Did you know Bob Dylan wrote his iconic song “Like a Rolling Stone” only after giving up on music and moving to rural upstate New York? Did you know the color blue has been linked to creativity? Or that, instead of downing more coffee, your creative problem could be solved by simply taking a walk?
In his latest book, Imagine: The Science of Creativity, author Jonah Lehrer claims creativity is not a rare talent, but something that everyone possesses. He takes an in-depth look at creative minds, the writing processes of famous poets, William Shakespeare’s prolific works of theater and the exponential growth in Silicon Valley. Lehrer uses scientific research and social narratives to demystify the creative process in an understandable and delightful way.
His newest book seems to follow a trend of nonfiction writing that uses both science and anecdotes to describe social phenomena. Bestsellers like Steven D. Levitt’s Freakonomics or Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point have proven how popular this subgenre can be. Though Lehrer uses similar tactics, his dual background studying neuroscience at Columbia University and working in the literary field gives him unique insight. This combination of skills also allows Lehrer to seamlessly combine complex notions within neuroscience with real-world examples.
Throughout Imagine, Lehrer asserts that, while creative problems do require a large amount of time and concentration, most breakthroughs — or what he calls “moments of insight” — come in a state of relaxation. The alpha waves produced in our brains just before going to bed or when taking a hot shower allow the brain to shift its attention inward. It is in these unexpected moments that most insights occur. Additionally, Lehrer claims that intense focus may not always be good, as trying to force an insight usually prevents one from occurring. Instead of downing energy drinks and coffee, your writer’s block could more healthily be solved by taking a nap, going for a walk or simply allowing your brain to shift attention away from that unsolvable problem. After all, it was only after Bob Dylan decided to quit music and move to a remote cabin that he created one of his most well-known songs.
Lehrer also explores the connection between large cities and creatively successful companies. A majority of people live in cities; Lehrer attributes this to research suggesting that the more people interact with each other, the more creative they are. Large cultural hubs like New York City and Austin, Texas feature a constant mingling of diversity that allows for more productivity. These dense communities have “superlinear growth,” meaning that as the city gets larger, every person in the city becomes more productive.
An example Lehrer gives is the profitable company Pixar, whose headquarters have only one restroom located centrally in the building. Every single employee is forced to use that one bathroom, causing the same “mingling of diversity” that allows for the flow of new ideas and productive work habits.
Imagine entertains while taking a deeper look into the “magical” process of creativity. But the book is more than light reading. This exploration of art and science provides practical ideas for city planning, entrepreneurship, writing, designing and learning. The claim that increased relaxation and interaction with new people brings about better ideas is especially valuable to students.
At 8 p.m. tonight, Lehrer will be at Campbell Hall to talk about Imagine. I highly recommend consuming his book from cover to cover as I did and taking the opportunity to hear him speak.