How the brain gets creative

A look at Jonah Lehrer's new bestseller 'Imagine: How Creativity Works.'

Tips from Jonah Lehrer's new bestseller 'Imagine: How Creativity Works'

Creativity seems to be one of the great buzzwords of our day. It litters our media landscape, full of promptings, urgings and bullet points. Who doesn't want to be received into the ranks of the creative?

In this time of economic uncertainty, creativity is one of those great swooning words, more upbeat than "innovation" its more sober biz-speak cousin.

Economists, pundits, as well as politicos and business leaders tell us the only way to get out of our doldrums is to innovate. But how to do you innovate? You become creative. It's as clear as a cloudy day.

Today we have a great swath of courses, pitches and books of all kind to help us in our creative endeavours, like this new bestseller (number one on the New York Times list earlier this month), Imagine: How Creativity Works, by the American journalist and author, Jonah Lehrer.

It's a lucid and easy to read account, which actually belies the message. If you want to be creative, it's darn hard work.

Science writer Jonah Lehrer, fascinated by how the brain works and Bob Dylan's muse. (Getty Images)

A word about Lehrer, who is a bit of a phenomenon himself.

Just 30 years old, with three books under his belt, he is a science writer who has been called a prodigy, which must be something of a first for someone in that field.

Lehrer did study neuroscience at Columbia University and by his own admission wasn't fit or patient enough to be a great scientist. So he began to work as a journalist at Wired and now, among other places, The New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal.

As well, he's a lively performer and talker, as you can see in this video and interview

Take a shower

In this book, Lehrer tells us that creativity is often the linkage between the unrelated in unexpected ways, and he has some (semi-)creative thoughts on how to get the juices going.

Among other things, he says, brainstorming doesn't work as well as we've been told by our corporate team leaders, so try thinking alone.

On the other hand, tough criticism of your ideas can really help. And if you want to come up with something really new, then relax, daydream or take a shower.

This is glossy-magazine advice, though perhaps not untrue. Still, Lehrer is good at telling stories, dishing out anecdotes and getting to the "what sticks," as they say in the ad world.

As a science journalist, he also tries to link these moments to what is going on inside our brains.

Over the years, we've heard plenty about the hemispheres of our brain — the shorthand being that the left is (generally) the word-based pedantic side, and the right is the dreamier, visual artistic region.

It turns out that both hemispheres process words and images. But Lehrer tells us that the real secret to the brain's productivity is that the right hemisphere "sees" the big picture, the forest, while the left sees the details, the trees.

As he tells it, creativity can come rushing from either hemisphere, which often work together, and sometimes when we just let it happen.

So we discover that Bob Dylan was burnt out early in his career and retreated to a quiet cabin in the woods, without his guitar, swearing off music altogether.

But then, in a great burst, images and lyrics and melody came pouring out in songs, among them Like a Rolling Stone. He had found new life again.

It's one of the oldest nostrums of creativity, but Lehrer tells it well: At the darkest hour, Dylan's muse paid him a visit.

The Post-it guy

The muse herself is a classical motif, stretching back millennia.

But why she seems to alight on the Virgils or Dylans of the world but not necessarily on Mr. or Ms Ordinary, well, that's another matter, something that requires some kind of supplement to boost the slack muscle of imagination.

You can call it gift or talent or ability, but those are concepts much underplayed in Imagine, as it is in so many of the creativity and genius books on the market today.

Maybe that is because genius is sometimes considered an elitist concept in this egalitarian age, lordly and inaccessible, bestowed on the charmed few.

So the trick that these books so often posit is to find the "secrets" that will unleash the oceans of creativity in every one of us.

Then we can all have our own personal muse, harnessed to the inner promptings of our ambition.

If only it were that simple. Still, the great theme of Imagine is something so pedestrian that you can imagine it working well for almost everyone eager to become more creative.

It comes down to persistence, constant tinkering, stick-to-it-ness.

To underline this point, Lehrer retells the story of the Post-it note.

Singing to the choir

In the early 1970s, Arthur Fry, an engineer in the paper products division of the giant 3M Corp., used to sing at the choir in his church.

But his paper bookmarks kept losing their place, dropping from the hymnal.

A few weeks before, he had attended a presentation by another engineer about a weak glue that had no obvious market applications, a presentation he quickly put out of his mind.

But when he was singing one Sunday, the problem suddenly flooded back and he began daydreaming about a solution, almost obsessing about it, in fact.

He was desperately trying to figure out the perfect bookmark, using an adhesive that didn't adhere enough to rip the paper when he tried to remove it.

Suddenly, the two seemingly unrelated ideas stuck together. Weak glue stuck just enough to paper.

Lehrer's message is that being mindful and attentive to the problems and solutions around us is absolutely essential for creativity to take hold.

But the difficulty in a digital age, when one's attention is always diverted by the next clickable link, is just how do you cultivate persistence? How do you become a personal Post-it note?

There are other writers who worry about this loss of attention — that's another category of book — such as Nicholas Carr in his The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

On the other hand, there are also nudniks who obsess constantly and don't do much more than fixate on things they are never going to be able to change in any event. Or shouldn't bother because it's not worth it.

They're not creative, they might be just neurotic. But what's the difference, you ask?

Lehrer and all the innovation promoters can't give us a good answer.

But if creativity is mostly a matter of endless tinkering, then it's good to have patient spouses and work colleagues. If he's right, creative folk really can't help themselves. They must tinker away.