This chapter is a free excerpt from Quicklet on Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works.


1. Bob Dylan’s Brain

The chapter opens with Bob Dylan, at the height of his young folk-rock stardom, at the turning point of his career. Dylan, stressed, weary, and on the edge of burnout, determines he’s leaving music to retreat to a not-yet-famous Woodstock, New York. Instead of abandoning his career, however, he experiences an epiphany, writes the most famous song of a career filled with famous songs, and reinvents himself.

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1. Bob Dylan’s Brain

The chapter opens with Bob Dylan, at the height of his young folk-rock stardom, at the turning point of his career. Dylan, stressed, weary, and on the edge of burnout, determines he’s leaving music to retreat to a not-yet-famous Woodstock, New York. Instead of abandoning his career, however, he experiences an epiphany, writes the most famous song of a career filled with famous songs, and reinvents himself.

This key event in the life of a legendary public artist serves as the framing element for the rest of the chapter, which focuses on inspiration and insight. Lehrer, determined to present a coherent, accessible review of creativity, has chosen perhaps the most mystical and legendary aspect of creation as his starting point. Dylan and the writing of “Like a Rolling Stone” provides the dramatic example Lehrer needs to introduce his material...but also unintentionally provides the first clear indication that the reader might want to take this book with a grain of salt. Dylan’s mercurial chameleon changes are always subject to question, whether by scholars like Andrea Cossu or fellow artists like Joni Mitchell.

Dylan’s Brain continues by focusing on the research of Mark Beeman, of Northwestern University, examining the nature of left brain/right brain dynamics. Most of us have encountered some version of the left/right studies in some previous context, often reduced to pop science status. We’re familiar with the notion that the right brain (which controls the left side of the body, among other things) is artistic, intuitive, and largely non-verbal, dealing well with spatial problems. Fluffed up sufficiently by a dedicated promoter, the right brain hemisphere becomes a soulful cognitive hippie child facing down the authoritarian lectures of a tyrannical left brain hemisphere.

To some degree this chapter only encourages that view, though the underlying research is grittier than that. Beeman’s research findings are summarized by Lehrer as a “forest and trees” paradigm. The left brain hemisphere, in this breakdown, sees detail, often very fine detail—but the right brain sees the big picture. The left brain sees trees, the leaves of trees, the veins in the leaves of the trees; the right brain sees forests, ecosystems, context. And from this big-picture sensitivity come leaps of understanding and bursts of insight and inspiration.

These conclusions are drawn in relation to a study undertaken by Beeman in the 1990s, in which he used an fMRI machine in combination with an EEG to observe the brain activity of subjects as they solved compound remote associate problems (amusingly acronym-ized as CRAP). These are problems and puzzles that can only be solved by an intuitive recognition that the answer exists outside the presumed context of the problem: an AHA! insight.

In the process of the study Beeman determined that thirty milliseconds prior to consciously recognizing the solution, subjects experienced a steep spike in gamma-waves: this energy pattern is believed to involve the generation of a new network of associations throughout the brain. In other words, it is the marker for new revelations and original insights. The study suggested that the process is initiated in a small portion of the brain called the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG).

The image to the left, from Gray’s Anatomy (the medical reference book, not the popular television show), is of the left superior temporal gyrus. This is the left-hemisphere twin of the right superior temporal gyrus, in which the right superior anterior temporal gyrus is located. The RSATG avoided paparazzi, not only for me, but apparently for Jonah Lehrer. As Christopher Chabris points out in his New York Times review of Imagine, the illustration in the book is incorrectly labeled. For most readers this will not be a deal-breaker; however it is an example of the sorts of errors to check for if using Imagine as a hard research tool rather than as a broad and provocative overview of creativity.

Through the chapter Lehrer suggests that insight and problem solving of this sort follows a reliable developmental pattern:

  • A period of analytical thinking (left-brain logic).
  • A period of frustration and dead-end resignation.
  • An AHA! leap of insight generated in the right-brain.
  • A period of follow-up in which the left-brain expands on and refines the insight of the right-brain.

Having followed Bob Dylan through the first two stages in the introduction to the chapter, Lehrer returns to him at the conclusion, dramatically playing out the story of Dylan writing “Like a Rolling Stone,” having his great AHA! insight of how a song could be structured, drawing from right-brain intuitive connections—a technique which, according to Lehrer’s narrative, Dylan was then able to use as the basis for an entire new approach to popular music.

This chapter sets up the pattern Lehrer uses throughout the book, of using a framing story to provide a dramatic context for the scientific material he then explores. The technique is useful, but, as noted by a number of reviewers, in Lehrer’s hands it’s a bit campy and predictable, and in some instances seems forced. The chipper, optimistic sense that Lehrer is suggesting that you, too, can become the next genius if you can master the implied techniques is not explicit, but critics are correct in feeling that there’s an upbeat, self-help feel to some of the writing that does evoke a good, emotional episode of Oprah.

2. Alpha Waves (Condition Blue)

This chapter is framed by the story of Dick Drew, a sandpaper salesman in 1925. Mr. Drew worked for Minnesota Mining and Manufacture, which produced industrial sandpaper. Drew noted one day, observing workers in an auto-paint shop, that they had no truly effective masking tools, relying on sheets of paper glued to fresh paint jobs to put down fancy work: two-tone paint jobs and striping. The glue often lifted the first layer of paint when removed, damaging the paint-job and leaving the poor workers with still more work to accomplish.

Drew concluded that what was needed was a product with an adhesive strong enough to stick to the car, but weak enough to be removed without damaging tender new paintwork. Lehrer proceeds from this point, first laying out some of the serious challenges involved in developing the solution, and then pointing out the outcome of Drew’s success. The final version of Drew’s invention was the now-commonplace masking tape. The product was such a success that, in time, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacture company came to be restructured entirely to pursue similar revelations and products to develop, and in time took a new name. The company is the now-famous 3M corporation.

The material framed by this inspiring story concerns two things. Lehrer examines how 3M then proceeded to capitalize on what was learned by considering Drew’s process and the corporate culture that survives and succeeds to this day. He then pursues scientific studies that might explain why these techniques work.

The 3M corporation is distinct for the diversity of its products, and for the degree of dedication and commitment they invest in research and development (R&D). Over the decades since the original company began producing Dick Drew’s masking tape, they have evolved a system for maintaining high levels of successful innovative products, structuring their R&D community around certain organizational principles which seem to fly in the face of standard business assumptions. Among their central tenets are:

  • A flexible attention policy, in which employees are encouraged to take breaks and invest in activities that help them break their focus: naps, walks, coffee breaks, chats, and work in areas other than their core projects.
  • The 15% Rule: a rule indicating that employees are expected to spend approximately 15% of their time exploring other possible projects and areas for investigation.
  • Horizontal sharing: Employees are expected to then regularly take part in sessions in which they and others present the results of the investigations growing from the 15% Rule.

Lehrer addresses the science that may support the flexible attention policy by citing the research of Joydeep Bhattacharya, of Goldsmith’s College at the University of London. Bhattacharya’s studies indicate that flashes of insight are preceded by a period of alpha waves, starting at least eight seconds prior to the insight. Alpha waves are generated in times of relaxation, such as during showers, meditation, or calming repetitive activity like walks or bike rides. Lehrer further supports this with citations of work by Mark Beeman, introduced in the prior chapter, and by John Kounis, of Drexel University.

The two men’s studies suggest that the right hemisphere is most active in states of relaxation. Lehrer suggests that sleep and near-sleep are the times when the right hemisphere processes data, finding new patterns and making intuitive leaps. Sleep, dreams, meditation, and similar activities appear to promote insights; conversely stimulants reduce the chances of insight. An important point to make, that will be explored further in later chapters of the book, is that stimulants may increase concentration, but decrease the odds of having insights.

Drawing on research by Mark Turner of Case Western Reserve University, Lehrer then discusses the fact that insights demand “conceptual blending.” Old concepts must be combined in new ways, or integrated with new information, creating new constellations of understanding. To achieve that, the mind must hover between the entirely rational state of full analytical concentration and the numinous state of dream and intuitive processing.

An interesting supporting point from an unexpected angle is the fact that ADHD subjects tested by Holly White, of the University of Memphis, test out has having a higher incidence of creative thinking and achievement than other classes of student. This aspect of creativity is further explored later, when considering that while teachers wish to support creative, independent thinking, they often prove to give preference to the more more easily controlled, conformist behaviors associated with non-creative thought.

The core thesis of these sections is that boundaries have to be broken and new interconnections made between elements of knowledge for insight to occur. To create something new you must work with rearranging the ingredients of the old. This point is a vital step in Lehrer’s progress toward the next section of the chapter—a crucial section in respect to the book as a whole.

Returning to 3M, Lehrer explains the company’s “Tech Forum,” an annual event at which R&D employees present their latest research. This leads to a discussion of “horizontal sharing,” a concept that remains important throughout Imagine. Horizontal sharing occurs between peers but not necessarily or even preferentially between peers within the same identical field. Just as the mind must mix up old information to come up with new revelations, communities must break up old certainties by inserting them into new contexts.

Using the children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon as an illustrative example, Lehrer discusses the advantages of cognitive blending when applied to real world problems. He returns to Dick Drew, who, having invented masking tape already, learns through horizontal sharing that a new product, cellophane, has been invented by DuPont. DuPont hadn’t come up with many applications, but Drew, adding his prior work to the notion of a transparent, stable film, promptly blends the notions and goes on to invent Scotch tape.

Shared information generates new knowledge; hoarded information leads to stagnation. This key point will be made many times in a variety of contexts as Lehrer continues, culminating in the final chapters of the book.

In the final section of the chapter, Lehrer looks into stream of consciousness and daydreaming, building on his prior points. He presents summations of the studies of Marcus Raichle, Jonathan Schooler, and unnamed psychologists at the University of British Columbia. These he combines with the now well-known case of Arthur Fry, another 3M researcher, who invented Post-it Notes through a process not entirely unlike that of Dick Drew’s invention of masking tape, through exploration of the uses of a weak adhesive. Fry’s initial invention was the result of an AHA insight, but the actual product development demanded interaction with the rest of his department: he needed to experience how his peers did and did not use prototypes of his invention to determine what the final form and presentation should be. There had to be horizontal sharing to complete the creative process.

This chapter is in many ways the “heaving lifting” chapter of the book. Much of the material that will follow is based on the core precepts presented in both the science and the applied examples developed here. Lehrer has used 3M’s central techniques for maintaining creativity levels in their R&D program and has used them as jumping off points to explore primary aspects of what he believes to be critical principles of creative thought. Further, using 3M as a pattern card, he’s already begun to support what will be his ultimate conclusions regarding creativity and culture. The second two rules—the need to explore and step out of narrow restrictions of thought to gain new information and ideas, and the idea of horizontal sharing, are Lehrer’s focal concepts.

3. The Unconcealing

In “The Unconcealing” Lehrer examines the association of drugs and creativity, and of mental illness and creativity. Long traditions exist for the belief that drugs and madness go hand in hand with creative talent and accomplishment. Lehrer proceeds to explore these beliefs very cautiously, establishing some supports for the link while trying to avoid endorsing the various myths that lead to abuse and enablement.

Lehrer uses W. H. Auden as his “poster child” framing icon. Auden, one of America’s finest poets, was addicted to Benzedrine, and Lehrer uses Auden’s work and habits in tandem with his own analysis to examine the role drugs may play in creative thought.

To accomplish this, Lehrer first establishes the persistent pattern of drug use by a range of famous modern authors, ranging from Robert Louis Stephenson to Jack Kerouac. On the science side of creativity he cites Paul Erdos, a superstar among this century’s theoretical mathematicians. The list of talented users is substantial. He then proceeds to explain the actual physical events involved involved in drug use. Unfortunately this is yet another technical detail challenged by at least one reviewer. Again, those using this book as a resource in research are warned to use it as a starting point for further fact checking, not as an authoritative resource.

The overall thesis of the chapter is that while stimulants interfere with inspiration and intuitive AHA! creativity, they can in certain circumstances reinforce and enhance the elements of creativity that demand close focus, patience, and critical analysis. Likewise certain forms of mental illness can, in their milder forms, enhance concentration and promote creative excellence.

To Lehrer’s credit, he works very hard to handle a hot-button topic carefully and responsibly. He neither denies the aspects of drug use and mental illness that contribute to the cultural stereotypes nor tries to promote drugs, bohemian life, and emotional extremes as being hand-and-glove with creativity. That said, the chapter comes disturbingly close to recommending drugs and mental illness as useful elements of a creative person’s arsenal of tools.

...Just look at Auden: it’s astonishing how many of his most celebrated poems, from “Musée des Beaux Arts” to “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” were composed in those first insomniac months after he started experimenting with Benzedrine. In fact, Auden’s poetic production during this time is widely considered to be one of the great outpourings of literature in the twentieth century. It’s as if the pill awaken his latent talent, transforming a gifted lyricist into the premier poet of his generation.

Quotations like the above call to the romantic vision of creativity, art, and madness—a does, for example, Lehrer’s description of Bob Dylan, or his presentation of David Bryne’s relationship to and involvement in urban culture. This romanticism, combined with broad brushstrokes depicting the science and medicine of creativity, constitute a challenge to readers: find the factual material presented without swallowing the Kool-aid of Lehrer’s (and our own culture’s) mythic rendition.

On the factual side the reader can learn about the ability of stimulants to suppress intuitive/inspirational brain functions while enhancing obsessive or near-obsessive concentration and analytical functions. Lehrer also presents information in the dopamine reward pathway—a neural hotline piping a sense of pleasure and reward to the prefrontal cortex in the midbrain, promoting concentration. Amphetamines also, according to Lehrer, promote analytical connections: the workaday, craftsmanlike ability to recognize and create patterns without leaps of revelation fueling the process.

If you have trouble seeing the difference between “leap of inspiration” and “craftsmanlike analysis,” think of the difference between having an instant hunch about how to solve an algebra problem, and solving it through sheer grunt repetition, in which you try a value for a variable, run the formula, check to see if the answer works...and, when it doesn’t, try again, and again, until you finally find the right number to fill the hole. Both methods will get you a correct answer, but one demands relentless patience and concentration.

On the pure science side of the chapter, Lehrer examines the work of Earl Miller, of the Picower Institute at MIT. Miller’s work involves tracking the energy patterns in the brain as it functions, using multiple sensors and techniques which Miller himself has helped design and pioneer. The studies Lehrer refers to involve observing monkeys matching remembered visual pictures against new images, allowing Miller to see the areas of the brain that are operative in remembering and in making visual judgments based on memory. As a result he has recorded data on the actual creation of new mental patterns, and can say with certainty which parts of the brain are involved in the creation of those new conceptual connections.

Miller’s work suggests that the prefrontal cortex, working in partnership with the basal ganglia and the previously mentioned dopamine pathway, give birth to new networks of thought, tying data together into new patterns of thought. The patterns are then relayed back to the cells of the dopamine system and the end result is a sense of reward that reinforces the pattern. Both the effort of analysis and the new patterns derived from the effort are rewarded with pleasure, in a recursive loop.

Having explored Miller’s work, Lehrer returns to the world of art and design, considering the career of Milton Glaser, who is perhaps most instantly recognizable for the “I Love New York” campaign. Glaser’s career proves to be an excellent example of a man whose work patterns are based in trial and error, and persistence.

Lehrer recounts the rough beginnings of Glaser’s career, at that point in the ‘60s when the advertising industry—indeed, much of publishing—was turning to photography, assuming that the speed and accuracy of the medium would supplant illustrative design. In this presentation of the story, Miller perseveres, slogging ahead to keep his company, Pushpin Studios, on its feet. The New York campaign comes at a time when New York City was undergoing a similar struggle. The city was known for crime, violence, bankruptcy, and general malaise. Its leaders, desperate to return the city to its greatness—or at least its former place of prominence on the tourist circuit—were hoping to generate a miracle through a public relations campaign.

Lehrer recounts the story of Glaser’s efforts to design the perfect slogan as an epic saga, in which Glaser, like the Rocky Balboa of graphic design, labors with diligence and fortitude. The artist works his way through the sequence Lehrer first laid out in the beginning chapter of the book:

  • A period of analytical thinking (left-brain logic).
  • A period of frustration and dead-end resignation.
  • An AHA! leap of insight generated in the right-brain.
  • A period of follow-up in which the left-brain expands on and refines the insight of the right-brain.

Where in the first chapter Lehrer’s attention was given to the third stage—the AHA!, in this chapter he highlights the prior two stages: analytical thinking and frustration. His message is that this stage, is critical to art, and that it depends on the science he’s described. Like the polishing stages of poetry he discusses with his Auden material, the development of the “I Love New York” slogan and logo depended on the dopamine feedback loop—the reward that would allow Milton Glaser to stick to his task, generating layer after layer of cognitive memory associations such that, when he saw the answer, he recognized it and could then perfect it.

The final scientist Lehrer covers in this chapter is Joe Forgas, of the University of New South Wales. Forgas has developed an experiment in memory retention, in which he tests the ability of customers to remember random tchotchkes set out near the cash register of a stationery store in Sydney, Australia. On gray, gloomy days Forgas played Verdi’s Requiem in the background, hoping to exaggerate a natural depressive mood state. On sunny, bright days he played Gilbert and Sullivan music to help generate an upbeat, cheery mood. The findings were that people exposed to depressing music on a gray day remembered more tchotchkes than people exposed to bouncy, funny music on a sunny day.

Lehrer (among others) draws a suggestion, from this and from other research indicating that there’s a correlation between depression and bipolar disease and artistic achievement, that depression, like stimulants, can help with creative projects. It has been recognized for some time that there is a relationship between the two, however Lehrer doesn’t succeed in clarifying that relationship in a compelling way that escapes the problems of much of this chapter. His narrative makes it far too easy to ignore the fact that the great majority of people with depression or bipolar disease, like the majority of people with drug addictions, fail to become either creative or successful.

In many ways this chapter most clearly illustrates the problem with Imagine. In hinting at positive correlations and allying them with compelling dramatic anecdotal narratives that seem to support the hints, Lehrer makes it far too easy to perceive a happy-ending easy route to creativity and success. Even when discussing the old, familiar ratio of 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration cited by Thomas Alva Edison, Lehrer manages to give the impression that if we could just take advantage of the implied short-cuts, we could all somehow make that ratio work in our favor.

4. The Letting Go

In this chapter Lehrer examines the need for artists to first perfect a set of skills—but to also perfect the ability to relax their inner censor and follow a narrative, mood, melody, or emotion without fear. His featured creative talents are Yo-Yo Ma, the famed cellist; Clay Marzo, a renowned Hawaiian surfer whose achievements in spite of—or perhaps because of—his Asperger’s Syndrome have made him a celebrity among surfers and surfing fans; the actors and teachers of the Second City Theater and Training Center, in Los Angeles; and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Lehrer also gives attention to a small set of patients who struggled with a terminal brain disease that destroys impulse control while often generating an artistic compulsion.

These individuals are used as examples and illustrations of the studies of Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins University; unnamed Harvard researchers; Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University; Hans Asperger, who first identified Asperger’s Syndrome; Bruce Miller, a practicing neurologist; Sara Mednick of UC-San Diego; Alan Snyder, of the University of Sydney; and Michael Robinson, of North Dakota State University, a practicing psychologist.

Yo-Yo Ma serves as the framing figure for the chapter. Lehrer starts with a vivid and moving portrait of Ma playing a new composition by Bruce Adolphe, an NYC-based composer who first met Ma when both were young artists at Juilliard, when Adolphe needed to hear his first composition for cello played.

A striking detail of the story of their meeting involves Ma playing an “impossible chord”—a chord which demands a finger placement presumed to be beyond the ability of even a good cellist to play. Adolphe describes Ma falling into an artist’s focal trance, and in the process playing the chord thought to be impossible. Adolphe brings it up when Ma is finished, and the two explore the chording. Ma, upon chording successfully a second time with a finger placement that is clearly and obviously difficult and unnatural, says that, yes, it is an impossible chord—highlighting both the difficulty of the chording and the almost supernatural ability for Ma to not only find a way to play the unplayable chord, but to never realize he’s done so until it’s pointed out, when he himself agrees that it’s impossibly difficult.

The story, and even more particularly the repeating theme of Ma ascending into a state of reverie as he plays and finds the thread of performance, serves as the keynote of a chapter which returns Lehrer to the mystic aspects of creativity. The chapter deals with the artist’s need to work in a state of equipoise, caught between the ability to follow impulse and the ability to retain some degree of critical judgement. To achieve this state the artist must knowingly “disable” the portion of the brain which serves as a censor. This allows the artist to pursue emotional and creative impulses quickly and spontaneously.

Lehrer first argues that this state is critical to many creative endeavors—or at least to the pursuit of excellence in those endeavors. He quotes Ma:

It’s when I’m least conscious of what I’m doing, when I’m just lost in the emotion of the music, that I’m performing my best.

From this point Lehrer springboards to his first scientific passage, shifting his attention to Charles Limb, a surgeon (head and neck) and neuroscientist. He’s also a jazz aficionado who, in his own words, wants to know, “How did Coltrane do it?” In the quest for that understanding Limb has designed a keyboard that can be played within the confining space of an fMRI machine.

Limb’s experiments record the brain activity of artists in two modes. First the musicians play rote material, typically scales, which require no interpretive or creative input. They are then instructed to improvise a melodic line that will integrate with a pre-recorded jazz quartet—a sort of high-art karaoke.

Limb has determined that there is a reliable pattern when musicians start to improvise. The medial prefrontal cortex becomes active—a portion of the brain Limb associates with the ability of self-expression and the ability to form coherent narratives. Limb refers to this portion of the brain as controlling the autobiographical capacity.

However, this does not happen in isolation: the other portion of the pattern is that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is dialed down. This portion of the brain is associated with impulse control. According to Lehrer it is among the last portions of the brain to develop—explaining why middle-schoolers do the sorts of things that make parents howl, “What were you thinking?!” The answer is that, in a sense, they weren’t thinking: the cognitive tools that would allow them to consider consequences and check their behaviors is not fully developed. The kids are not yet capable of thinking the thoughts their parents hope for.

Along with the study by Limb, Lehrer cites a study by an unnamed group of Harvard researchers, who performed an fMRI study in which musicians were asked to perform several different types of improvisation in different forms of music. This study, using different imaging tools in a different fashion, identified activity in the premotor cortex, which controls the physical movements needed to actually play an instrument, and in the inferior frontal gyrus, a structure associated with language, speech, and with narrative skills. The artists are apparently constructing melodic lines almost as freestanding “stories,” using the same structural tools used to construct a sentence in a story-stream.

Lehrer establishes that the artists, to be able to function in these uninhibited, spontaneous ways, must first develop a rich and complex vocabulary of musical knowledge. The musicians aren’t building on the spontaneousness of ignorance. Instead they’re structuring on the fly, in almost the same way most of us construct sentences in a conversation. Just as a baby can only babble, not talk, until he’s developed some level of language skill, an artist can’t freely improvise or create without a similar set of expertise from which to draw.

Clay Marzo is the next “creative talent” to come under consideration. The primary reason for his inclusion would, unfortunately, appear to be his Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s is a form of autism first identified by Hans Asperger, a Viennese pediatrician who first recognized and describe the condition in 1944. Asperger’s is a real and often socially crippling form of autism that, like all forms of autism, is currently a hot-topic matter for discussion amongst the pediatrics and psychology chattering-classes...much as ADHD was fifteen to twenty years ago.

While the fad element of the public’s fascination with the condition is worth noting, it’s important to recognize Lehrer’s reason for presenting Marzo within the arc of his analysis. Marzo is considered a wildly creative surfer, developing moves that are novel and—like the unplayable chord Yo-Yo Ma spontaneously worked out a method to play—are considered almost counter-intuitive by many of his fellow surfers. Asperger’s patients, however, are known for their lack of creativity.

Lehrer combines his portrait of Marzo with his previous development of the function of the DLPFC, which “censors” impulsive action, interfering with spontaneous and creative processing of complex patterns. Lehrer appears to be arguing that Asperger’s classic presentation—a lack of social intuition, and the inability to let go and relax in a social context—is being overridden by Marzo’s comfort in the water, by the obsessive fixation that is also common to Asperger’s patients, and my Marzo’s complex and highly developed knowledge of the “vocabulary” and “syntax” of the ocean and of surfing. These things combine to allow Marzo to do what many Asperger’s victims never are able to do: simply let go and indulge in improvisational creativity.

The Second City Theater and Training Center in Los Angeles is the setting for the next block of Lehrer’s presentation. In this context he considers the specific training an artist can undergo to master the skill of willingly and intentionally letting go. Joseph Funk, the artistic creator, says:

The hardest part of teaching comic improv is that people think it’s so easy.[...] You have to work at not giving a fuck.

Lehrer refers us back to the DLPFC, which censors actions. Because of the DLPFC, most adults are fairly good at suppressing their behavioral impulses. Improvisational acting requires that suppression to be turned off—but never entirely off. Talented improv artists spend an enormous amount of effort in the process of learning how to let go without losing control entirely.

Losing control entirely is dealt with in the next section, where Lehrer presents a series of patients with frontotemporal dementia (FTP), a lethal brain disease that rapidly destroys the capacity to censor activity while simultaneously driving many patients into often inspired creativity.

Among the patients described is Anne Adams, a former cell biologist whose illness triggered a great outpouring of paintings. For the fifteen years of her painting career prior to the final stages of the disease and death, she produced a great body of beautiful work.

That work appears to have been made possible, and perhaps was compelled as a result of FTP. The disease attacks the DLPFC while triggering increased development in the portions of the right brain which help mediate spatial and visual information. The suppressive function deteriorates and the patient becomes increasingly involved in a state somewhat like lucid dreaming, in which fluid, spontaneous blending and generation of ideas occurs. These patients are artists compelled and enabled by their disease, and Lehrer believes they can show us something about creativity in the healthy person as well.

Ullrich Wagner and Jan Born, in a paper in Nature, describe an experiment in which subjects were asked to transform number sequences. There were two ways of accomplishing this: a brute force, slow way, and a way which involved an AHA! intuition. Students who attempted it straight out regularly failed to discover the AHA! Those who were permitted naps, however, reliably developed the necessary insight, suggesting that the state of sleep and dream is a crucial one in the process of making creative connections and finding innovative solutions to problems. The ability to let go—through training, disease, or through sleep is part of the process that mediates creativity.

The chapter, as a whole, is interesting, but not entirely convincing. Too much of the material seems either a matter of dramatic presentation or a case of extremes being used to define the center ground. However the information is not irrelevant. The capacity to find a point between control and spontaneity is recognized by both working artists and by scholars of cognition as an important element in successful creation. The role of the DLPFC in this process seems clearly indicated.

5. The Outsider

A chapter focusing on the value of what’s commonly known as “beginner’s luck” or “outsider’s perspective,” or “a new angle on an old problem.” Lehrer in this chapter focuses on the ways people from outside a field of study can leap-frog to unexpected and creative solutions to problems, and generate creative possibilities “the pros” would never think of.

His framing artist is Don Lee, currently working for Lehrer follows Lee’s career arc, starting with his period of employment as a software engineer for an insurance company, and a relationship break-up. Lee, seeking consolation, begins going to a local bar. As it happens he landed in the Pegu Club, a very good bar which was attempting to set a new standard for the cocktail revival in New York City.

Lee became interested in the actual art and science of cocktail blends and high-level bartending. Lehrer catalogues the stages of Lee’s involvement, from being recommended as a stand-in bartender at Death and Company, in the East Village, to becoming a celebrity in his own right, known for the development of complex and unexpected drinks based on classics, but veering in entirely new directions.

The signature drink Lehrer uses to exemplify Lee’s work is the bacon-infused old-fashioned. An old-fashioned is a classic cocktail which, in its simplest form, contains bourbon, sugar, Angostura bitters, and ice. Lehrer highlights Lee’s version of the drink because to create it Lee drew from a knowledge-base outside that usually applied to mixology: chemistry.

While Don Lee was employed in two functions—as a programmer and as a bartender—his college degree was in chemistry. He loved chemistry, and as he’d begun to move past the pure essentials of bartending he’d begun to blend his knowledge of chemistry with his knowledge of alcoholic beverages, giving himself permission to experiment outside the automatic assumptions of the trade.

The bacon-infused old-fashioned was of the many results. To achieve it Lee used a process drawn from chemistry—fat-washing, in which a highly flavored fatty ingredient like fried bacon is mixed with an alcoholic liquid—in this case bourbon. The mix is then chilled, allowing the fat to be easily removed, while the flavor compounds remain dissolved in the bourbon. As a final touch Lee chose to sweeten the drink with maple syrup, rather than cane sugar. The end result became one of Lee’s trademark drinks, a cocktail that helped cement Lee’s reputation among his customers.

The point of this is not that chemistry necessarily makes good cocktails. What Lehrer is examining is the ability of outsiders to create unexpected and powerful solutions and products by pulling in information and understanding from outside a given field. Without new ideas, new information, and new perspectives a field can slowly stagnate, as can those who work within it.

Lehrer is pointing out a complex tradeoff common to all forms of expertise: the more you know about something, the less you ask or test or look for new, different solutions. The more you know the more you accept the apparent limits of understanding. You pay for the ease and confidence knowledge provides by letting go of the need to improvise and invent new answers.

This thread of reasoning is tracked through a range of individuals and circumstances in “The Outsider.” Lehrer introduces his readers to Alpheus Bingham, a vice president at Eli Lilly during the 1990s. Bingham was trying to find a way to solve the most durable challenges facing his company. Having considered all the ways Eli Lilly was attempting to solve these problems and failing, he finally considered what was then considered a radical notion: presenting the challenges to the public, with rewards offered for working solutions.

Bingham’s reasoning was that Eli Lilly was already hiring the best of the best within the fields being studied. A successful company with a strong ability to attract top talent, the problem was not lack of expertise or effort. Yet the best of the best were hitting brick walls, running out of ideas—and in the process costing the company money while failing to resolve the challenges facing them. Bingham reasoned that if the best of the best couldn’t solve the problems, perhaps it was worth the risk of opening the field up and seeing what outsiders could suggest. Bingham therefore created a website called InnoCentive in 2001, posting a variety of the most resistant problems and offering rewards for their solution. By 2003 Bingham was able to make InnoCentive an independent spin-off company, allowing other companies to present their own problems for solution.

In a corporate culture focused on both proprietary information and on top-flight expertise InnoCentive was a radical idea. It was also an idea that proved effective—outrageously so. While the first few weeks were unproductive, within months the site was providing solutions to problems that had plagued the pharmaceutical company for ages. By 2007 Karim Lakhani of the Harvard School of Business was able to analyse the statistics of InnoCentive and determine that 40% of the challenges were solved within six months of posting.

One aspect of the success became apparent on studying the results. Answers seldom came from within the field: more often they came from “outsiders.” In some instances the answers came from scientists in allied but distinctly different fields, with different approaches to issues. In other instances answers came from individuals in distinctly different fields, who were able to apply entirely different skills and knowledge sets to the problems posed. Thus, for instance, a problem that had been seen as a chemistry problem might be resolved as a physics problem.

It’s important to note that InnoCentive works on the same broad principle established in the first chapter, in the section on 3M: it’s a form of horizontal sharing. Remember, this concept is one of the more crucial themes in Imagine. In this book horizontal sharing is generally presented as good and necessary to creative endeavors, both for individuals and for groups.

As examples of “outsiders” who provide solutions to problems through InnoCentive, Lehrer cites Ed Melcarek, a former design engineer with a physics background who has solved seven different challenges, regularly searching for problems outside his own field that may be resolved through approaches that do draw on his training and outlook.

Bingham, who founded InnoCentive, points to one case in which a challenge generated five different solutions in a matter of a few months. Lehrer’s thesis through all this is that horizontal sharing and the outsider perspective gained by going outside the field serves as a powerful method of generating creative solutions to problems.

He then moves to the obvious category of ultimate outsider: the young, have only the most limited insider status. His primary point in this section is that statistically the young—those newly entering fields, with limited experience—produce the largest number of creative products. That includes such things as mathematical breakthroughs, art and literary works, patents, and similar intellectual achievements.

Starting with the observation of Adolphe Quetelet, who presents the thesis that creative output generally goes down with age, Lehrer then goes on to explore people who are studying the thesis. He reviews the work of Dean Simonton, of UC-Davis, whose thesis is that youth provides a greater “outsider” experience than most experts can claim. However, Simonton has also determined that those who keep breaking their own barriers, moving into new areas outside their experience and comfort zones can retain “outsider” advantages and cognitive leverage.

“If you can keep finding new challenges, then you can think like a young person even when you’re old and gray [...] That idea gives me hope.” Dean Simonton

Simonton’s studies suggest that the “outsider advantage” is a matter of experience and perspective, rather than a developmental stage we pass through and then lose.

Continuing to explore the idea that outsider status increases creative output, Lehrer next presents an experiment conducted by Lile Jia, of Indiana University. Subjects in two groups were asked to come up with ideas for transportation—getting from one place to another. One set, however, was told that the question came from outside Indiana (the home state of the subjects) and another was told that the question came from in-state. Those who believed they were answering the question outside the context of Indiana came up with the larger and more creative selection of possible modes of transportation.

Lehrer’s implication is that simply the presumption of outside context frees the mind up to look beyond the expected and commonplace answers. A familiar context doesn’t challenge the mind to look farther or ask for more inventive solutions. Expertise increases ease and familiarity, but reduces innovation, exploration, and improvisation. Supporting this thesis he also cites a 2009 study by INSEAD researchers at Kellogg School of Management which concludes that living abroad also opens people up to wider possibilities and leads to the more creative solutions to problems.

An interesting fact brought up is that people are bad at figuring out how to repurpose things for which they already have a known use. People who have lived abroad prove better, however, at coming up with alternate uses for familiar objects. It appears that the very fact of having been forced to question their day-to-day assumptions about how even the simplest elements of their worlds work (how to take a bus, what the social norms are, and similar issues) opens people up to the unexpected potential available in the familiar.

As an example of this, Lehrer brings up Ruth Handler, who was instrumental in the development of the Barbie doll. This example, however, is a poor one for Lehrer’s thesis. By his own explanation of events Handler already had formed the key concept of the Barbie—an adult doll onto whom young girls could project fantasies of adult roles—prior to the “outsider” connections she made at a later time, during a trip to Germany.

Handler had her inspiration while watching the familiar sight of her own daughter playing with child-image baby dolls whom she cast in roles of adults in make-believe scenarios. After this observation, while still in her own home environment, Handler conceives of an adult doll, and attempts to convince Mattel Corp, which employed her husband, to produce such a doll, without success.

The incident Lehrer wants to consider is Handler’s discovery while on a trip to Germany of an adult female doll being marketed there at the time. This doll, the Bild Lili, was based on a cartoon character, and largely marketed as a sex trinket to adult men. Handler, with no idea of the cultural connotations of the doll, saw it simply as an excellent example of the kind of adult female doll she hoped to have manufactured. She purchased a doll, and later used it as an example of what she had in mind.

Lehrer concludes by focusing on the work of Stanislas Dehaene, of the College de France, in Paris. Springboarding off a quote from Zadie Smith regarding editing, he discusses Dehaene’s studies on brain patterns when reading and editing.

When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second—put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal—but even three months will do...You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it...

Zadie Smith as quoted in Imagine: How Creativity Works

There appear to be two separate neurological pathways, one very fast-track pathway for work that conforms to familiar and expected patterns and one for the unfamiliar that demands close interpretive consideration. The first path, the ventral pathway, is fast, effective, and dependent on information conforming to routine expectations. The second, the dorsal pathway, is slow, finicky, and focused on interpreting detail and finding new patterns and contexts.

Dehaene determined that effective close editing must be done in the second pathway, the dorsal pathway. However it’s very hard to activate the dorsal when material is either too predictable. Material that conforms to familiar patterns and expectations, such as cliched writing or, in the case of writers, work with which they’re too close to and have worked on too recently, tends to be processed by the ventral.

Editing work with which you’re familiar leads to handing the material as an expert who already knows what is there: insider knowledge interferes with critical observation. Time and forgetfulness, however, can return the writer to “outsider” status, allowing a fresh view as the mind studies a work with the dorsal pathway. These findings confirm Zadie Smith’s comments, and contribute to Lehrer’s presentation of outsider advantage.


6. The Power of Q

The title of this chapter is drawn from a statistical measurement developed by Brian Uzzi, of Northwestern. Uzzi developed the Q measurement, which indicates the density of shared connections in the cast and crew of a Broadway show. The intention in developing this measurement was to determine whether teams that know each other well and work together often are more or less likely to produce successful shows.

Uzzi’s study, which drew in information on shows from 1877 to 1990, suggested that the ideal Q rating favored teams with a blend of members who had worked together previously and “new blood.”

The question of what sort of team produces the most successful outcome applies to far more situations than just theater productions. Thus, though Uzzi’s specific statistical study is based on data in a restricted area, it provides data of value in attempting to understand the pluses and minuses of various team compositions.

Working out the best possible composition of teams is an important issue in modern life, where more and more of the best work is coming from team efforts rather than individuals. Ben Jones, a professor of management at the Kellogg School of Management, provided supportive evidence of this shift in a study in which he determined that 99% of scientific subfields have increased their levels of teamwork in recent decades, with size increasing 20% in the last decade. He also argued that the best work is coming out of groups, using citations in other papers as an indication of the importance of the research published.

The ultimate sense of Uzzi’s research was that the optimal blend mixed the familiar and the unfamiliar; the new with the old. Workers accustomed to each other formed a stable and effective unit, but thought and creativity was opened up by newcomers. As well as having an automatic “outsiders advantage” as they learned new social and work networks, they brought in new ideas, and triggered unexpected results and thoughts.

Having established this premise, Lehrer goes on to consider one of the most successful dramatic production teams of film, the Pixar animation company. The primary important elements of the Pixar story, in terms of the chapter’s thesis, is the blend of old and new, and the effort to ensure steady horizontal sharing within the company. Lehrer also provides a good brief history of the company, but the focus is on the actual architecture and the metaphorical architecture that are in place to ensure horizontal sharing. Just as 3M has instituted rules and techniques to ensure plenty of active cross-pollination of ideas, so, too, has Pixar.

Starting with an outsider advantage—computer geeks functioning in a filmmaker’s world, trying to adapt computers as story-telling devices—the founding team members, Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith began with an inevitable exchange of ideas. They waded into the world of first George Lucas, then Steve Jobs, and finally Disney. If their challenge was anything, it was to maintain continuity and stability in the face of steadily changing teams and pressure.

The ultimately created a stable system in which key players might serve as the backbone of a project and of the company. At the same time new talents and faces might come and go like butterflies or worker bees, providing new stimulation. Over time Pixar settled on an architectural design imagined by Steve Jobs, in which a central atrium in which all desirable things were located—up to and including the restrooms—drew employees into constant cross-contact with each other.

Just as 3M works to ensure sharing, so, too, does Pixar. Lehrer insists on this cross pollination as being critical:

Pixar realized that its creativity emerged from its culture of collaboration...

[...] Pixar [...] didn’t want to place any constraints on the interactions of its employees...

The meritocracy needed to mingle...

With quotes like these Lehrer presses his chapter and book thesis, insisting that cross-pollination of ideas is good for the creative individual, for the creative community, and for the culture as a whole. He then supports the thesis using research done by a variety of scientists.

Ray Oldenburg, a sociologist, offers the concept of “third place,” a place neither home nor work, in which interactions and exchanges can occur that are outside the framework of home or office. For more information you can start with an interview given by Oldenburg to JWT Intelligence. The concept of third place is allied with work done by Tom Allen, of MIT, whose field is organizational studies. Allen has developed a measurement paradigm called the Allen curve, which indicates that increased interactions between workers increase productivity, and that increased interactions depend on proximity. This, then, is tied to further work by Brian Uzzi, this time on stock traders, indicating that those with the highest level of ongoing interactions between various information sources are the most successful.

All this is in support of the contention that Pixar’s atrium design and efforts to ensure constant interaction between diverse elements of the company are part of what has ensured Pixar’s ongoing movie success.

Lehrer next takes on the old and beloved concept of “brainstorming,” a method pioneered by Alan Osborne, an advertising executive, in the ‘60s. A central tenet of the brainstorming system is the lack of critical commentary during brainstorming sessions. In contrast Lehrer presents the Pixar approach, in which work done is subjected to extreme crit on a regular basis, as are any suggestions for how to improve the work. Lehrer counts criticism as part of the same exchange of ideas inherent in cross-pollination, and suggests that criticism is a vital part of the creative process for groups and for individuals. This can be related back to his work in the prior section on editing and refinement of works.

Among the supporting material he offers is this quote from psychologist Keith Sawyer, of Washington University:

Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.

Lehrer posits the following:

  • Creative dialogue must encourage focus on mistakes and problems, as well as on postive possibilities
  • That the existence of a system to find and deal with problems frees people to explore more courageously, in faith that weak ideas will be caught and filtered out or fixed
  • That focus on specific problems allows the mind to then seek specific solutions to those problems
  • That debate opens the mind to possibilities tailored to reality

The work of Charlan Nemeth is used to further support these points. It’s indicated that debate generates 25% more ideas than pure, classic non-critical brainstorming. In an experiment related to this subject, the concept of color dissent is studied. In color dissent experiments subjects discuss the nature of a shown color, but are exposed to some clearly inaccurate identification of that color—for example, another “subject” identifying red as green. Subjects exposed to such dissenting information later prove to be more complex and subtle in their own descriptions of the colors shown, having apparently worked harder and considered more options as a result of exposure to even outrageously wrong answers. Debate (dissent) supports creative examination.

Lehrer also discusses the critical culture of Pixar’s community, in which by principle the participants are expected to look for meaningful positives rather than just walls of negativity. This “plussing” creates a positive direction in which participants can move, focusing on solutions and on the working elements of an idea or a piece of work, rather than on blame and shame.

He closes the chapter off by examining an educational program put together by Dan Wieden, of Wieden +Kennedy, a successful advertising agency of renown in its field. Wieden’s school/educational project is called W+K12, in which thirteen people study for a year as working apprentices within Wieden and Kennedy, working actual client projects and developing skills. One central asset, in Wieden’s own assessment, is that it ensures the company has a constant stream of new blood coming in, as well as being in a position to hire the best of their students while passing other very well trained individuals to the job market.

7. Urban Friction

In this chapter Lehrer takes on the idea of the city as a massive idea generator. Those interested in further research on the topic of cities, their culture, and their utility are recommended to do followup reading, including The Creative Capital of Cities: Interactive Knowledge Creation and Urbanization Economies of Innovation, by Stefan Kratke and The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier, by Edward Glaeser. These are extensive works, but should prove rewarding to those who find this chapter of particular interest.

Lehrer starts, as he has in other chapters, with an iconic framing personality, in this case David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame. Bryne is established as being a near-militant, devoted bike rider, cycling through cities around the world, specifically because it gives him more extensive and intimate contact with his environment. Lehrer then establishes that Bryne sees cities as something approaching muses: sources of ideas, meccas of culture, hives of creativity, quoting Bryne as saying:

In a vibrant’s about letting all that stuff in.

Having set up that concept, Lehrer goes on to provide scientific backing for Bryne’s personal anecdotal position. He presents the classical proposition presented by Malthus, that cities as cities grow they become unsustainable, being too expensive to maintain. He then points out that Malthus, and other economists who have tried to figure out why cities not only work, but succeed brilliantly, coming to dominate their cultures, and growing as fast as their infrastructures allow. As recently as 1988 Robert Lucas, in an award winning paper on the economy of cities, concluded that the answer was an unresolved paradox.

However, it is a paradox that works for humans, as Jane Jacobs, a journalist and activist, pointed out. She realized that in well-designed city neighborhoods people came together easily and naturally in complex patterns, exchanging information on a super-human scale in environments that were entirely human.

For Lehrer this is a key issue: that cities permit horizontal sharing on a massive scale, providing a “surplus of human capital” and “knowledge spillovers.” To support his position that cities are better at creative productivity he cites the studies of Adam Jaffe, an economist at Brandeis University, and author of the book, Innovation and its Discontents: How Our Broken Patent System is Endangering Innovation and Progress and What to Do About It, from the Princeton University Press.

Jaffe has studied the statistical data on patents coming from cities, determining that a patent is ten time more likely to come from a city that already produced a patent in the same field. Lehrer links this with work by Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt, scientists developing the field of mathematically based urban studies. West and Bettencourt, have developed a set of formula revealing “urban constants.” The formulae allow West and Bettencourt to determine the productivity levels of various cities with high levels of precision.

One of the things they have established as a general law is that the larger the city, the more productive the inhabitants of the city as reckoned in terms of creative products. They have also been able to determine that cities reinforce their own areas of excellence. For an example, Los Angeles has a film industry and New York City has a theater industry. By attracting top talent, they generate a culture of specialists and supporting skilled workers, who then train and influence other workers, and so on, ensuring lineages of specialization that carry on over generations or even eras. West and Bettencourt’s formulae have also established that suburbs are very poor productivity generators.

To explain this fact, Lehrer considers work by AnnaLee Saxenian, a professor of planning at UC-Berkeley. Saxenian has done a comparative study including the Silicon Valley and Boston tech company developments. Lehrer lays out the results of how development succeeded in Silicon Valley and failed in the Boston environs during the ‘70s and ‘80s. The differences between the two include what Lehrer and Saxenian believe to be a crucial difference in the tech cultures of the two towns.

Boston, dealing with mega-corporations such as DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) that were well-established, developed a culture of proprietary hoarding of information, with as little horizontal sharing as possible. Silicon Valley, dealing with many, many small and often very informal start-ups, had fewer constraints in information sharing, and was less inclined to enforce the non-disclosure contracts they held. In many instances companies actually shared employees over time, if not sometimes simultaneously. For many reasons there was a very large degree of horizontal sharing.

Boston’s corporations, trying to hoard knowledge and creativity, fell behind in innovative technology. Silicon Valley, less determined and less able to focus on hoarding, and thus far more likely to benefit from various forms of horizontal sharing, leapfrogged ahead of the competition, becoming famous for its innovative products and creative approaches to computing challenges.

Lehrer runs through examples provided by research into Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs’ eventual collaboration and formation of Apple, stressing the horizontal sharing common in the hobbyist’s communith they both shared. He then moves on to consider the tech boom in Israel, looking at the corporations developed by Yossi Vardi of Tel Aviv. He explains studies that while most people have similar numbers of close friends, some also have huge arrays of associates bound to them through “weak” social ties: chat-worthy acquaintances, more or less.

Vardi is one example of a man with many weak ties, which he has put into play in helping develop Tel Aviv and all of Israel’s tech sector. Lehrer uses him to illustrate the argument that those with many weak ties can partake of broader horizontal sharing. He then argues that the sharing promotes creativity, which ties back to his central chapter thesis that cities provide optimal horizontal sharing opportunities. In support of this he presents the research of Martin Rouf, of the Stanford Business School, whose work suggests that expansive and diverse connections are better at promoting creativity than more solitary endeavors.

He does not explain whether, or how this relates to the findings on brainstorming, in which solitary work which is later pooled works better than fully collaborative work. More definition in this area would be nice.

Lehrer presents work by Edward Glaeser, the author of Triumph of the City, whose research has indicated that the weak ties generated by Internet exchanges increase the value of face-to-face interactions, generating more value and productivity than similar exchanges without Internet reinforcement. Conversely he points out research done at the University of Michigan, establishing that live interactions trump email exchanges in terms of productive results.

Research done by Isaac Kahane indicates that shared proximity between collaborators improves the quality of creative work. This again ties to the concepts of horizonal sharing developed in the discussion of Pixar’s architecture and in the material on cities and horizontal sharing within cities. Kahane is quoted as saying:

If you want people to work together effectively, these findings reinforce the need to create architectures and facilities that support frequent physical interactions.

Lehrer points out that cities tend to endure over time, while corporations do not, and that cities perpetuate their cultures and their creative productivity while corporations comparatively quickly die. The difference, according to Lehrer, is that cities remain open and resist too much micromanagement. He quotes Geoffrey West, whose work in developing formulae and constants for describing cities and their behavior was discussed previously:

Cities can’t be managed.

Lehrer ends with a reprise on Bryne and his sense of the city as a muse and a powerhouse for creative productivity.

8. The Shakespeare Paradox

This final chapter of Imagine focuses on systems for training and encouraging creativity and productivity. The key thesis, which is quoted late in the chapter, comes from a student at a Fame style public school for the performing arts in New Orleans. When asked if she isn’t perhaps wasting her time learning to dance when she suspects her ultimate career will not be as a dancer, Tiffani responds:

Oh, no way [...] I’m not just learning how to dance here. It might look like that when you look at our classes because we’re always dancing. But that’s not it. What I’m really learning is how to say something.

This quote encapsulates the core thesis that learning creativity has clear direct benefits, but also many collateral benefits, to both individuals and to society at large. The skills, perspectives, and networks that promote innovation and creativity also create strong, thinking individuals with resources that extend beyond any single measure of worth or productivity.

Starting with the example of a paper written by David Banks, of Duke University, exploring cultures known for producing statistically high levels of “geniuses,” Lehrer selects the example of Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s era to try to determine elements that make a culture unusually full of brilliant and productive people. He determines that Shakespeare’s London provided certain environmental advantages that made it into a massive engine driving creative productivity.

Lehrer’s premise is as follows:

  • Culture can encourage or discourage creative growth through environmental factors.
  • Civilizations can promote that growth by selecting those factors proven to be supportive of creative production.

The elements of culture present in Shakespearean culture that Lehrer deems vital are:

  • A growing city drawing in plenty of new-blood outsiders.
  • Horizontal sharing on all levels of creative culture—including forms of sharing that might now be considered plagiarism.
  • Relaxed censorship.
  • A growing availability of printed books at prices affordable to the common man, and the beginnings of popular access to written materials of all sorts.
  • A delicate balance between protection of intellectual property and non-production. This harks back to the prior chapter, in which Lehrer pointed out the importance of non-enforcement of non-disclosure contracts and the horizontal sharing of knowledge within the computer industry in Silicon Valley, as opposed to the more militantly guarded hoarding of companies in the Boston area. It is important to note that Lehrer is advocating two things that must be held in balance. Intellectual property rights must be recognized and protected to ensure reward and profit for the creator, but not be upheld to a degree that rules out borrowing, “sampling,” or adaptation of existing ideas. Further, there must be competition between creators making use of the same materials. The balance Lehrer describes has consequences for modern copyright law that he does not fully explore, but readers may wish to study further.
  • Another element considered is the growing availability of “universal education” in Elizabethan England, with a variety of educational schemes making basic and advanced education available.

These things come together in a “perfect storm” of explosive creativity. Lehrer is suggesting that it may be possible to harness the understanding of that storm to encourage similar storms by intention rather than just luck.

Having offered this conjecture, Lehrer moves on to evaluate NOCCA: the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, the Fame style public school previously mentioned. NOCCA is a wildly successful school which in 2010 sent 98% of their students on to college.

It is important to point out that NOCCA starts with certain advantages other schools can’t claim. Its students are preselected for intelligence, talent, and personal drive. Students enter through an audition system, and a place at the school is highly valued by the students and respected by their peers. Other schools can’t draw on similar sifting elements providing top-line students, nor can they hope for the level of motivation that prestige, pride, and perceived value can ensure. Arguments for wider acceptance of NOCCA patterns of education should take these points into account, if only to ensure reasonable expectations: a universal version of the NOCCA system would not be likely to provide a universal payback of NOCCA success levels. That said, the argument that reproduction of a NOCCA-style system might improve overall results is worth further consideration.

The key points of NOCCA’s system include:

  • auditions, ensuring students have the natural skills and interest levels to justify investment in artistic training,
  • master/apprentice relationships between teachers who are practicing artists themselves, and students who engage in close relationship learning directly and immediately applying their knowledge
  • production-based school work, in which students learn by doing—applied activity rather than theoretical learning

Lehrer uses these points to then jump to studies on learning.studies. He provides the conclusions from a Skidmore study in which it was determined that regardless of prior statements in favor of creative students, teachers reliably actually favored non-creative students.

...But when the same teachers were asked to rate their students on a variety of personality measures, the traits most commonly associated with creative thinking (such as being “freely expressive”) were also closely associated with their “least favorite” students. Those daydreamers and improvisers might have been imaginative, but they were harder to teach and they underperformed on standardized tests. As a result they were routinely dismissed and discouraged.

Lehrer then points to another study which suggests that the sooner students are encouraged to participate in play activities known to support creativity the more advantage they will gain in cognitive skills. The short-and-sweet summation is that most effective ways to ensure creative excellence in the young is not the path that leads to the most orderly classroom, nor the path that involves the most rote and theoretical learning.

Continuing on, Lehrer takes on the point that students at NOCCA are encouraged to develop what Lehrer and others classify as grit: he willpower, courage, and persistence to go the distance in the face of difficulties. In the words of Angela Ducksworth, of the University of Pennsylvania:

Nobody is talented enough to not have to work hard, and that’s what grit allows you to do.

Lehrer argues that NOCCA’s approach to education increases the odds of students having the necessary grit to live productive lives, and that this ability has positive benefits even if, as suggested by the conversation with Tiffani, the student does not go on to become professional in the specific area of artistic training. The same elements that would serve a professional dancer can be applied to the life of a middle-manager or the owner of a fast food franchise, or in any number of other contexts. Learning that enhances recognized creative endeavors also enhances the creative endeavor of living a useful and productive life.

Using another talent-focused high school, High Tech High in San Diego, Lehrer suggests that the skills and lessons of NOCCA apply as well to technical learning and creativity as to artistic learning and creativity. While High Tech High enjoys similar advantages to NOCCA, its 100% success rate of sending students on to college is not to be despised. Shared features with NOCCA include learning-by-doing focus, with projects forming a primary element of the program.

Lehrer through this chapter refers to this approach as “vocational,” drawing on the tradition of American education that taught applied skills in functional settings rather than the now more common (and more prestigious) approach in which students are taught theory, abstracts, and fundamental information, but are not commonly aimed at projects or goals, and are almost never encouraged to create professional grade work.

If you’re having trouble understanding the difference, think of it like this: in most high schools students will be trained to read novels, and will be taught basic grammar skills, but they will not be encouraged to write novels as part of the requirement to get a grade. They’re taught to see English from the outside, rather than perform English “vocationally” as a skill to be applied to a particular project or goal.

Lehrer also suggests that the form of teaching most often used is closed ended: it presents answers, rather than questions. He then cites research done by Laura Schultz, of MIT, in which teachers demonstrated toys in a variety of ways. In one the teacher modeled “discovering” one use of a multi use toy. In another the teacher simply explained that use. The first teacher was teaching “exploration,” the second was teaching “known fact.” In the follow-up students taught exploration proceeded to explore the toy further themselves, learning it had other functions. Those taught facts, however, failed to explore further. There was apparently a built in assumption on the part of the student that what the teacher taught was all that it was important to learn.

Lehrer argues that play, exploration, hands-on learning, and many inefficient traits and behaviors that fall back in the previously mentioned “not favorite student” areas of activity are the skills that support the creative student.

All of this is aimed at one thing:

What are the meta-ideas that we need to embrace? How can we create more pockets of brilliance?

Lehrer’s goal throughout Imagine has been to determine what factors in individual and group life encourage and support creative productivity. As the book concludes, he argues that this is not ivory-tower dreaming—that enough information has been assembled to reliably develop programs and paradigms to ensure strong creative production and to ensure periods and regions of “excess genius” by intent rather than by random fortune.

Pointing at the statistical work of Bill James, who among others has pioneered statistical analysis of baseball skills (sabermetrics), Lehrer argues that, just as America has become superb at producing excellence in sports stars, it could become superb at producing creative genius. In America we focus on sports skills as a daily matter of importance. From preschool sports programs to passionate following of professional teams, America is saturated with elements of the culture that encourage promising young people in sports achievement. Lehrer argues we know enough to provide similar encouragement for innovative talent.

He then suggests that if we aren’t going to make that change, we must consider supporting immigration, importing the outsider’s advantage of immigrants and also the education many provide or work to achieve. Outsider advantage, motivation, grit, and an appreciation for the educational options ensures that patents are developed by immigrants at twice the rate they are to native-born Americans, not out of any odd affirmative action arrangement, but because immigrants pursue creative production and have the skills to succeed.

Citing such points as the horizontal sharing exchanges that go with immigration, the outsider advantages, the influx of new ideas, Lehrer argues that immigration can help support American creative culture. He returns to the question of Shakespeare, and the productivity of the Shakespearean era, following the reasoning of Robert Watson, a professor of English literature and history at UCLA. Lehrer, with Watson, feels that the influx of individuals from all cultures of England, and from many parts of Europe, contributed to the growth and flexibility of the English language during that period of time, and thus to the blossoming of literary creativity and attainment.

Lehrer encourages risk taking, the acceptance of failure, and chutzpah as necessary elements in encouraging creative excellence.

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