Reading Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works

With this post, begins a regular column in which it reviews, explicates and excerpts books that we think will resonate with people in the business of publishing and media.  

Jonah Lehrer‘s Imagine: How Creativity Works is being published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 19, and already has enormous coverage, most notably in the Wall Street Journal, where Lehrer writes the (what else?) Head Case column.  In his March 10 article, he distills his thesis that creativity isn’t one gene or way of approaching the world, but instead a variety of distinct thought processes (it’s also a good way to pick up salient tips on how to foster creativity):

The book, for which a major tour is planned, sports blurbs from Malcolm Gladwell and Joshua Foer, two obvious inspirations.  Its editor, and the editor of his last two books is Amanda Cook, (who gets huge kudos in the acknowledgments, as does Lehrer’s agent, Sarah Chalfant).

What makes Lehrer’s new book a useful tool for people in businesses that require continual creativity and innovation is that he brings anecdotes about famous people and inventions, research (check out, puzzles  and tips to every page (and yes, I read this as a print book).  He’s also good at repurposing metaphors, as when he quotes an NIH scientist who explains that the brain’s left hemisphere is the side that sees the trees, while the right hemisphere “is what helps you see the forest.”

In the spirit of Gallup‘s StrengthsFinder bestseller, where everyone emerges a winner, Lehrer ensures that both the scattered temperament — encompassing those with ADHD as well as garden varity absentmindedness — and the more analytical, have ways of being creative.  One tends toward divergent thinking and the other, convergent, but both have value in the creative process.

The book is fun, too, and each chapter heading begins with a quotable quote, like Bob Dylan‘s exhortation to “Always carry a lightbulb.”  Best of all, Lehrer lets the reader indulge him or herself in lots of otherwise unacceptable behaviour, from thinking like a kid to taking long walks in the middle of the workday, to watching funny Youtube videos to, yes, indulging in drink, drugs and rock’n’roll.  What’s not to embrace?


In the early 1980s, Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist at the University of Iowa, interviewed several writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop about their mental history.  While Andreasen expected the artists to suffer from schizophrenia at a higher rate than normal — “There is that lingering cliche about madness and genius going together,” she says — that hypothesis turned out to be completely wrong.  Instead. . . 80 percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some type of depression.  These successful artists weren’t crazy — they were just exceedingly sad.  A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British novelists and poets done by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins.  According to her data, famous writers were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness.

Why is severe sadness so closely associated with creativity?  Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a “cognitive style” that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art.  Her explanation is straightforward:  It’s not easy to write a good novel or compose a piece of music.  The process often requires years of careful attention as the artist fixes mistakes and corrects errors.  As a result, the ability to stick with the process — to endure the unconcealing — is extremely important.  “Successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. . . . If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.”


Knowledge can be a subtle curse.  When we learn about the world, we also learn all the reasons why the world cannot be changed.  We get used to our failures and imperfections.  We become numb to the possibilities of something new.  in fact, the only way to remain creative over time — to not be undone by our expertise — is the experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand.  This is the lesson of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the nineteenth-century Romantic poet.  One of his favorite pastimes was attending public chemistry lectures in London, watching eminent scientists set elements on fire.  When Coleridge was asked why he spent so much time watching these pyrotechnic demonstrations, he had a ready reply.  “I attend the lectures, he said, “so that I can renew my stock of metaphors.”

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  1. […] Book-Biz Bad Boy (and not many weeks have those) is undisputably Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine. First, he admits to fabricating Bob Dylan quotes, then he resigns from The New Yorker, and THEN […]

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