the best-selling pop-science author of How We Decide, tackled the creative process in this rambling and diverse narrative. That Lehrer dabbled in some ironic creative maneuvers in this volume by fabricating Bob Dylan quotes made reading this volume even more enticing. It must satisfy something on my creative writing side, the side that as some writers like to say, tells lies for a living.

Despite the self-plagiarism that derailed Lehrer's career recently, his work is peppered with nuggets of valid information, if not wisdom. Readers and writers are keenly aware that the unconscious mind experiences fiction as reality, and that scenes portrayed in literature and art do not have to be real to provoke profound insights about life. The confabulated quotes cited in the flurry of articles about Lehrer’s misdeeds are insignificant taken in context to the entire scope of his work. Lehrer accomplished a good bit of legitimate research for Imagine, and he sheds light on the process of creativity in the straightforward, accessible language of “new media” journalism. We need interpreters of science like him. Sadly, there isn’t much hard science in this book, though there is certainly enough to keep a humanities major like myself busy navigating the byways of neuroscience.

Lehrer’s greatest contribution to the study of creativity is his assurance that we are all creative, and that we can all learn to harness our imaginations more efficiently. Whether we experiment with seventy versions of a musical phrase like Beethoven, or produce only a handful of plodding revisions in an academic science paper or a short story, we all share the ability to focus upon and solve creative problems. As Lehrer points out, the extremes of the creative process – the transcendent generation phase coupled with the more attentive revision stage of the creative process - are somewhat like the vacillation between mania and depression in bipolar disorder. We must learn to navigate these changes of mental and emotional direction in order to harness our creative perceptions, surrendering logic and focus to find imaginative prowess.

There are many dimensions to the creative process, and Lehrer aptly previews many different types of creative problems that benefitted from various forms of creative intervention: a jaded musician seeking a new groove (Dylan), researchers seeking new ways to mop floors (Proctor and Gamble), a surfer grooving in the pipeline (Clay Marzo), a production team making a computer animated film (Pixar), and many other situations.

In conclusion, Lehrer points out that “the creative process begins with the brain, that fleshy source of possibility . . . but the brain is only the beginning. . . There was nothing. Now there is something. It’s almost like magic.” In this respect, Lehrer’s study of creativity is somewhat short on science, but certainly long enough on inspiration to make Imagination worth reading. We need science and we need the stuff of psycho-spiritual inquiry. As far as creativity goes, perhaps pondering the process from these two diverse viewpoints may be the wisest course of all.

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  1. Kate, the dilemma you allude to in the creative process contrasting imagination and science, the unconscious and conscious mind, or fiction vs. reality — a dilemma you liken somewhat to the vacillation between mania and depression in bipolar disorder — recalled for me an essay
    by novelist, short story writer and essayist Philip K. Dick.

    The essay is entitled "Schizophrenia and the book of Changes" (iChing), in which he discusses schizophrenia in relation to an internal mental, bipolar war to balance the idios cosmos (borned-in personal world of acausal connected reality) where events occur outside of time, as an unseparated now, and the koinos cosmos (developed shared world of causality) where events are connected sequentially through a causal chain . You might be familiar with the movie "The Adjustment Bureau" based on his writing. Other movies inspired by him are Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, minor it report, Paycheck, Next, and Screamers.


  2. Ohh, I've read at least one collection of Philip K. Dick's short stories, and of course love the iconic Electric Sheep / Bladerunner and Minority Report . . . I didn't know about the essay - thanks, Carl, for the tip!