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Monday, 9 April 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works

We know that screw-ups are an essential part of what we do here. That’s why our goal is simple: We just want to screw up as quickly as possible. We want to fail fast. And then we want to fix it. – Lee Unkrich

There are a lot of things in this life that I don't get. Like breathing. I know we have to do it. I know we don't have to think about doing it and our bodies will just get on with it but I really don't get it. And that goes for a lot of things in my life. I get ideas and I write about them. Mostly I write poems; occasionally novels. I can't say that I've not pondered where the ideas come from but never for very long. Sometimes the ideas come while I'm sitting on the loo (quite a common one for me) or two minutes after I've slipped in between the sheets at night and I have to get up to write them down, otherwise I won't be able to sleep. They come in the middle of TV programmes, whilst having sex (once anyway), first thing in the morning on the way to work, in cars, on buses, whilst shopping, in meetings. I've always thought there was no logic to any of it and simply accepted my role in the proceedings: when the ideas come do something with them.
I've stated on numerous occasions that I don't believe in inspiration. Inspiration is just a good idea. And I'm perfectly capable of having ideas on my own. Which I do. But the best ideas always seem to come out of the blue and have little or nothing to do with what's been on my mind. It does make one think that one isn't completely in control of the process. And the fact is that we—i.e. the conscious we—aren't at least not nearly as much as we’d like to think we are.
Jonah Lehrer is an American author and journalist who writes on the topics of psychology, neuroscience and the relationship between science and the humanities. He asks himself much the same questions as I do. Where he and I differ is that he sets out to find answers to questions like why memories endure, what true grit really is or why Las Vegas is fun. Most of the answers to these questions you'll be able to access via his website which links to the many articles he has written for magazines like Wired, The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal. Some subjects, however, are a little too big for single articles and to that end he's written a couple of books: Proust Was a Neuroscientist, How We Decide and his latest, Imagine: How Creativity Work, a copy of which fell through my letter-slot a few days ago; I wasn't expecting it but I'm delighted those nice people at Canongate decided to risk sending me a copy because it was fascinating.
The book is divided into two sections: ALONE and TOGETHER. There are eight chapters and, having only read the first chapter I said to my wife, “You know, there's enough stuff in this one chapter for me to talk about; I don't even have to read the rest of the book.” She pointed out that that is exactly what some reviewers do but reminded me that I wasn't one of those and neither I am so here's a few tasters that jumped out at me from the first few chapters.


1965-LikeARollingStoneThis is my second crack at writing this. The problem with my first crack is that it was 540 words long and basically only talked about how Bob Dylan came to write 'Like a Rolling Stone' which is intriguing but you really need the rest of the chapter to understand what was so important about the song and how he wrote it. Very briefly then: by May 1963 Dylan had had it with the whole music industry, his celebrity status and especially the press and their inane questions; he got on his bike (literally) sans guitar and drove off to a remote cabin in Woodstock with every intention of writing a novel. That never happened. After a few days acclimatising himself to the quiet he did get the urge to write but it wasn't a novel. Dylan says:
I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long. … I'd never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do.
The rest, as they say, is history and a month later he was in a recording studio once again. All very interesting. But what really interests Lehrer is what happened to start Dylan writing this very different song to what he had been recording up until then. Looking back now it's hard to see how different 'Like a Rolling Stone' was but it was nothing less than revolutionary. “Even John Lennon was in awe of the achievement.”
All of us will have had moments of clarity like this; epiphanies, revelations, call them what you will. With me, after a three year period when I'd been unable to write a single poem, it was sitting down and writing two novels back to back in a matter of a few short months. As Lehrer puts it:
Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. We have worked hard, but we've hit the wall. We have no idea what to do next.
When we tell one another stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase of the creative process. We neglect to mention those days when we want to quit, when we believed that our problems were impossible to solve. Because such failures contradict the romantic version of events—there is nothing triumphant about a false start—we forget about them. … Instead we skip straight to the breakthrough.
It's true. When I talk about that first book I invariably mention that I'd written nothing for three years but that gets one sentence and all the rest of the time I devote to the book. The fact is, when I look back on other “insight experiences,” as Lehrer calls them, frequently he's right:
It's often only … after we've stopped searching for the answer, that the answer arrives. (The imagination has a wicked sense of irony.) And when a solution does appear, it doesn't come in dribs and drabs; the puzzle isn't solved one piece at a time. Rather, the solution is shocking in its completeness. All of a sudden, the answer to the problem that seemed so daunting becomes incredibly obvious. We curse ourselves for not seeing it sooner.
The reason is simple: we never stopped working on the problem. We only thought we did. It was a young scientist called Mark Beeman who, back in the 1990s was studying patients who had suffered damage to the right hemisphere of the brain, that realised, as he puts it:
The world is so complex that the brain has to process it in two different ways at the same time. … It needs to see the forest and the trees. The right hemisphere is what helps you see the forest.
Lehrer explains:
Beeman speculated that, while the left hemisphere handles denotation—it stores the literal meaning of words—the right hemisphere deals with connotation, or all the meanings that can't be looked up in the dictionary.
After hearing a talk on moments of insight Beeman decided to look for a way to test for them. He devised a number of brain teasers. Here's one:
A giant inverted steel pyramid is perfectly balanced on its point. Any movement of the pyramid will cause it to topple over. Underneath the pyramid is a $100 bill. How do you remove the bill without disturbing the pyramid?
Immediately after reading that aloud to my wife she gave me the correct answer. She can't have thought about it for more than a second. Less. I asked her another and she did the same. Now I'm not saying that my wife is extraordinarily clever because intelligence is not a factor. She is, however, right-brained. There are tests you can take online—here's a link to one—and every time I take these test I get the same answer: slap, bang in the middle. Which is why I didn't jump to the obvious—to her—conclusion that all you needed to do was set fire to the bank note. The verb is remove, not salvage.
Would I have got the answer eventually? Most likely—I'm not a daftie—but I would waste a lot of time processing with the left hemisphere of my brain and I would probably go through a period of feeling stumped before that aha moment. What Beeman discovered, through sticking his subjects in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine was this:
Thirty seconds before the answers erupts into consciousness, there's a spike of gamma-wave rhythm, which is the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain.[...] Where does this burst of gamma waves come from? […] [T]he anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG).”
Beeman refers to this as the “neural correlate of insight.” It's actually a small fold of tissue located on the surface of the right hemisphere just above the ear. Here’s him talking about aha moments:
Now if that wasn't interesting enough here's the thing that really jumped out at me. I'm a poet. For twenty years I wrote nothing bar poetry and never wanted to write anything bar poetry but I never wrote sonnets or sestinas or even limericks. I found traditional forms restrictive; I thought they inhibited my creativity. Now here's what Lehrer has to say:
But that's exactly the point. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent an original line. They'll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important.
What did I tell you about this first chapter?
The problem, however, is that none of us have any control over these burst of alpha waves; they happen when they happen. Is there any way we can harness their power? What can we do to stimulate creativity?


The 3M Company (NYSE: MMM), formerly known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, is an American multinational conglomerate corporation based in Maplewood, Minnesota, United States.
With over 80,000 employees, they produce more than 55,000 products, including: adhesives, abrasives, laminates, passive fire protection, dental products, electronic materials, medical products, car care products (such as sun films, polish, wax, car shampoo, treatment for the exterior, interior and the under chassis rust protection).— Wikipedia
In this chapter we learn about the first idea that set this particular stone rolling. Back in 1925 the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company produced sandpaper and Dick Drew was one of their salesmen. Not an inventor or a developer: a salesman. But after watching some car mechanics struggling to paint a car while he was on a break (very important point this) he came up with the idea that, after some fiddling, became masking tape and by 1928 the company was selling more masking tape than anything else. The CEO of the company didn't stop there. He completely reorganised the company, investing the tape windfall wisely; he hired dozens of researchers and gave them the freedom to pursue their own interests and take as many breaks as they liked. Seems like madness. Surely Dick Drew's idea was a fluke.
Nowadays researchers at 3M still take lots of breaks. They play pinball or lie on couches or take strolls across the campus and enjoy the grazing deer. Needless to say a scientist wanted to know why this worked, this time a psychologist, Joydeep Bhattacharya. He has a long-time interest in aha moments as you can see from this article in The Wall Street Journal entitled 'A Wandering Mind Heads Straight Towards Insight'. An excerpt:
By most measures, we spend about a third of our time daydreaming, yet our brain is unusually active during these seemingly idle moments. Left to its own devices, our brain activates several areas associated with complex problem solving, which researchers had previously assumed were dormant during daydreams. Moreover, it appears to be the only time these areas work in unison.
"People assumed that when your mind wandered it was empty," says cognitive neuroscientist Kalina Christoff, … however, "mind wandering is a much more active state than we ever imagined, much more active than during reasoning with a complex problem."
Another surprising discovery. I have always believed that I wrote my best work when drawing from negative experiences and emotions. Others have said much the same so I knew I wasn't alone and even Lehrer admits that a little sadness can be a good thing but this is where Beeman appears again:
Beeman has discovered that people who score high on a standard measure of happiness solve about 25 percent more insight problems than people who are feeling angry or upset. In fact even fleeting feelings of delight can lead to dramatic increases in creativity. After watching a short, humorous video—Robin Williams doing standup—subjects have significantly more epiphanies, at least when compared with those who were shown scary or boring videos.
I couldn't tell you the number of times I have got into bed, closed my eyes and had to get up to write down an idea that's just come to me. Why? Why then? I am not lighthouseweek3alone. A quote from Virginia Woolf, from To the Lighthouse:
Certainly she was losing consciousness of the outer things. And as she lost consciousness of outer things … her mind kept throwing things up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting...
This time we have a neurologist and radiologist, Marcus Raichle, to thank for this little insight. He started to analyse the fMRI data collected when subjects were just lying in the scanner waiting for the next task. What he saw was not that he expected.
Because they were bored silly in the claustrophobic scanner, they were forced to entertain themselves.
The brain is, apparently, a very efficient machine. It never does nothing. When it's not looking outward it turns its attention inward; closing one’s eyes helps.


The previous chapter might lead one to believe that creativity is a lot easier thing to stimulate than one might have imagined. So I was wondering where he was going when this chapter opens up with him talking about how effective W H Auden found taking drugs, specifically caffeine, nicotine and Benzedrine. Talking about speed he said:
The drug is a labour-saving device. … It turns me into a working machine.
When he was done working, Auden would wash away the Benzedrine with a martini and barbiturates.
Of course he wasn’t the only one who used Benzedrine “like a multivitamin for the mind” and Lehrer mentions several like Philip K Dick and Kerouac. But it wasn’t just writers who relied on drugs to improve their creativity. The mathematician Paul Erdős produced, on average, a paper every two weeks over the course of his career. “[A] skinny man with oversize glasses he seemed to subsist on little more than cookies and caffeine tablets” and famously said that “a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”
I was getting worried at this point because it looked like the use of stimulants was being highly recommended. They’re not.
Stimulants can [just as easily] block moments of insight. Because the drugs sharpen the spotlight of attention, they make it much harder for anyone to hear those remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. The distracting murmurs of the mind are silenced; the alpha waves disappear.
So why take them? Because “even though these stimulants inhibit our epiphanies (and sicken us with addiction), they seem to dramatically increase other kinds of creativity.” It all boils down to pleasure. Amphetamines act primarily on a network of neurons that uses dopamine. Dopamine plays a major role in the brain system that is responsible for reward-driven learning. A sense of pleasure is the brain’s way of telling you, “Hey, Stupid! Look over here.”
The difference is simple: Auden’s drug-induced poetry is clever; Dylan’s song was inspired.


Yo-Yo Ma is not someone I tend to think of as a creative person. He’s a performer, albeit a technically brilliant performer. But if you’ve heard as many recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as I have you’ll be well aware that a great performance involves a lot more than simply getting all the notes in the right order. Still what’s he doing in a book on creativity?
It’s all about letting go. Ma says:
If you are only worried about not making a mistake, then you will communicate nothing, … you have missed the point of making music, which is to make people feel something.
Lehrer then moves on, predictably, to jazz musicians, e.g. John Coltrane:
How did Coltrane do it? … How did he get up there onstage and improvise his music for an hour or sometimes more? Sure, a lot of musicians can throw out a creative little ditty here and there, but to continually produce masterpiece after masterpiece is nothing short of remarkable.
Now getting a musician into a fMRI machine and getting him to perform and keep still was never going to be an easy task but neuroscientist Charles Lamb decided to give it a go. The result was surprising because the part of the brain they were relying on when they improvised was the inferior frontal gyrus which “is most commonly associated with language and the production of speech.” They were telling stories; every note was a word.


That’s me about halfway through the book and there is so much that I’ve skimmed over but if you’re not hooked by now then this isn’t your kind of book. In the next chapter, The Outsider, we learn about Don Lee’s ability to mix drinks (he’s the Heston Blumenthal of cocktails), why poets peak early in their careers and where the idea for the Barbie doll came from (if you can’t wait look up Bild Lilli). Here he talks about outsiders and creativity:
In The Power of Q we see why certain teams work better than others, why West Side Story was such a great Broadway musical and why Steve Jobs moved the loos to the atrium when designing the new Pixar working space. Urban Friction explains why David Byrne is obsessed by bikes, why cities shouldn’t work but do and why there's a correlation between how fast citizens walk and the number of patents that get registered by that city. Finally, The Shakespeare Paradox explains why geniuses appear in clumps throughout history, why Shakespeare being a rip-off merchant was a good thing and, hence, why the Mickey Mouse Protection Act is a bad thing. The short Coda ends the book well by talking about how Penn and Teller created their cups and balls trick using clear glasses.
After explaining this Lehrer writes:
Creativity is like that magic trick. For the first time we can see the source of imagination, that massive network of electrical cells that lets us constantly form new connections between old ideas. However, this new knowledge only makes the act itself more astonishing.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It gives me a sense of reassurance. I may not be able to control all the factors that go into me being a creative person—when is the right time to go for a walk or should I be lying down or maybe talking to someone about my problem—but at least I am aware that beneath the art there is a lot of science going on. It’s like mechanics. Very few people who drive know how to calculate the coefficient of friction or even what it is but they do know that when it’s wet or icy it takes longer to bring the vehicle they’re driving to a dead stop. And that’s how I feel about my writing. I wish my output was greater but now I have proof (I always believed this to be true in any case) that I’m always writing even when I think I’m doing no such thing or think I’ve given up.
Jonah1Lehrer graduated from Columbia University in 2003 with a major in neuroscience; while an undergraduate, he examined the biological process of memory in Professor Eric Kandel's Lab. He was also editor of the Columbia Review for two years. He then studied 20th century literature and philosophy at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He is a contributing editor at Wired, Scientific American Mind, National Public Radio's Radiolab and has written for The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Boston Globe. Jonah Lehrer is also featured in brief informational sessions on the television show "Brink", on the science channel. He currently writes the ‘Head Case’ column for The Wall Street Journal.

Postscript: In an article in GalleyCat James Boog reports that "Jonah Lehrer [has] resigned from The New Yorker. Lehrer admitted that he had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. [...] The book has already sold 200,000 copies, but the publisher has stopped the presses. Links to Lehrer’s book have been removed at and Barnes & Noble."


Kirk said...

There's several reasons why one would want to be a creator--I'm thinking of a creator mostly in the artistic sense, as that's what interests me the most. One may be a fan of creators--I like Picasso, so I shall be Picasso (good luck). Or one may like the lifestyle, or what they may imagine to be the lifestyle, of a creator (e.g. hanging around Parisian cafes chatting with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, though I imagine both men spent at least part of their time holed up in their rooms writing) And, of course, there's always the profit motive (though a writer with only dollar signs in his eyes may end up with nothing but dollar signs on a piece of paper). But there's another reason to create that I think is often overlooked. A person wants to create because they always find themselves creating! I mean, if you walk around all the time describing everything to yourself in prose, and even describing your own self in the third person, then you should seriously consider becoming a writer. If everytime you look at something--a tree, a shop, yourself in the mirror--you can't help but imagine the tree, shop, yourself, in the form of watercolors on a canvas, then you should seriously consider becoming an painter. No, as I see it, creating per se isn't the problem. The problem is channeling all that creativity, giving it form and shape. THAT'S when the hard work begins. I mean, I've got the daydreaming part down pat. Always have. Just ask any of my teachers from childhood who sent me home with notes complaining I spend too much time in class daydreaming. No, it's getting those dreams out of my head and onto a piece of paper that's the bitch.

Sounds like an interesting book. I'm going to have to read it.

Jim Murdoch said...

My father would have argued that humans have the creative impulse because they’re made in God’s image, Kirk, but I’ve never seen God as a sculptor; a carpenter and a joiner perhaps. My father hadn’t an artistic bone in his body and I never grew up in an environment where artistic things were elevated in any way above the mundane. Beats the hell out of my why I turned out the way I did; my siblings certainly didn’t. I never decided to become a creator—and, as I’ve said I would have received little encouragement to become one (although to be fair I was never actively discouraged)—it was just something that came naturally once I hit puberty because apart from a single rather macabre poem about a public hanging written in Scots when I was a kid there was not the slightest evidence that I wouldn’t follow my family into mundanity. I, however, was never chided for being a daydreamer. I enjoyed school. I liked learning and still do. When I’m not actively creating it’s what I like to do next. I think curiosity is an essential requirement for any creative soul.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Dear Jim, how engaging this post, I have read only half of it but I amgoing to read it all very carefully and maybe reread it. I am imagining it would be great partecipating in a seminar on these matters you are digging out.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Just a quick comment, I totally agree "ideas come OUT OF THE BLUE" and the word inspiration maybe simply means "inspiring, inhaling" that's to say breathing the blue in....

Gwil W said...

Jim, I'm a bit thick when it comes to logic. Would not the heat of the flames 'disturb' the pyramid?

Art Durkee said...

Well, yeah. This is what I have been saying all along. You may not believe in inspiration but by whatever name you use for it, you still need it and use it.

Daniel Levitin put Sting into an fMRI to test the musical creativity brain with parallel results. It's in his book "The World in Six Songs, " which I am reading and plan to review.

Elsewhere I've already explained how Beeman's example of Robin Williams has a couple of problems, one of them being that "happiness" isn't really defined, just assumed. It needs to be more precisely defined for that supposition to have real merit.

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree, Davide, I find subjects like this endlessly fascinating. I’m not always sure I trust what they’re saying 100% but I don’t know enough to argue. I did turn down another book that I was offered when I had a quick look at some of the existing reviewing because one of the reviewers cited several weaknesses in the author’s arguments which would have bypassed me completely. Where I do gain comfort, however, is in trying to come to terms with how I work as a writer. I’ve always recognised that I have a long gestation period but I’ve never really had a handle on what was happening during those months when I never seemed to be doing anything. Now, even though I don’t understand it, I’m more open to admit that my subconscious is still very much on the case. I don’t get books fully formed—that would be too much to ask—but I do get poems that appear (seemingly) out of nowhere but of course they’re not out of nowhere, they’re just from a part of my mind that I cannot access directly; I just have to trust that it knows what it’s doing and it seems to even if other people’s minds work quicker than mine does. Nothing comes out of the blue. Everything I have ever written about has been based on my own life experiences, things I’ve personally gone through, things I’ve witnessed others go through or things I’ve read or imagined people going through; my mind is constantly churning away—both the conscious mind and the unconscious part—and so what’s surprising (to me at least) is that I don’t have more ideas but I can live with what I come up with. It’s the waiting that kills me, putting trust in a process I don’t get; that’s hard.

I guess it all depends what one takes from the verb ‘disturb’, Gwilliam, but your point is valid. The important point though is becoming aware that we have this dual processor in our heads and finding a way to, as I was saying to Davide, trust the right side of our brains to think outside the box. I’m a grafter—always have been—and so when I have a problem I tend to work away at it until I come up with a solution. I’m also an impatient bugger which is why I struggle to do something as simple as relax. I lie down and expect my body to just relax there and then because that’s the time I’ve budgeted for relaxation and it should just switch off and stop chucking all these thoughts at me. I don’t like not being in control but the fact is that I’m so not in control of my own body and you would really think after nearly fifty-three years I might have got a bit of a grip, wouldn’t you?

And, Art, I’ve made it very clear what I don’t believe in, that romantic notion of inspiration, and I still don’t. I still believe that, once you get down to it, inspiration is nothing more than a good idea, a different idea, an idea that surprises you but it’s still something that I came up with. I just wish it didn’t happen when I’d just got into bed but the arguments in this book go some way to helping me understand that there is a reason why I get these flashes at the most inopportune moments and I just have to accept it in the same way as I accept my short-sightedness. I just don’t know how to manage this side of my creativity to maximise output of the good stuff. Someone should invent a pill that generates alpha waves. I’d take it.

Art Durkee said...

I think there's some semantic baggage around the word "inspiration," where you're using it only in that one Romantic way, but I don't see a conflict with what you describe as your process. We can call it what we will, it comes from somewhere other than the waking conscious mind (which really is the smallest part of the whole system). Whether we call it imagination or vision, or reworked personal experience, I don't really care. As long as it keeps flowing, that's what matters. I sometimes think trying to get at the "why" of creativity is the wrong question entirely: "how" matters more, at least to the artist.

I guess we're fundamentally different in one way, though, creatively. (Which is fine, BTW, I'm just noticing.) In my case, I can demonstrate numerous examples of my poems NOT coming from anywhere near my life experience, or anything I've done, or places I've been to. In fact, I can demonstrate from my journals that more than once a poem has been written about a place years before I'd visited it that turns out to be remarkably accurate. If everything we produce creatively is recycled stuff from our own experience or memory, how is that possible? It's perhaps more than just imagination, because it's happened more than once or twice.

If everything that percolated up from my own subconscious was derived from my own life experience, I'd find that very dull. Not that I've lived a dull life, but as you know I tend to seek out new adventures rather than repeat myself. (Exploring a place I've never been before is one of those occasions I feel most present, most alive.) The truth is, I always get images and even smells from places and people I've never been. My dreams are not just recycled day-stuff, they bring me a lot more than that. Again, whether that's imagination or vision or whatever, I don't think it really matters. As long as it keeps flowing.

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree totally, Art, it is semantics but the only way I can explain your ability to write about places you’ve not been with any degree of accuracy is that you’ve read about them and then applied your imagination to what you’re read and been lucky enough to hit the nail on the head. Recycled personal experiences is only the start for me though. That’s where the imagination kicks in because I can then extrapolate from the facts (assuming what I have to being with are the facts). My last book was written with a female protagonist and a female foil and as much as I embrace my female side the bottom line is that I’m not a woman and never will be. But I can imagine. I have enough experience of women that I can do that and not embarrass myself in fact I’ve been complimented in the past how well I write women.

I’m with you: as long as whatever it is that keep me writing keeps flowing I have no great need to label it or even understand it. Trusting it is another thing entirely. I still find that hard.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

How true Jim, yes the waiting kills and putting trust in a process that we fundamentally don't get kills even more...but it's the way of the Gods, isn't it? I mean, when I get to what you have so clearly pointed out, that's to say an ineluctable level of unfathomable-ness, I simply become humble and humbly mystic and... I remember lines like this by Seamus Heaney..."Walk on air against your better judgement..."

Art Durkee said...

Well, you can explain it that way if you want to, but it didn't happen that way. *shrug* Oh well. But then, this is when I run into even my friends' prejudices against the reality that I actually live in. Nothing I can say will convince people of things that they would rather explain—or rather, explain away. Most people have set opinions and become inflexible about them. My life has forced me into not having fixed opinions, because it's been a life full of change and the unexplained. Again, oh well.

All of which is just fine. Imagination is a very powerful thing, I completely agree. But so is inspiration. So is the subconscious. So are dreams. So is resistance to the subconscious. The waking mind likes to think it's in charge, when in fact it's the smallest, least powerful part of the whole.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Davide, I wouldn’t say that this book is the last word on creativity but it does at least take a step in the right direction. When I facetiously suggest that inspiration is a thirty-second burst of alpha waves I am referring merely to the delivery system; God alone knows what goes on to get to that stage when an idea all neatly packaged is ready for transmission.

And, Art, I don’t like to think of myself as prejudiced in any way. I have limited life experience and even with a fairly decent imagination I find I’m only capable of short leaps of faith. I’m sure you know all about the various types of déjà experience that people have proposed in addition to the common or garden déjà vu which I have personal experience of. I’m not closed to new experiences but on the whole I don’t feel very comfortable with things I can’t explain and that includes déjà vu because no one can seem to agree on exactly what’s happening so I don’t dwell on it whereas I imagine that’s the kind of thing you do do. What I suggested in your case was an off the cuff response and no offense was intended but I don’t get what you’re on about, I really don’t. In my world you’ve either been someplace or you’ve not. I’ve not been anyone in a previous life whose been there, I have no psychic abilities and, as I’ve said before, I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. I’m not so much blinkered as myopic: I can only see what’s in front of my nose and the thing is I’m not even remotely curious what else there is out there.

Dave King said...

I found this fascinating. I am definitely going to buy this book, but what I found particularly enthralling, reading it at this time, was the overlap there seems to be with my post of yesterday.

Particularly interesting is the question of why - and maybe how - we became creative as a species.

I must say that I have always found creativity to be the most creative subject around.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ll be honest, Dave, I find it amazing that not everyone has this urge. I know I was the odd one out at school but the thing was that’s not how I saw it. I saw all of them as peculiar even those with musical ability who were content simply to play what other people write down. Practically the first thing I did once I learned how to play was set myself the task of writing my own stuff. Now that was far more satisfying even if my playing wasn’t always able to match my compositional abilities. I get that not everyone who picks up a piece of wood will see the sculpture on the inside but maybe there’s a sideboard in there. Just sticking it on the fire to keep one warm seems such a waste.

Art Durkee said...

No worries, I wasn't offended. As I said, it's a wall I've crashed into before. (Cue David Bowie song here....) I've long since accepted the fact that not everyone experiences life the same way, or the same way I do.

It's the same with creativity. I just accept the fact that it happens, and rarely am interested in why. I'm more interested in how than why; it just is.

I do believe that creativity is a human birthright, and everyone has it. We may not all express it in the arts, and I know some chefs who I consider at least as creative as some painters I could name. We may not all be equally creative, either, some doing more with it than others, but that doesn't matter as much as that you DO do something with it, one way or another.

I actually do agree with the theological position that we are co-creators with the Creator in bringing new things into the world, and creativity is how we express our own divinity in the world, and grow and co-evolve. I'm also reminded of this every spring when the flowers emerge from nothing as they do every year.

Owen O'Leary said...

Great review Jim, I had glanced at it a few times this week before finally setting aside a cup of tea and some time to read it. Best lunch break I've had in a while.

I'm looking forward to the book arriving from Amazon but one thing I'm curious to learn relates to the act of creating. In essence I agree with some of the posts on here in that we are all creators. In fact I think that an quest for the meaning of life leads to our role as creators and that creativity is not confined to artists etc. Everything from spreadsheets to detailed travel itineraries involve an act of creation and I would be keen to learn of a study that tracked brain activity in the minds of these so called non creatives and make a comparison with artists/musicians etc.

Anyway, let's see what Jonah has to say and thanks again for the review. Owen

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m glad you enjoyed the review, Owen, and nice to see a new name appearing in the comments. There are lots of books like Jonah’s around at the moment and they are open to criticism but, for me, a writer who spends his time lying his way to the truth, books like this make me think and that’s far more important that the pinpoint accuracy of what they claim. There has to be a scientific explanation as to what creativity is and how it works; there has to be. This may not be the definitive answer but it has helped me develop faith in my own process. I say ‘faith’ and not ‘belief’ because I choose to differentiate between them: beliefs don’t need to be true—people used to believe the earth was flat; people still believe that spilling salt is unlucky—but faith is built on evidence over a period of time. I have been writing now for forty years and so have built up a body of evidence. Now when I start a new novel I have faith in myself—in the left and right hemispheres of my brain—that I’m capable of finishing it even though I know that for a good 75% of the time I won’t have a clue where I’m going with it and will regret bitterly having started off in the first place.

Creativity comes in all shapes and sizes—you’re quite right there—and I didn’t mean to demean people who express their creativity by baking cakes or tinkering with car engines; as a writer I can be a bit blinkered at times.

I can’t imagine you not getting something out of this book though and am happy I was able to direct you towards it. It already is on Amazon though. Here’s a link.

Owen O'Leary said...

Cheers for that Jim,

It's ordered and due to arrive on Saturday so I have a week before going along to see Jonah speak in Edinburgh. Think there might still be some tickets available:

Jim Murdoch said...

Well that’s good, Owen. I hope you enjoy the book. It’s been about fifteen years since I’ve been to Edinburgh—I didn’t even go to see Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot—and I’m not sure what would entice me at this point. I know Americans would think of a trip to Edinburgh like I think of a trip to the corner shop but without a car it’s quite a trek, especially for Carrie and I wouldn’t want to go without her; it’s not as if we live in the centre of Glasgow or anything. Jonah looks like he’ll be entertaining through.

Unknown said...

I recommend the new book "Imagine: How Creativity Works" by Jonah Lehrer on creativity. It is jammed pack with anecdotes and research results that could provide grist for classes on creativity. The book is organized into two segments: the first chapters are about individual creativity and the latter are about group creativity.

The alone part goes into how the brain functions. It is a little more complex than mere right brain vs. left brain issues. It also explains why so many creative people are hopped up on drugs or suffer from bipolar disorder. While we don't want to encourage those behaviors, the book uses that information to show how we can accomplish many of the same results without giving in.

Another interesting point was the observation that blue walls encourage right brain thinking (get out the paint can) and red walls encourage left brain thinking.. Also, for those who didn't already know it, naps and travel are also good to encourage creativity.

The chapters on group creativity were more useful. According to research there is a sweet spot for the make-up of teams for creativity. A scholar analyzed collaborative groups for Broadway musicals back to the 1880s looking at the creative teams. He found that that creative teams--choreography, music, direction, etc--who never worked together before were most likely to create a flop. Teams that worked together constantly performed better. The most successful teams were those where there was a partial core but new blood was added. West Side Story was cited as an example with the addition of Steven Sondheim to the existing team.

Togetherness plays a big part in group creativity. Pixar places all of the bathrooms in the middle of the building to encourage people running in to each other even when they are not working on the same project. One reason Silicon valley is a center of creativity, according to the author, is that California law greatly limits no compete contracts, so people flow around freely between companies.

His comments on brainstorming were interesting. He presents data that suggests the absence of criticism leads to poorer results than allowing criticism. I think his view of brainstorming ignores the converging phase. We all know brainstorms without a convergence phase just leaves you with a handful of stickies. He cites Pixar's criticism meetings as an example, but by that point I think Pixar is beyond the brainstorming phase and into a different phase of creativity.

A final comment, the author notes that an off the wall response in the early stage of brainstorming makes the technique more effective. If one free associates off the word "blue" everyone will say the obvious, e.g. sky etc. If someone comes in with aqua or something unexpected, that will widen the groups range of thought.

The above is just the tip of the iceberg for this book

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for your comment Zohaib but did you notice my postscript? In an article in GalleyCat James Boog reports that "Jonah Lehrer [has] resigned from The New Yorker. Lehrer admitted that he had fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. [...] The book has already sold 200,000 copies, but the publisher has stopped the presses. Links to Lehrer’s book have been removed at and Barnes & Noble."

This is a shame because I'm sure the book still has many valid points to make but now he's sullied his copybook who's going to trust him?

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