Imagine: How Creativity Works
by Jonah Lehrer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2012; 279 pp., $26 (cloth)
It is almost thirty years since I wrote my first book review. I was living in a battered little apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and the street noise floated up from far below. “Works! Works!” cried the dealers on the corner. “Mr. C—Co-caine!” Meanwhile, I was studying Sharon Olds’ The Gold Cell, reading the poems over and over, and taking time to notice what I noticed. Thoughts and impressions jostled in the air around me—a rowdy buzzing contradictory chorus. I watched them shift around the big pale room. Let the flies settle, I told myself. Let them find their way. By which I meant: Take it easy; don’t give way to panic. Let your own ideas gather round. Name them, claim them; let them find some kind of order. Relax a little. You’ll know what to say.
Where that calm voice came from, I have no idea. It was certainly not what I’d been taught at school. In my teenage years (I’m talking of an English Catholic boarding school, circa 1971), the emphasis was on effort, concentration, visible obedience. Openness and receptivity would have been construed as laziness. Work, after all, was expected to be work. Such writing as I did was timid and constricted, bland, perfectionist.
But I am older now, thank God, and if there is one thing I have learned it is the value of receptivity and trust: the tender serendipity that can be found in slowing down, in simply listening. In Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, the poet Jane Hirshfield quotes Pablo Picasso: “The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from no matter where: from the sky, the earth, the piece of paper, a passing figure, a cobweb. That is why one must not discriminate between things. There is no rank among them. One must take one’s good where one finds it.”
Buddhist artists of whatever stripe (singer and performance artist Meredith Monk, poet W. S. Merwin, Hirshfield herself) have learned this lesson well, their creative work sustained by the resonant “emptiness” of the meditation hall, their daily practice opening over and over into inspiration. My friend Susie Patlove, a Tibetan Buddhist and poet, says, “I don’t know what creativity would look like, if I hadn’t been sitting for forty years.” Often, as she sits on the meditation cushion, she finds herself presented with a line for a poem. Later, back at her desk, she searches for words to describe her experience during meditation, even while admitting that it is essentially “unsayable.” In meditation my friend is willing, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, to set down the glass of apple juice on the table and allow the sediment to fall to the bottom, till the juice itself becomes unclouded, clear.
Jonah Lehrer is no Buddhist, but his new book, Imagine, is packed with images and anecdotes that reflect the meditative experience. He has conducted lengthy personal interviews with psychologists, sociologists, and neuroscientists, and with artists and writers and inventors, too. This allows him to describe “how creativity works”—both from within (from the neurological perspective) and from without (in terms of ordinary daily practice). His aim is mastery, not mystery; productivity, not peace of mind; and his writing is clear, competent journalese, not especially dazzling or original. Nonetheless, his book is well worth reading. At the very least, it reminds us just what a rich and turbulent brew creativity can be, that “seething cauldron of ideas,” as the psychologist William James once called it, “where everything is fizzing and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity.”
The contents of that cauldron are not much studied, even now. A survey of psychology papers published between 1950 and 2000 found less than 1 percent concerned with the creative process. All too often, creativity is taken to mean just one thing: a gift, a special aptitude, separate from more ordinary kinds of cognition. But as Lehrer explains, creative practice is in fact built upon a number of distinct (and often contradictory) factors. Openness and receptivity alternate with focused concentration; time alone with time in company; adult efficiency with childlike wonderment; a sufficiency of sleep with an alert and active working life; and (perhaps most surprising) the dogged persistence granted by depression with the joyful alpha waves of relaxation.
The creative person must find ways to befriend his or her own mind, remaining alert to its constantly changing chemistries, as well as to what is thrown up at random by dreams, by idle talk, by casual encounters. In the course of this, he or she develops a certain obdurate trust, a willingness to pause and to endure confusion, much as an apprentice meditator learns to do. This does not come easy, whether for the practicing artist, writer, or musician, or for the high-tech inventor in Silicon Valley. “I tell you,” said the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “one must have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star.” Or, in Bob Dylan’s wryer, warier formulation, “I accept chaos. I’m not sure whether it accepts me.”
In certain sectors of scientific and corporate America, that chaos is allowed to run free for a portion of each day in the service of cutting-edge inventions and ideas. Every afternoon, the psychologist Jonathan Schooler, for instance, goes for a “dedicated daydreaming walk” high on the bluffs above a Santa Barbara beach. The wind rustles in the oak trees and the chaparral; he can hear the gentle boom of the Pacific far below. This is where he comes to relax. But just because he’s relaxed doesn’t mean that Schooler isn’t working. “I never have a plan or a list of things I need to think about,” he says. “Instead, I just let my mind go wherever it wants. And you know what? This is where I have all my best ideas.”
Recent studies at Schooler’s laboratory in California confirm that those who consistently engage in more daydreaming do indeed score higher on measures of creativity.
At the company 3M, which is based in Minnesota, employees are encouraged to practice “flexible attention.” Instead of being required to sit at their desks for eight long hours each day, they are free to go for walks across campus, to play a game of pinball with a friend, to lie down on a couch by a sunny window. They practice what is called “the 15 percent rule,” which is to say they can spend up to 15 percent of their time “pursuing speculative new ideas.” Such speculation (aka daydreaming) is understood as a valuable activity in and of itself. As Lehrer explains, it initiates an “elaborate electrical conversation” between the front and back parts of the brain, so that the prefrontal lobes (located just behind the eyes) fire in sync with the posterior cingulate, medial temporal lobe, and precuneus, something they do not ordinarily do. There is no question that it can also pay off handsomely, in terms of the all-important bottom line.
Fascinated as I am by these inside stories, I enjoy Lehrer’s writing most when he puts creative chaos front and center. I think, for example, of his account of Bob Dylan’s songwriting breakthrough after his long, exhausting British tour in 1965. Dylan emerged from that tour determined to quit the music business. “I realized I was very drained,” he later said. “I was playing a lot of songs I didn’t want to play. I was singing words I didn’t really want to sing.” As soon as he got back to New York, he sped to Woodstock on his Triumph motorbike. He was going to spend some time alone. He was going to start work on a novel. But then, all of a sudden, he felt what Lehrer describes as “the itch of insight, the tickle of lyrics that needed to be written down.” And once he started, he simply couldn’t stop.
“I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long,” Dylan said. “I’d never written anything like that before.”
The piece, which was to become the debut single on Highway 61 Revisited, was angry and incoherent, what the literary critic Christopher Ricks has called an “unlove song.” But it had its own confidence, its own astonishing momentum. Its very chaos allowed Dylan to bring together all his multifarious influences, from Arthur Rimbaud to Bertolt Brecht to Delta Blues, from Fellini to The Beatles. It was, as Lehrer says, “modernist and premodern, avant-garde and country-western.” Dylan was delighted by it. For him, it was his first “completely free song.”
That same year, 1965, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones had a parallel breakthrough, though in his case it took place in his sleep. One night in May, he passed out early, his tape recorder set close beside his bed. When he woke up the next morning, he discovered that he’d apparently pressed the record button during the night and the tape had run to the very end. At first he thought nothing had been recorded. But when he went back to the beginning and pressed play, “there, in some sort of ghostly version, [was] the opening of a song.” It was “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” followed, as he explained to Terry Gross in a 2010 interview, “by forty minutes of me snoring.”
Making time for a long daydreaming walk, “vomiting out” long incoherent screeds, singing in our sleep—such tactics will not turn the rest of us into celebrity scientists or world-class musicians. Those who pore over Lehrer’s book as if it were a blueprint, a recipe book of crucial revelations, a fast shortcut to their own creative processes, are going to be disappointed. Understanding the neuroscience of creativity is not the same as being able to generate such brainwaves for ourselves, or indeed, to surf those waves. Buddhist teachings make a distinction between the dharma as it is taught and the dharma as it is practiced and experienced. The graphic designer Milton Glaser, now in his eighties, says, “People need to be reminded that creativity is a verb, a very time-consuming verb. It’s about taking an idea in your head and transforming that idea into something real. And that’s always going to be a long and difficult process.”
That said, Jonah Lehrer makes a gallant attempt to provide his readers with some form of useful “take away.” He advises us, for example, to accept “Getting Stumped”—as Dylan was— since in the very act of feeling frustrated, the brain will shift from the left side to the more creative right side, which in turn can lead to moments of insight. He also advises grit and perseverance (“Stick With It”), though he is keen too, like Jonathan Schooler and the 3M employees, that we should remember to “Take a Break.” Finally, he suggests that we “Become Outsiders,” whether through actual travel or simply through “sleeping on it” (as Keith Richards did), and that we allow ourselves to reconnect with our own childhood inventiveness as we “Channel Our Inner Seven-Year-Old.”
Buddhist practitioners will translate this advice into their own experience on the cushion and find, perhaps, some interesting parallels. Meditation, contemplation, chaos, creativity. In the end, they all return us to the same calm place: the shifting beauty of the present moment, the small flies buzzing round the empty glass, the sheer astonishment of being alive.