How did Shakespeare, son of a glover, with no university education, get to become one of the greatest writers of all time? Jonah Lehrer’s latest book Imagine seeks to answer this and other questions by unpicking the creative process, explaining exactly how it works and, since Lehrer is a neuroscientist by training, what is going on in the brain at each point. Happily for anyone who doesn’t consider themself a ‘creative type’, the main lesson of this book is that there is no such thing as a creative type. Flashes of insight are not all; creativity is also about persistence and focus (which will probably come as no surprise if you’re a writer). Furthermore, you can help the process along by getting the conditions right – it’s no coincidence that many people have their best ideas in the shower, says Lehrer, because that moment of relaxation helps your brain access the buried files and make the connections that produce moments of insight.
Imagine has the somewhat dubious selling point of a cover endorsement by Malcolm Gladwell, possibly the most unscientific pop science writer in existence (sorry, I’m not a fan). However, while Lehrer’s anecdotes are every bit as compelling as Gladwell’s, there is hard science underpinning his arguments. A scientist turned journalist, Lehrer has worked in the lab of Nobel winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel, and he has an impressive ability to transmit complicated ideas in a readable and relevant format.
In Imagine he walks us through the creative process chapter by chapter, from understanding the problem, feelings of hopelessness when we hit a block, the ‘eureka’ moment, to the refining and honing of the final product. Diverse case studies perfectly illustrate the points, including Bob Dylan’s ‘vomiting’ songwriting (“I found myself writing this song…, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long”); 3M’s prolific patent production (“basically, all we do is come up with new things. It doesn’t really matter what the thing is”); concert cellist Yo Yo Ma’s musical interpretations and autistic surfer Clay Marzo’s virtuosity in the water. Imagine touches on many other aspects of creativity, including why writers are 8 times more likely to suffer from depression than the general population, why we should make time for activities which seem unproductive (hooray for procrastination!), when inability to focus can be useful, why travel helps us stay creative, and the virtues of injecting new ideas into old fields (or, when being a novice can be a good thing).
The final chapter, which looks at the amazing increases in creativity inspired by urban centres, is less rigorous than the rest of the book (this is his most Gladwellian moment). Nonetheless, it has some pretty intriguing statistics (apparently average walking speed of residents is correlated with patent production). It turns out that creativity depends on the free flow of information, and cities encourage this by enabling frequent face-to-face encounters.
“the best innovators in the world know that the best way to interact is face to face”
Thus Shakespeare’s success was not only down to precocious talent; the cultural explosion in Elizabethan London produced exactly the right conditions to boost his talent and allow him to create such an extraordinary legacy.
Since this is a zeitgeist book, Lehrer adds his own twopence-worth to the ‘information wants to be free’ debate:
“Of course, just because ideas want to befree doesn’t mean they should be free. It just means we have to get the price right.”
(Incidentally, he also says that Shakespeare’s liberal ‘borrowing’ of other playwrights’ work would make him the victim of several lawsuits had he been working in present times.)
So why would you read this book? Lehrer has tried to be relevant to a wide variety of readers, from corporate managers to writers and artists, and I think he might have succeeded. It’s fascinating, especially if you’re involved in a creative field and fond of navel gazing. It’s useful if you’re managing any kind of creative process, and will quite possibly help you increase your own creativity too.
Any Cop?: An inspiring book which has left me buzzing with ideas and bursting with anecdotes.