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

New York Times bestselling author Jonah Lehrer has produced another bestseller—this time focusing on the creative mind. His book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, was released on March 18, 2012. According to MarketWatch.com, by April 8 it was number one on the NYT bestseller list, following in the footsteps of Lehrer’s prior books, How We Decide, and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

 Creativity is an attribute often desired more in theory than in fact. In practice it is often marginalized and discouraged in the harsh environment of the real world. In a time when the need for productivity and ingenuity are vitally needed, understanding how to foster creativity with understanding and intelligent application is vital. Teachers, businessmen, economists, scientists, and politicians observing the challenges facing the world and its nations understand the desperate need for creative, innovative thinkers. Individuals, yearning to live satisfying, productive lives, long for ways to ignite their own creative abilities.

Understanding of how human creativity functions and what supports creative ability has been a human goal for centuries. In our current time, modern research allows a better understanding than at any time in the past. Imagine offers insights into these discoveries, and hints as to how we can encourage creative growth, in small ways and large.


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New York Times bestselling author Jonah Lehrer has produced another bestseller—this time focusing on the creative mind. His book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, was released on March 18, 2012. According to MarketWatch.com, by April 8 it was number one on the NYT bestseller list, following in the footsteps of Lehrer’s prior books, How We Decide, and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

 Creativity is an attribute often desired more in theory than in fact. In practice it is often marginalized and discouraged in the harsh environment of the real world. In a time when the need for productivity and ingenuity are vitally needed, understanding how to foster creativity with understanding and intelligent application is vital. Teachers, businessmen, economists, scientists, and politicians observing the challenges facing the world and its nations understand the desperate need for creative, innovative thinkers. Individuals, yearning to live satisfying, productive lives, long for ways to ignite their own creative abilities.

Understanding of how human creativity functions and what supports creative ability has been a human goal for centuries. In our current time, modern research allows a better understanding than at any time in the past. Imagine offers insights into these discoveries, and hints as to how we can encourage creative growth, in small ways and large.

Imagine covers the neurological, psychological, and environmental factors currently believed to promote successful creative production. The book focuses on three primary areas of creative endeavor.

  • Artistic creativity: music, writing, and film, among others.
  • Scientific creativity: mainly mathematics, physics, neuroscience.
  • Economic creativity: business creativity which pursues breakthroughs in ways that can be marked, and which develops creative methods of marketing salable products and services.

Lehrer has structured the book for clarity. In many ways Imagine is not itself a highly imaginative work. He’s broken the writing into two basic sections, “Alone,” and “Together.”

The first,“Alone,” deals with the nature of creativity in the individual. Each chapter of this section is framed by a narrative built around an iconic creator or creation. Within that framing Lehrer presents a series of small essays focusing on scientific discoveries about creativity thematically tied to the framing narrative. For example, in the first chapter the framing creator is Bob Dylan, the framing creation is his song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” and the science covered deals with the studies of a particular portion of the brain which would seem likely to have been involved in the creation of the song. The icon serves as illustration for the science.

The second portion of the book uses a similar technique. Where the first portion focused on cognition in the individual, the second deals with compound creative activity. In this section, “Together,” Lehrer looks at the social, cultural, and environmental factors that can promote or discourage creative productivity. Through both sections, though, the iconic character, creation, or group is used to build conceptual bridges to more abstract scientific material.

Lehrer is known for his ability to make imposing neurological subjects accessible to a lay audience. In the process he streamlines, simplifies, and draws in metaphors and anecdotal evidence that can delight or dismay professionals. Imagine is no exception to this. One Scientific American reviewer, Lena Groeger, wrote, “ the book is compre­hensive, presenting a clear picture of our current scientific understanding of creativity,” a New York Times reviewer, Christopher Chabris, whose primary career is as a professor of psychology at Union College, writes far more scathingly, “Malcolm Gladwell says on the book’s jacket that Lehrer ‘knows more about science than a lot of scientists.’ However he has determined this, it cannot be from this book, which includes many elementary errors.”

Lehrer’s obvious passion for his subject, and his easily accessed approach to a difficult subject will charm many readers. The most knowledgeable, however, may wish to read the material only as a supplement to more serious articles and papers. Imagine: How Creativity Works is a good entry-level review of overall understanding of the current science of creative research. It is not, however, a flawless reference book. It’s a layman’s introduction. As such, it has a lot to offer as a broad and appealing overview, and should go a long way in encouraging many to think more seriously about how creation happens...but it’s not likely to get even a college-level science student through a tough final. At least...not a tough final in neuroscience or research methods.

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