Jonah Lehrer: The Science of Creativity
Lehrer has written three books to date, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, How We Decide, and his latest, Imagine: How Creativity Works. Our reviewer James Carson said that Imagine 'underlines just how much we’ve learned about the brain’s creative properties.' We sent him to learn more by interviewing Lehrer:
One of the most intriguing aspects of your books is the idea that being stumped is an important part of the creative process. Why is it only when we’ve stopped searching that often the answer arrives?
It’s all to do with the nature of attention. When we’re focusing too hard on finding the answer to a problem, it’s like a fishbone in the throat; it’s the wrong answer. But when we stop, relax, have a shower or a coffee, we turn the spotlight on the right answer.
Andrew Sullivan recently observed that the internet is killing boredom, and he said that’s bad for problem-solving and creativity. Do you think the web is making us more or less imaginative?
It’s too easy to generalise, but it’s true that when I’m bored, I turn to my phone, and I email and send tweets. But that means I’m losing daydreaming time, and daydreaming is incredibly valuable for creativity, so long as you’re aware of what you’re daydreaming and you write it down. So now when I go for a hike, I leave my phone behind!
You write about how Shakespeare was strongly influenced by the culture of his time, and how he shamelessly borrowed from other writers. Do you think we’ve become too stressed about plagiarism and forgotten how to be influenced by others’ work?
I don’t think plagiarism’s the problem. But I do think, especially in the US, we’re overly strict when it comes to copyright. We’ve put up too many walls around ideas, forgetting that creativity offers a new commentary on old ideas.
The book demonstrates the importance of idea-sharing in the development of successful cities. Do you think a city like Glasgow, which has reinvented itself so many times, can learn from this?
I think collaboration can be applied to all cities. The most successful cities have mayors and administrations that don’t get in the way, while maximising the upsides of spaces where different people bump into each other. And the important message is that, unlike corporations, cities almost never die.
Has what you have learned about how creativity works influenced your own creative processes?
I used to force myself to continue working, and ended up exhausted. Now, I’m more likely to relax and take breaks because I know that down time can be when ideas happen. Also, I’m quite a shy person, but I’ve learned to network more, and because I know the value to creativity of increasing your social circle, I’m more likely to engage in conversation with strangers. At conferences, I’ve learned the value of small talk. That’s how I met the guy who found an alternative to the mop. I got talking to this guy, and when he told me he was involved in cleaning products, I thought, oh gosh, how do I get out of this? But then he told me about the Swiffer, and that’s the story that starts off the book.
You have an ability to explain very complex ideas in an accessible way. Is it hard for you to make it look so easy?
No part of the writing process is easy for me, and I’m very jealous of writers who seem to get it right first time. I go through lots of drafts, editing, tweaking, and seeking input from others. I’ve also been lucky to encounter scientists who are very clear thinkers and translators – I couldn’t improve on their quotes!