Book Review–Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

Imagine Book Cover Jonah LehrerThe other night I had the privilege of listening to author, Jonah Lehrer, speak about his best-selling book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

When 31-year old Rhodes Scholar and Wired editor, Lehrer, sauntered onto the stage at UCSB, smiled through his urban-hip geeky glasses, then started spewing insights in his highly-caffeinated manner, I felt like I’d just been hit with a double-espresso shot of inspiration.

Lehrer’s talk flowed just like his book, mixing neuroscience and entertaining anecdotes about famous creative breakthroughs and aha moments.

He shared stories about a wide range of characters—everyone from poets, musicians, and advertising executives to inventors, scientists and educators, deconstructing the process of how we accomplish some of our greatest feats of creativity.

Photo of Jonah Lehrer, author of ImagineWhile Imagine has been blasted in several reviews for scientific inaccuracies (The Guardian and The New York Times, in particular), I find this book irresistible.

None of the information on its own is necessarily groundbreaking, but the way in which Lehrer presents it with his fine writing, connecting the creative dots, and making the science approachable for non-scientific readers, creates a book that is not only delightful, but enlightening.

I knew Imagine was for me when the author kicked off the first chapter describing the genesis of one of Bob Dylan’s best-known songs, Like a Rolling Stone. Dylan, who was burned out at the time—sick of his music and sick of other people’s expectations of him—got on his Triumph motorcycle sans guitar and headed to an empty house in Woodstock. There, after essentially quitting and letting it all go, he ended up creating one of the most inspired pieces of his musical career.

Lehrer hands us one entertaining anecdote after another then peppers it with science, explaining why a particular breakthrough may have occurred. There’s the tale of how masking tape was invented and other common items like Post-it Notes and the Swiffer mop, then there’s the story of how Nike’s famous “Just Do It” logo was created.

 “Every creative journey begins with a problem,” he explains. “It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. We have worked hard, but we’ve hit the wall. We have no idea what to do next…Thanks to how we’re hardwired, it’s often only at this point, after we’ve stopped searching for the answer, that the answer arrives.”

Haven’t we all experienced this in our creative lives? Just when we’ve nearly thrown in the towel, some nugget of inspiration has fallen into our laps and given us the spark we needed to keep going.

What I like about this book is that Lehrer challenges pre-conceived notions about creativity and tries to demystify the process. He believes we all have the ability to be creative if we cultivate certain thought processes, and if we apply a large dose of grit.

As a writer, I loved being reminded about the grit factor, the need to dig deep and be persistent, putting in hours of hard work—as in the “1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration” notion. Best-selling memoirs don’t just magically happen. They take months, sometimes years of writing and re-writing.

Lehrer quotes neuroscientist, Nancy Andreasen, who says,

“Successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.”

He also quotes famous graphic designer, Milton Glaser, who has the slogan ART IS WORK chiseled in the glass of his studio:

“There’s 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.”

My timing in reading this book has been fascinating, as so many of the ideas have infolded in front of me while watching my husband agonize over the creation of an extremely complex piece of art he’s been working on for the past six months. Each part of the design, each medium he’s used (photography, paint, gouache, collage, paper, metal, ink, pencil), and each decision he’s made has been one of intense thought, piles of research, hours of learning new techniques, and even more hours of being hunched over his art table doing the work. Throughout this process he has hit the wall numerous times, felt like he’s lost his mind in even attempting to construct this concept. But just as it’s driving him mad, a solution comes—in the middle of the night, when he’s walking, when he’s listening to NPR, when he’s chatting with colleagues about random subjects, or when he’s looking at other’s art.

While Imagine isn’t a prescriptive book about how to be more creative, Lehrer does offer  a few strategies about remaining creative over time:

  • Travel—the longer the trip, the better.
  • Embrace your status as an outsider. People who aren’t established and haven’t learned the system, often bring the freshest ideas. They don’t know anything so they aren’t afraid to make mistakes. Their “ignorance” or naïveté, gives them an advantage.
  • Do the hard work then play, and then do it again, until the two are one process.
  • Cultivate new colleagues.
  • Embark on a new career or learn a new medium.
  • Live in a city. Urban centers are hubs of creativity because populations are usually diverse and people continually rub shoulders, sharing ideas. Culture, he says, determines creative output, and it’s through sharing information and making connections that we maximize that output.

A few other fun tidbits culled from this book include: the color blue is said to increase creativity, as does caffeine, daydreaming, and relaxing. That must be why I do some of my best thinking in the backyard, sipping iced lattes while writing under blue skies; and why ideas always pop into my head while I’m relaxing in a long, hot shower or going on a delicious, meandering run. It’s all about the dopamine, baby!

The take-away message from this multifaceted book is that creativity is hard-wired in the human brain and we can enrich that quality in ourselves and in our society. “It’s time to create the kind of culture that won’t hold us back,” Lehrer says, “We have to make it easy to become a genius.”

If you’re looking for a book to inspire and stir your imagination, by all means read Imagine, especially if you love a good behind-the-scenes story about how things are created, and how some of our best creations have come from failures. If you’re searching for precise scientific data about how our creative minds work, this book might frustrate you with its reported errors and generalizations. Head to scientific journals instead.

I rate this book a solid 4.5 out of 5 stars.

What are your thoughts about this book? And what are your thoughts about Lehrer’s recent “self-plagiarism” controversy? Drop your two cents into the comment box. I’d love to know what you think.

©Becky Green Aaronson 2012

30 thoughts on “Book Review–Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

  1. Well, you’ve sold me! This is an outstanding piece of writing, Becky. You answered every question I had about the book. Thank you. I’m going to download it just as soon as I get through a few others already in the queue . I’ll keep you posted when I read it.

    • Oh good, Jayne. I’m glad I could fill in a few blanks for you about the book. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Happy reading!

  2. Great Review Becky! I hope to read this book someday. As a person who loves to write, I also loved being reminded about the need to dig deep and be persistent, putting in hours of hard work. :) Thanks a lot for the remainder.

    • Thanks, Arindam. I’m glad you like this review. I think you would enjoy the book a lot, especially with your engineering background. You are one of those lucky people who are equally talented in science and the arts.

  3. Becky, you’ve piqued my curiosity. I’m all about creativity but not into reading about science. However you–and Deborah’s comment–make this sound so fascinating. Will have to check it out!

    • Monica, I have a hard time not glazing over when reading about science, but this is done in such a way, I think you’ll enjoy it. Let me know what you think if you read it.

  4. Great review, Becky. I should read this book. Many of its concepts you so aptly describe resonate with me. Especially the one about perseverance. One of my favorite quotes of all times is about the same:
    “Success seems to be largely a matter
    of hanging on after others have let go.”
    ― William Feather

  5. You know I read the book as well, and I agree with your take on it. For this lay (lady lay) person ;-) , Lehrer distills neuroscience in a way that informs and fascinates. And the article that appeared in The Rumpus (which I saw you commented on) really got to the heart of the matter. Blue skies for inspiration — eh?

    • Deborah, I’m going to post the link to The Rumpus here in the comments in case others want to read about it the “self-plagiarism” controversy: . Thanks for sharing that link.

      I have to admit when I first heard the term “self-plagiarism,” I laughed out loud, thinking, “Huh? How you can plagiarize yourself?” But after learning more about it, I could understand why The New Yorker was bent out of shape. When you’re writing for The Big Boys (and Girls) you’re expected to come up with fresh, original content EVERY TIME–or at least you need to be completely up front about it if you’re using previously published material.

      Still, there’s no denying this fascinating book, and the hours Lehrer must have poured into the research.

  6. Great review and I have been dancing around getting this book. As a creativity coach, I am always looking for some new insight to give my students. your review convinced me. We are all creative souls looking for a place to call home so we can just let is all out…Like a Rolling Stone.

    • Elizabeth, I think you’ll enjoy this book, especially with your role as a creativity coach. I’d love to know what you think once you read it.

  7. Wow Becky, this is the second time in two weeks that someone I admire recommended this book. I think it must be a sign! As for Lehrer’s “self-plagiarism,” (“repurposing” might be a better word), I’m think the hoopla is a bit over the top. I can see the New Yorker’s point, though. They’re paying for new and original material from someone considered extremely gifted. “Phoning it in” isn’t an option at that level.

    • It is a sign! :-) If you end up reading it, I hope you’ll let me know if you liked it.

      I think you are spot on with the “self-plagiarism” controversy. Check out the link to The Rumpus article, which I posted above in response to Deborah Batterman’s comment, if you want to read more about it.

  8. Thanks for the recommendation–the book certainly sounds inspiring! I can relate to the idea that ideas come sometimes after we stop trying so hard. I’ve experienced that a lot and have come to almost depend on it at times.

    • This book has a little of this and a little of that, and it all swirls together into a fascinating read about how our brains function during the creative process.

      One interesting part talks about the affects of depression and creativity. It says: “famous writers were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness…and…depression is intertwined with “cognitive style” that makes people more likely to produce success works of art.”

      I could relate to the “not trying so hard” part too. Sometimes stepping away from something and coming back to it with fresh eyes makes all the difference–or simply taking a break to play.

  9. The “www” has given us far more control over knowledge than we’ve had in the past–I’m sure other writers have reinvented materials for various pieces, without consequence. The dishonesty bothers me, but that doesn’t make me question his creative insights. I would like to read his book.

    I recently read a book about children and learning–the author was brilliant in his understanding of the differences in how certain children learn best in a-typical environments. The book enthralled me. It spoke to me, and I even considered teaching a class based on his theories. Later, not finished with the book, I happened upon info about the author, including his suicide after allegations of child sexual abuse. I will admit…I could not read the book any further–but I was bummed, because his work was ground-breaking and brilliant. I felt sad about tossing it, but that was the result of the author’s battles and my gut-reaction to them.

    Lehrer is a FAR different scenario…but I DO understand the doubt that is now cast on him as a person, and the potential reasons he may have a difficult time rising above the choices he made. I hope, however, that he succeeds brilliantly.

    • Britton, I think you’re right about the web opening up a whole world of scrutiny for authors (and people, in general). Your example of the child development author is horrifying, and without the web you most likely never would have known. I personally do not know Lehrer, except of course from reading his book and seeing his lecture, so it’s impossible for me to make a judgment about his intentions. I tend to think he probably took on too much and was struggling to keep up creating new content, but again, I can only IMAGINE. :-)

    • Jessica, I think you’ll enjoy this book a lot. It’s good for a few cups of inspiration. I’d love to hear what you think when you get to it.

  10. Great piece, Becky. I love hearing how brilliant writers are inspired. It makes me want to immediately drop everything and start writing something new, but I can’t at the moment. I’ll pick up Lehrer’s book once the crazies die down at my house. I know nothing of his self-plagerism either, I wonder when this happened?

    And I enjoyed reading about Jeff’s art project. It sounds fascinating working with so many different mediums. My curiosity is piqued.

    Keep up the great work, Becky. I always enjoy reading your pieces though I haven’t taken the time to reply. Please forgive me. :)

    • Nancy, so great to see you here again. I’ve been thinking about you, wondering how close you are to your book launch. Keep me posted so I can spread the word.

      Lehrer’s book is a fun and fascinating read. I think you would enjoy it if/when things quiet down for you.

      The self-plagiarism controversy is simply that Lehrer is said to have “recycled” some of his work and ideas from previous articles and posted it on The New Yorker’s blog. Clearly, it didn’t go over well; he’s getting slammed for it. I didn’t even know it was possible to plagiarize yourself until this came up! :-)

  11. Well, I have not read the book, nor do I know what the whole self-plagiarism controversy is, but I can comment on a couple of other things.

    First, creativity does not just happen every time an artist wants it to, that is completely true. I do my best work when it hits me – and who knows when that will happen? Not me, but boy do I make a bee line for the computer or a notepad when it does!

    Second, the color blue sparks creativity? Well, that’s why I chose a blue theme for my website! Now I know, LOL!

    Third, I am very glad to hear that ignorance and naivetee are a plus. I’m going to be a star ;0)

    • I think we all dream of having creativity swirl about us all the time, but of course we know those cherished moments come in bursts. The trick is being prepared for them so when they do arrive they’re not squandered. I know scads of people who are never without a notepad so they can jot an idea down before it slips away. I think I’ll be investing in BLUE notepads from now on! :-)

  12. Thanks Becky. What a great read. Your post I mean, not the book. I am embarrassed to say (because I am a writer) that this is the first I’ve heard of the book. It sounds great, although you give so much wonderful information from what you read that I am not sure I need to buy it now. Thanks especially for the reminder that it takes a lot of time and effort to be creative. Loved the post.

    • Lori, I’m glad you enjoyed this post. The book is well worth the read if you have a little extra time. The anecdotes alone offer up a delicious bit of inspiration. The science behind it is like the whipped cream on top.

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