Breaking down the science behind our least-understood thought process
"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."
Some 131 years later, Elizabeth Gilbert echoed that observation in a now-legendary TED talk.
The origin, pursuit, and secret of creativity are a central fixation of the Idea Age. But what, exactly, does "creativity"—that infinitely nebulous term—really mean, and how does it work? This inquiry is at the heart of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer—who, in my opinion, has done more for the popular understanding of psychology and neuroscience than any other writer working today, and who has previously examined such fascinating subjects as how we decide and why we need a "fourth culture" of knowledge.
Lehrer writes in the introduction, echoing Nietzsche's lament:
"The sheer secrecy of creativity—the difficulty in understanding how it happens, even when it happens to us—means that we often associate breakthroughs with an external force. In fact, until the Enlightenment, the imagination was entirely synonymous with higher powers: being creative meant channeling the muses, giving voice to the ingenious gods. (Inspiration, after all, literally means 'breathed upon.') Because people couldn't understand creativity, they assumed that their best ideas came from somewhere else. The imagination was outsourced."
He notes how the mysteriousness and hazy nature of creativity have historically confounded scientists, and how its study has become a meta-metaphor for creativity itself:
"How does one measure the imagination? The daunting nature of the subject led researchers to mostly neglect it; a recent survey of psychology papers published between 1950 and 2000 revealed that less than 1 percent of them investigated aspects of the creative process. Even the evolution of this human talent was confounding. Most cognitive skills have elaborate biological histories, so their evolution can be traced over time. But not creativity—the human imagination has no clear precursors. There is no ingenuity module that got enlarged in the human cortex, or even a proto-creative impulse evident in other primates. Monkeys don't paint; chimps don't write poems; and it's the rare animal (like the New Caledonian crow) that exhibits rudimentary signs of problem solving. The birth of creativity, in other words, arrived like any insight: out of nowhere."
Reflecting David Eagleman's insistence upon understanding the unconscious operations of the brain as a key to understanding ourselves, Lehrer counters the idea that imagination can't be rigorously studied:
"Until we understand the set of mental events that give rise to new thoughts, we will never understand what makes us so special. That's why this book begins by returning us to the material source of the imagination: the three pounds of flesh inside the skull. William James described the creative process as a 'seething cauldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity.' For the first time, we can see the cauldron itself, that massive network of electrical cells that allow individuals to form new connections between old ideas. We can take snapshots of thoughts in brain scanners and measure the excitement of neurons as they get closer to a solution. The imagination can seem like a magic trick of matter—new ideas emerging from thin air—but we are beginning to understand how the trick works."
Lehrer nods to the combinatorial nature of creativity:
"Creativity shouldn't be seen as something otherworldly. It shouldn't be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other 'creative types.' The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y."
At the heart of Imagine is an important redefinition of "creativity":
[T]he standard definition of creativity is completely wrong. Ever since the ancient Greeks, people have assumed that the imagination is separate from other kinds of cognition. But the latest science suggests that this assumption is false. Instead, creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes. (The brain is the ultimate category buster.)
For most of human history, people have believed that the imagination is inherently inscrutable, an impenetrable biological gift. As a result, we cling to a series of false myths about what creativity is and where it comes from. These myths don't just mislead -- they also interfere with the imagination."
The opening of the book's wonderful trailer winks at Steve Jobs's famous quote that "creativity is just connecting things":
Lehrer goes on to explore the workings of creativity through subjects as diverse as Bob Dylan's writing methods, the birth of Swiffer, an autistic surfer who invented a new surfing move, the drug habits of poets, Pixar's secret sauce, the emergence of collaborative culture, and a wealth more.
But what makes Imagine outstanding is that the book itself is an epitome of an increasingly important form of creativity—the ability to pull together perspectives, insights, and bits of information into a mashup narrative framework that illuminates a subject in an entirely new way.
This practice, of course, is centuries old, dating at least as far back as medieval florilegia. But Lehrer's gift—or, rather, grit-honed skill—for connecting dots across disciplines and directions of thought, and gleaning from these connections original insight, is a true testament to the role of the author as a curator of empirical evidence, theory, and opinion. In the excellent Five Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner called this the "synthesizing mind"—and Lehrer's is positively a paragon:
"The synthesizing mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesizer and also to other persons. Valuable in the past, the capacity to synthesize becomes ever more crucial as information continues to mount at dizzying rates."
This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.