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(Prospero) On the Roots of Creativity: The Economist’s Q&A with Jonah Lehrer Author of "Imagine"

“Imagine,” by Jonah Lehrer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
UPDATE: The Guardian’s Review of Imagine: A self-regarding how-to guide through the creative process

Prospero Blog Excerpts:

Is neuroscience explaining away the mystery of creativity?

No. Right now we’re just scraping the surface. Neuroscience is mostly reverse-engineering the habits of artists and innovators. For instance, we live in a day and age where we assume the way to be productive is to always keep your attention focused. But creative people have known for a long time that when you’re stuck, it’s a good idea to take a break. Archimedes took a bath, Newton sat under the apple tree, Dylan went to Woodstock. Neuroscience can help us understand the mechanics of that wisdom.

Do you think that we often mismanage creativity, at work and in our education system?

Yes. We assume the best way to be productive is to always be paying attention—to be juiced on caffeine, sitting at your desk, looking at your computer screen—or, if you’re a kid, facing forward looking at the blackboard. We tell children not to daydream, even though the evidence is that people with a higher propensity to daydream are more creative. In America we diagnose 20% of kids with Attention Deficit Disorder. We say that these kids can’t pay attention well enough, so we give them mild amphetamines to make them pay attention better. And it works! They can pay more attention to very tedious lessons. So we assume we’ve fixed them. But the best insights often come when you’re not paying attention.

When should people who are working on a creative problem stop paying attention to it?

The best way is to ask yourself, “Do I have a ‘feeling of knowing’?” The classic example of a ‘feeling of knowing’ is when a word is on the tip of your tongue. Even though we don’t know it, we know that we can know it, and that if we keep on searching for it we’ll find it. If I gave you a calculus problem you might look at it and say, “I couldn’t solve that.” But if I gave you a simple algebra problem you could quickly say, “I can do that”. That’s a pretty amazing capacity, when you think about it, and it turns out that feelings of knowing are remarkably accurate guides to whether or not we can solve a problem in a given time frame.

When it comes to creative problems, if you’ve got a feeling of knowing then you should keep on paying attention. You should drink that triple espresso, you should chain yourself to the desk. But in any creative process, at some point you hit a wall—you get stuck. At that point, you should go and take a long walk, let yourself daydream. Then a fresh insight is more likely to occur to you. You might even want to have a beer. A study came out showing that undergraduates who were too drunk to drive solved 30% more creative puzzles than those who were sober.