Imagine: A book review by Bob Morris

Imagine: How Creativity Works
Jonah Lehrer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2012)

How and why our ability to imagine what has never existed is “our most important mental talent”

An abundance of books and articles continues to be produced as research in neuroscience continues to reveal more of what the brain is and does, especially in terms of its impact on initiatives and processes that involve decision-making, problem-solving, creativity, innovation, and collaboration. Jonah Lehrer is among the most thoughtful and eloquent of writers who contribute to our increased understanding, first with an article (“The Eureka Hunt,” The New Yorker, July 28, 2008) and then with two books, How People Decide (2009) and Imagine (2012).

His latest contributions (in this brilliant book) are in two separate but related areas: individual creativity and collaborate creativity. Why are some individuals and teams more creative and productive than are others? How can a work environment encourage and nourish creative and innovative thinking by both individuals and teams? We know by now that most (not all) human limits are self-imposed and that is especially true insofar as creativity and the creative process are concerned. I wish I had a dollar (or even a quarter) for every time I have heard someone claim, “I’m just not a creative person.” Lehrer does his best to eliminate such misconceptions (some of which may be a cop-out) but his ultimate objective is to explain how and why our ability to imagine what has never existed is “our most important mental talent.” And I agree with him that almost anyone, over time with both patience and practice, can develop skills and techniques that will enable them to think more creatively and more innovatively.

Here in Dallas, we have a farmers market near the downtown area at which several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit so people can sample their wares.  In that spirit, I offer a representative selection of Lehrer’s insights.

On 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.” (Page xvii)

“The reality of the creative process is that it often requires persistence, the ability to stare at a problem until it makes sense…We can’t always wait for the insights to find us; sometimes we have to search for them.” (Page 56)

“The lesson of letting go is that we constrain our own creativity. We are so worried about playing the wrong note or saying the wrong thing that we end up with nothing at all, the silence of the scared imagination.” (Page 104)

Note: One of my favorite quotations is provided by Miles Davis, a truly great jazz musician: ““Don’t play what’s there…play what’s not there.” Yes, great jazz involves great improvisation but as Davis would be the first to point out, form and structure are essential, first because they provide a point of departure, of course, but also because they establish limits without which improvisation worthy of the name is impossible. Check out what Lehrer has to say about jazz improvisation (Pages 89-91) and comic improvisation (Pages 99-104).

“Sometimes a creative problem is so difficult that it requires people to connect their imaginations together; the answer arrives only if we collaborate. That’s because a group is not just a collection of individual talents. Instead, it is a chance for those talents to exceed themselves, to produce something greater than anyone thought possible.” (Page 139)

“The mystery is this: although the imagination is inspired by the everyday model – by its flaws and beauties — we are able to see beyond our sources, to imagine things that exist only in the mind. We notice an incompleteness and we can complete it; the cracks in things become a source of light. And so the mop gets turned into the Swifter, and Tin Pan Alley gives rise to Bob Dylan, and a hackneyed tragedy becomes Hamlet. Every creative story is different. And every creative story is the same. There was nothing. Now there is something. It’s almost like magic.” (Pages 252-253)

These brief excerpts (selected from several hundred I considered) correctly suggest but by no means reveal the scope and depth of Jonah Lehrer’s explanation of how and why our ability to imagine what has never existed is “our most important mental talent.” Having read and then re-read his latest book, I congratulate him on a brilliant achievement. Bravo! I also thank him for all that I have learned. Those who share my high regard for his book are urged to check out Michael Michalko’s Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.

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