"Imagine" examines the anatomy of brilliance

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: June 17, 2012

Imagine How Creativity Works By Jonah Lehrer Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 252 pp. $26

Reviewed by Rickie Roberts

What do Bob Dylan, MIT, 3M, Tel Aviv, and the "I 0 New York" logo have in common?

In Imagine, author Jonah Lehrer weaves all of these people, places, and things into a brilliant narrative about — well, simply put — brilliance.

Lehrer is the author of two other equally engaging books, Proust Was a Neuroscientist (2007) and How We Decide (2009). Here, in only his third decade on this Earth, Lehrer has found a recipe for interpreting the insights, impulses, and creative possibilities of the most complex species on the planet. A graduate of Columbia University, he did a double major in neuroscience and English. In this unlikely pairing of disciplines, he has found a calling putting the highly intricate processes of the human mind into a language and a narrative that bring home his ideas to the more narrowly educated reader. In Proust Was a Neuroscientist, he explored the connection between the literary and scientific communities, and in How We Decide, he tackled the multifarious issue of decision-making by tying neuro-mechanics, context, culture, emotions, and history into a combination "how-do-we" and "how-to" book.

In Imagine, Lehrer has gone one step further. By exploring the common thread of imagination in the divergent worlds of song-writing, tape manufacturing, city building, play-writing, animation producing, mop inventing, and so much more, he is able to draw upon his unique combination of skills, knowledge, and experience to welcome the reader to a creative process that is becoming more and more critical in our society.

In chapter after chapter, he brings forward case studies of the contributions that creativity and imagination have made in success stories, ranging from bartending to pharmaceutical manufacturing. But he doesn't stop there. Through careful analysis of each case he helps us to understand the process that has taken place. From what is happening in neurotransmitters at the time of insight to the paint color on the walls, he guides us through these stories as if the lessons we learn here will make each one of us somehow capable of great things.

While he makes great use of his own scientific education and background in the narrative, Lehrer is able to do so in a way that makes even us common folk comfortable. He neither speaks over our heads in scientific matters nor does he seem to assume that the reader doesn't understand how the brain functions. He speaks of the right- and left-side brain functions without over-explanation, giving his readers credit for knowing enough about these topics to put the pieces together. Many a reader will appreciate this because once you accept that we are not all Ph.D,s you can relax and take this thrilling ride through the relationships between failure and accomplishment, brilliance and biochemistry.

Smartly, Lehrer begins the books with two studies that immediately put you at ease and suck you in with the curiosity that a well-crafted book can generate: the invention of the Swiffer Sweeper and the ubiquitous musings of Bob Dylan. Who wouldn't want to read on?

His tale of how Bob Dylan "hit the creative wall" in 1965 and retreated to isolation before producing some of his most brilliant work is antithetical to his account of how Pixar Studios uses collaboration and criticism to support the creative process that has driven so many of the most heralded animated classics of the last 30 years. Yet, Lehrer makes it work. He neither prescribes nor lectures, allowing that both isolation and collaboration have value in the creative process and must be examined in the context of the task.

Imagine also takes us down the path toward understanding the history behind some of the most creative minds, places, and eras. Did you ever wonder why the Silicon Valley, truly just a place on the map, continues year after year to produce mind-boggling innovation? Lehrer leads you to ask, "Why not Boston or Cedar Rapids?" and then patiently lays out the many factors that have contributed to such a phenomenon. Geography, city planning, collaboration, and a little-known California law that holds all non-compete clauses in employment contracts invalid, all have played roles in what seems to be an endless stream of technological advances moving forward from a small patch of land in the northern part of California.

Lehrer's detailed account of Elizabethan England and the structural and cultural changes that took place to spark the imaginations of William Shakespeare, John Donne, Christopher Marlowe, and Robert Greene help the reader understand the convergence of education and regulation in the moving forward of ideas, not only in Shakespeare's time but also in our own.

Not surprisingly, Lehrer steps forth as a great advocate for education while clearly delineating the difference between "smart" and "educated." (Lehrer is clearly both.) He focuses toward the end of the book on the distinction between educating and how we educate, using examples from earlier chapters in the book to demonstrate the important but missing factors in our education systems today.

In one of his articles in Wired, Lehrer writes, "The secret, it turns out, is the presence of particular meta-ideas, which support the spread of other ideas. First proposed by economist Paul Romer, meta-ideas include concepts like the patent system, public libraries, and universal education."

In Imagine, Lehrer eloquently informs the reader that meta-ideas around education, collaboration, immigration, protection of ideas, and reward for innovation are the blueprints to the future of how we, as a species, continue to use our imaginations in every facet of life on Earth.

Imagine, although intricate and detailed, is a comfortable read, a trip down the rabbit hole of the human mind's most enthralling success, the tiny spark of electricity demonstrated on a medical diagnostic machine that can change the world or just the way you read a book, enjoy a cocktail, or mop your floor.

Rickie Roberts is a former Inquirer training executive.

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