Book Review: "Imagine: How Creativity Works" by Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer’s book on the science and research of creativity was a fascinating read. It was one of the better nonfiction books I’ve read in the past year and I highly recommend it. The book breaks down how the brain functions when being creative. More importantly, it is filled with examples of how to manipulate the brain/body and enhance overall creativity. It is an excellent read with numerous examples of creativity and success in many different fields. Moreover, Jonah does not simply focus on the arts, such as creativity in painting and music. He spends a significant amount of time analyzing the creativity involved with some of the biggest corporations in the country. For example, he discusses how 3M has grown to one of the largest conglomerates in the world through creativity and innovation. The book covers mathematicians, writers, CEO’s, painters, actors, software engineers, musicians, and everything in between.

The book covers close to 20 different ways that individuals can enhance and increase productive output and overall creativity. Each of these methodologies is then supported by several research studies and various real world examples of individuals applying the concept.

A topic that is covered a few times in the book is the effect mood has on a person’s brain. There have been numerous studies that show how various levels of emotion impact brain function. One study showed that people who score high on a standard measure of happiness solve about 25% more insight puzzles than people who are feeling angry or upset. Even feelings of delight can lead to dramatic increases in creativity. One study showed clips of Robin Williams to a group of people and a boring lecture to another group. Following the 15 minute video, each group was required to complete complex puzzles. The group watching stand-up comedy had a lot more epiphanies.

Similar to happiness, relaxation is a large contributor to creativity. People who are able to be in a relaxed state are able to use the right hemisphere of the brain (which is the center for creative ideas). This is why so many people come up with an interesting idea or a solution to a complex problem they have been working on when they are taking a warm shower or when they are away from the problem. Jonah discusses how important it is to step away from the work and relax the mind and body. For example, Steve Jobs would often times go for a walk/hike to take his mind off of the current task. Another study showed how a Zen Buddhist, who meditated up to 10 hours a day, had incredible cognitive control to instantly relax, and thus was able to ramp up alpha waves in the brain, which resulted in him being an insight/creative machine.

Another topic that I found fairly interesting was the need to surround yourself with interesting people. The book spends a lot of time discussing the collaborative process of creativity. Though we tend to think of being creative as an individual act, being around other people, even those in different fields, drastically increases creativity.  Jonah discusses why Silicon Valley has always produced so many more patents than any other city in the country (even when it was a small farming community). The culture in Silicon Valley has always been to interact with other people and discuss what others are working on. Moreover, the non-compete laws in California are not enforceable, and employees are constantly jumping from one company to another. In traditional big corporations, employees were not allowed to discuss research and development issues or what they were working on, even within the company (let alone outside of the company. There was no communication outside of the company and employees very rarely left to work elsewhere). The constant interaction of silicon valley brought people working on different problems together, which helped create thousands of new, innovative products. Similarly, Pixar was built so that all employees from different departments constantly ran into (and talked) to one another. For example, only one bathroom was built in the middle of the building so that all employees had to come to the same area. Running into people from various different departments helped spur new ideas and solutions. The most creative ideas, it turns out, don’t occur when we’re alone. Rather, they emerge from our social circles, from collections of acquaintances who inspire novel thoughts. Sometimes the most important people in life are the people we barely know.

Paul Erdos, arguably one of the most successful mathematicians of all time, was notorious for living out of a suitcase and working with new mathematicians in different fields and places around the world almost on a monthly basis. He published more than 1,500 mathematical articles. Paul strongly believed that mathematics as a social activity and had over 500 different collaborators around the world throughout his lifetime. Jonah Also discusses how Shakespeare and Bob Dylan (among many others) stole most of their ideas from past stories or old songs. Today’s copyright laws would not allow either artist to have accomplished what they created. For example, Romeo and Juliet was based on an Italian story, “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet” by Arthur Brooke.

T.S Eliot, one of major poets of the 20th century once said, “Immature poets imitate. Mature poets steal.”

The book also is also filled with many quick tricks we could apply to increase creativity. Being surrounded by blue walls associates our brain with the sky and ocean and calmness and spurs additional creativity. “That’s why exposing people to the color blue can double their creative output.”

Though there are various ways to help spur creativity, hard work and a relentless drive to complete something will always be important. Jonah states, “Every journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer….  When we tell one another stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase of the creative process. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit.” The arts and creativity does not just hit people. It comes from hundreds of hours of hard work.   Milton Glaser, the advertising guru who created the I Love New York campaign states “There is no such thing as a creative type. As if creative people can just show up and make stuff up. As if it were that easy. I think people need to be reminded that creativity is a verb, a very time consuming verb. It’s about taking an idea in your head, and transforming that idea into something real. And that’s always going to be a long and difficult process. If you’re doing it right, it’s going to feel like work.”

One of my favorite quotes from the book comes from Nietzsche: “Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration….shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre, or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects….All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.”

Overall, I highly recommend the book. It is applicable it is to any subject, from acting to music to painting to engineering problems to marketing new products to solving math problems, to writing. The book never got dry and boring and is filled with numerous examples that helped to inspire and motivate me to create and do more. More importantly, it gave me a blueprint for how I can increase my productivity and my creative output.