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In his latest book, Jonah Lehrer argues that if you have a tough problem to solve, the best approach is to relax. (Nina Subin)
In his latest book, Jonah Lehrer argues that if you have a tough problem to solve, the best approach is to relax. (Nina Subin)

The tell

How to grab inspiration by the tail Add to ...

When an idea pops into your head, it feels so miraculous and mysterious that for centuries people attributed such epiphanies to the gods. In Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer examines the science behind inspiration, looking inside the brain to find out what is happening when we're visited by the muses.

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For Mr. Lehrer – who at 30 is absurdly young to be a bestselling science writer – the book is a continuation of a long-term project to bridge the gap between science and art. In his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Mr. Lehrer passionately argued that, even in this age of astounding science, we still need the truths and mysteries of art. “When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art,” he wrote. What was missing was a new culture that could connect those two increasingly distant worlds, finding a way to “freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and the humanities.”

With a degree in neuroscience from Columbia and a master's in 20th-century literature and philosophy from Oxford, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar, Mr. Lehrer is well equipped to help create that culture. In his books as well as his articles for The New Yorker, Wired, and others, he has written about neuroscience and Walt Whitman with the same enthusiasm and panache. In Imagine, his third book, Mr. Lehrer studies scientific research, visits Pixar studios, talks to Yo-Yo Ma, and analyzes successful Broadway musical teams, all in order to try to answer the question: Where do creative ideas come from?

Why did you decide to write a book about creativity?

I really was drawn to the mystery. Here is this intrinsic part of human nature, one of the defining qualities that sets us apart, and yet it remains deeply mysterious. We often can't explain where our own ideas come from. When we have a moment of insight in the shower, we have no idea how it happened.

You talk about the “Aha! moment” in the shower. What's happening in our brain when we have an epiphany?

Well, it is pretty mysterious. You can't just put undergrads in brain scanners and tell them to have an epiphany. So scientists have come up with all sorts of very clever puzzles that allow them to generate lots of these moments of insight on the fly. And what they've learned is a couple things. One brain area in particular – the anterior superior temporal gyrus at the back of the right hemisphere – seems to be particularly important for drawing together these remote associations, these ideas that seem disconnected and yet actually have some thread in common.

They've also discovered that there are certain mindsets that make it much more likely for us to have a moment of insight. And here's where the research gets sort of counterintuitive. I think that most people would assume that if you give them a really hard problem, that what they should do is chug a triple espresso, get some caffeine in their head, and really focus. But that turns out to be the exact wrong approach. Instead, what's much more effective is to be relaxed, to get some alpha waves going. And the explanation is pretty simple. When people aren't relaxed, when we're vigilant and really focusedd. We're obsessed with the problem. It's not until we're relaxed in the shower that we're able to turn the spotlight of attention inwards and find the quiet voice in the back of our head that is trying to give us the answer.

How do our social networks affect our creativity?

There is this romantic myth of the lone inventor, the person who holes himself up in a cave and then is able to invent something radically new. But what you often find is that ideas come from other people. We remix and mash together the insights of others and find new connections. So this is why the social network of entrepreneurs seems to have a huge impact on how innovative they are. It's why the city we live in can dramatically influence the production of patents per capita. When people move to a city that's twice as big – and this is work by Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute – what you find is that on average they become 15 per cent more productive in just about every sense. They make 15 per cent more money, they create 15 per cent more trademarks and they invent 15 per cent more patents, simply because they're surrounded by more people.

There are more bumps, more interactions, and those interactions add up.

You write that “the young know less, which is why they often invent more.” How does knowing less lead to inventiveness?

This has long been a mystery. Creative production over time exhibits this inverted U-curve, where people tend to start off not at the top, then they exhibit this steep rise, then they peak fairly early in their career. In poetry, people peak at their late 20s, physics in their early 30s, microbiology in their late 30s. So it varies, but people often peak long before they're at the top of their field making lots of money.

One explanation is that there is just something inevitable about aging: Our imagination is like our joints – it just declines with age. But that's almost certainly not the case. Instead, what people like Dean Simonton at UC Davis argue is that the main reason behind the decline of creativity is enculturation. As we get older, we get very invested in the status quo and we get habitual ways of thinking. We develop very fixed perspectives. And all of that enculturation really gets in the way. So in a very literal way, young people do know less. They don't yet know how to apply for a grant, or how to attack a problem. They tend to ask all sorts of naive questions, and those questions tend to be very, very useful.

What can we do as a society to create the conditions for greater creativity?

I think we already have a pretty good model. In North America, we are very, very good at generating athletic geniuses. We encourage them at every step at the process. When they're very young, we send them to Little League. And then we've got different tracks, so if you're really good at a young age, you'll play soccer more seriously. And then we give them scholarships. And beyond that we've got a system where professional teams are willing to spend millions of dollars on big contracts even though these kids haven't proven themselves. So they encourage risk-taking, they encourage people to really think hard about the process and compete for those slots. So I think we already know how to generate geniuses. It's time to apply these same mechanisms to the cultivation of creative genius.

The ABCs of inspiration:

  1. When you feel stuck on a problem, take a break.
  2. Make new friends, especially friends that are really different from you.
  3. Move to a city. The evidence suggests that moving to a big metropolis where you bump into a lot of strangers while waiting in line for a latte will be good for your creativity.
  4. Don't brainstorm. (More on that here.)
  5. Practice letting yourself go. When you watch improvisers in a brain scanner, you see that they can just turn off that part of the brain that keeps us from saying stupid stuff. That's such an important part of spontaneous creativity that the rest of us should practice it. Maybe it's taking improv classes, maybe it's just letting ourselves daydream regularly without checking our e-mail on our phone all the time.

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a Toronto-based journalist.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


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