Where will your next great idea come from?

First aired on Q (23/04/12)imagine creativity.jpg

Where did you have your last great idea? Ancient philosopher Archimedes got his in the tub. Bob Dylan liked a remote cabin in the woods. We've all experienced a "eureka!" moment, where an idea is born, seemingly, out of nothing. As much as creativity drives the worlds of art and commerce, it's always been something of a mystery, something that some people are gifted with more than others. But science writer Jonah Lehrer says that new insights into how our brains work are helping to demystify creativity. Lehrer spoke with guest host Brent Bambury on Q earlier this week about his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, which outlines a few surprising facts about creativity, and might even help you boost your own creativity.

The idea that you can become more creative than you already are is undoubtedly appealing. But does it really work that way? Yes, according to Lehrer."There's been this longstanding myth that creativity is some very rare gift," said Lehrer. "The good news is that the science suggests that creativity is a universal trait and that means we can all get better at it...we can learn to harness our own imagination a little bit more."

The brain is still a very mysterious organ. But, said Lehrer, "we are getting the first glimmers of how creativity actually works, how the brain creates new connections between old ideas [and] how, in a sense, we feel like we're inventing ideas out of thin air when really all that is is a new connection between a circuit of old cells."


So does creativity come from a particular part of the brain? Not exactly. "One of the myths I really wanted to explore in the book was this notion that creativity is this single thing, that when we want to be creative there is one way that we should always be thinking," said Lehrer. "What the science reveals is that different kinds of creative problems benefit from different types of creative thinking. So we need to do a better job of identifying the creative problem in front of us and then adjusting our thought process accordingly."

Some of our current problem-solving habits — focus focus focus, drink an espresso, stay late at the office, etc. — might even be counterproductive. "You'll just be focused on the problem and the probably wrong answer you can't get past," said Lehrer. "Instead, the science suggests that the next time you hit a seemingly impossible problem you should take a break...the answer will only arrive after you stop looking for it."

Lehrer offers some famous examples of creative breakthroughs. Bob Dylan, for example, was exhausted after his six-week U.K. tour in 1965 and ready to give up music entirely. He felt trapped and lost and generally burnt out. So he went up to a cabin near Woodstock, New York, and ended up having one of the greatest creative moments of his life. "Even though he is determined for the first time in his life to not write songs — he wants to paint and write a novel — he feels this familiar feeling, what he calls 'the itch of unwritten words,'" said Lehrer. "And he fills 25 pages of scrawl that evening. And when he looks back at these notes, what he finds are the lyrics to Like a Rolling Stone. And he will later describe it as this feeling like a ghost is giving you a song."

That "ghost" is probably the right hemisphere of the brain putting together a bunch of things the left hemisphere knows. In his book, Lehrer uses an analogy inspired by the expression "you can't see the forest for the trees." The right hemisphere is the forest, while the left hemisphere is the trees, and these two sections of the brain process information much differently.

Lehrer spoke with several creative people while he was researching his book, and one of his favourite encounters was with the cellist Yo-Yo Ma. "What really intrigued me about his classical music performances was here he is playing these incredibly intricate pieces...and yet he's able to stay relaxed, he's able to not get obsessed with perfection but focus on expression," said Lehrer.

One night, Lehrer asked Ma how he stays so loose and relaxed before and during his performances. "He told me this wonderful story [about how] he always thinks of Julia Child...particularly the moment where Julia Child drops a roast chicken on the floor in front of the cameras...the smile never leaves her face, she picks up the chicken and dusts it off and she goes on with the show. [Ma] said 'You have to have that mindset as a performer, you have to welcome that first mistake because then you are free.'"

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