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.
BOB DYLAN'S BRAIN
This 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.
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?
ALPHA WAVES (CONDITION BLUE)
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 alone. 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.
THE LETTING GO
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.
THE REST OF THE BOOK
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.
Lehrer 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 Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble."