SAY WHAT YOU WILL about Jonah Lehrer—he certainly knows how to present a well-informed case. The Wired and New Yorker contributor has made his short but striking career from applying neuroscience to the humanities, daring to pull back the curtain on the seemingly mysterious thought processes that enable our decision-making and modes of expression. In his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Lehrer explores creative expression—the work of artists and inventors and scientists and writers and musicians—by stripping away common myths of our imagination's ineffability.
It's a valid question deserving of acute examination: Where does creativity come from? How does the mind seemingly generate something out of nothing, and why are some quantifiably better at it than others? Lehrer is smart to evade any and all new-age psychobabble in favor of raw science, which might sound dry, but he's a personable writer and a natural storyteller, so Imagine takes on the form of a collection of anecdotes that explain different facets of creativity. These stories on their own—including 3M's invention of the Swiffer, Bob Dylan's composing "Like a Rolling Stone," and Pixar's struggle in bringing Toy Story 2 to the screen—are fully engaging, and they back up Lehrer's theories in simple-to-understand terms. But the question is what the reader is able to take away from his conclusions. Apart from some easy-to-swallow generalizations and abstractions, there isn't a ton.
Still, Lehrer has initiated an intriguing and important dialogue on the science of creativity that isn't going to be finished anytime soon, and he gives his readers a solid foothold on the connection between neuroscience and creative expression. Ideas are generated from circuits in the brain forming connections with one another in new and different arrangements; there are nearly an infinite number of unique connections that can be made, but they're often only made under certain circumstances. For example, an active dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (the impulse-control sector of the brain that keeps you from eating a whole container of bonbons, or from mooning your boss) is necessary in order to behave in society, but Lehrer cites a study that shows jazz musicians often silence it in order to improvise.
It's fun to read Lehrer's theories—drawn from an impressive array of scientific studies—on what actually does help creativity: Blue walls are better suited to creative endeavors than red ones. Centralized bathrooms force office workers to interact with each other more effectively. Travel is one of the best ways to escape familiar thought patterns. Drugs can help cultivate new ideas, but only for a short while; then they become a hindrance. Rote memorization and standardized testing virtually kill creativity in students. Big cities breed new ideas, per capita, at an astonishingly greater rate than smaller cities.
But the result is a broad prescription that Lehrer draws from these generalized theories. His conclusions—he terms them "meta-ideas"—feel almost pat, and certainly too brief to draw anything lasting. Lehrer believes in education reform (athletics are held in too-high regard); in encouraging immigration and urban density (culture clash results in creative sparks); in copyright and patent reform (the best ideas are often stolen and reworked); and in rewarding research grants to untested and untried theories (risky grants have a higher failure rate, but also potentially greater rewards). These are all worthwhile points, but something feels missing from Imagine. You'll want more from Lehrer, even as he opens an entertaining and informative window on how our brains breed new ideas.