Book Review: Imagine

There has been some controversy about this book. It came out in late July that Lehrer made up quotes from Bob Dylan and Raymond Teller in it (and had to leave his job at the New Yorker; see here and here), and the publisher stopped selling it. It’s a shame, because it really is an interesting subject, and an interesting book.

Lehrer divides the book into two parts: “Alone” and “Together.” In the first part, he looks at creativity from an individual perspective. The chapters contain an entertaining mix of stories and reports of scientific findings:

In chapter one, Lehrer combines Bob Dylan’s writing process when he came up with “Like a Rolling Stone” and the research of a scientist named Mark Beeman to look at what happens when we get a flash of insight after hitting a mental dead end. In chapter two, he looks at how 3M’s corporate policy of “flexible attention” (in which employees are allowed to spend 15 percent of their time exploring new ideas, as long as they share those ideas with each other) encouraged the invention of masking tape. The freedom to relax and daydream from time to time fosters creativity, at least in this case. In chapter three, Lehrer writes about why so many successful poets and writers have been addicted to amphetamines, which focus mental energy for long periods of time. He combines this with a look at the prefrontal cortex, the home of “working memory.” It turns out that it isn’t just a relaxed state of mind that leads to creativity; sometimes it is focus and persistence that allows people to create. In this case, however, creativity is incremental rather than sudden. In chapter four, Lehrer looks at the importance of “letting go” for creativity. He writes about what happens in the brain when we improvise, and tells us about how that makes Yo-Yo Ma, and a surfer named Clay Marzo, such special performers. Chapter five is about outsiders; people who are creative because they don’t know what they don’t know. They’re not familiar with the “rules” in a given field, and are less inhibited about breaking them. He tells stories about a computer programmer who creates unusual drinks as a bartender, and the Eli Lilly site InnoCentive, which asks people outside the company to help solve problems that stump the scientists who work there.

In the second part of the book, Lehrer moves from an individual understanding of creativity to a social understanding. Instead of asking what is going on in an individual brain, he asks what is going on between people when creativity is taking place. In chapter six, he explores the connection between social connectivity and creativity by telling stories about what makes successful Broadway musicals and how Pixar has fostered creativity in how it has laid out its offices (putting all the bathrooms in a central location to facilitate serendipitous meetings). He also concludes that brainstorming doesn’t work as well as coming up with ideas individually and later pooling them. In chapter seven, he looks at the power of cities to foster creativity by talking with musician David Byrne and Israeli tech entrepreneur Yossi Vardi, among others. It is not all cities that foster creativity, Lehrer finds: it is only those with more spaces that encourage residents to mingle. In chapter eight, Lehrer looks at why creative genius has tended to clump together at various times and places: Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, Florence during the Renaissance, and Elizabethan London. The reason, according to economist Paul Romer, is that ideas are an inexhaustible resource, and those places and times that facilitate a culture of idea-sharing tend to produce more creativity. Lehrer closes the book by suggesting particular ways to foster creativity on a societal level.

Lehrer is a smart guy (he studied neuroscience at Columbia and was a Rhodes scholar) and an entertaining writer, and he has found the right mix of stories and exposition for a popular-level book. Of course, given the scandal over Lehrer’s journalistic sloppiness here and elsewhere (including recycling his own writing, plagiarizing, factual inaccuracies, and an all around “cavalier attitude about truth and falsehood”), one wonders how much accuracy Lehrer has sacrificed in the name of telling the story he wanted to tell. I wouldn’t trust Lehrer without independent verification, but the people, stories, and research he mentions are definitely worth looking into on your own (which is why I spent so much of this review describing them). Maybe the best thing to learn from this book is that intelligence and storytelling skill aren’t enough; they need to be used ethically, responsibly, and in service of the truth.

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