Cheat Sheet

Jonah Lehrer
Imagine: How Creativity Works

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

Imagine: How Creativity Works, the new book by Jonah Lehrer, is part of a recent tradition of popular science books, such as The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg or any Malcolm Gladwell offering, that bring the latest neuroscience to bear on the human mind. Like a lot of these books, Lehrer’s book is part popular science and part self-help. In each chapter, Lehrer describes fascinating scientific studies, trots out real life anecdotes to illustrate his points, and ends with points of advice. Generally, this formula works, but at times it causes Imagine to feel like a book we’ve already read. Still, Imagine covers important material that is relevant to the creative class and to anyone hoping to improve their capacity for creativity.

The first half of Imagine looks at the creativity of the individual person. It takes on human creativity in three parts, looking at how different brain regions contribute or restrict our ability to innovate. First up is the anterior superior temporal gyrus, the part of the brain just above the right ear. This is the part of the brain responsible for the “a-ha moment” in the shower, the invention of masking tape, and “Like a Rolling Stone” (which Bob Dylan wrote in a fury of activity in a cabin in Woodstock). It is a part of the brain that thrives when we are relaxed, when we’ve given up on a problem. It is also enhanced by blue light and marijuana.

Next, Lehrer turns to the working memory, the brain system responsible for the type of creativity fueled by hard work and red ink. The working memory is at work whenever we do a crossword puzzle or overcome a “tip of the tongue” moment and is activated by caffeine, Ritalin, or Benzedrine. The working memory is best summarized by Milton Glaser, the graphic designer responsible for the “I Love New York” campaign. Etched into his front door are the words “ART IS WORK.

Finally, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC, is the part of the brain in charge of impulse control. It is one of the last parts of the brain to develop, which explains why children can be out of control in both their behavior and creativity. Adults who learn to calm this part of their mind—what Lehrer calls “letting go”—can access untapped creative potential. John Coltrane, Yo-Yo Ma, and improv actors all demonstrate the power of letting go. Dreaming also occurs when the DLPFC shuts down and, for this reason, people often have their best ideas as they are slipping in or out of sleep. To illustrate his point, Lehrer retells how Keith Richards fell asleep playing his guitar and awoke to find the lyrics to “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”recorded on his Dictaphone.

In the second half of Imagine, Lehrer turns his attention to group creativity. Here, we learn how creativity is enhanced by outsiders, casual interactions, and criticism. There are still the requisite scientific studies and anecdotes about the location of Pixar’s bathrooms, the inefficiency of brainstorming, and the superiority of large cities as incubators for new ideas. Yet, here the book begins to feel as if it is meant for the vice president of a large corporation and less for someone looking to understand and unleash his creativity.

Imagine does not contain new discoveries about the nature of creativity. Lehrer has simply translated hard earned wisdom from creative people into the language of neuroscience. Take Picasso, who once said: “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Lehrer has simply showed us that this means taming the DLPFC so we can let go. Even Lehrer’s distinction between the part of the brain responsible for insight and the working memory is not new. It calls to mind the ancient Greek distinction between Dionysian and Apollonian creativity. The way Lehrer tells it, neuroscience has not told us anything we didn’t already know.

As is often the case with such books, Imagine has been criticized by the scientific community for a lack of scientific rigor. In a devastating review in the New York Times, Christopher Chabris accuses Lehrer of glossing over the details of the scientific studies he cites, using apocryphal anecdotes, and bungling the details of enzymatic dopamine production. Yet, Chabris, like the other perennial scientist-critics of popular science, misses the point. It is true that in the process of distilling technical science into plain English, messy science is often presented as settled truth. However, out of necessity, popular science does not proceed with the same caution as science. From the perspective of most readers, what is lost in scientific rigor is gained in readability. Imagine, after all, is not meant for professional scientists but for an audience that may not care as much about the fine points of controls and reproducibility.

Much more serious are the recent revelations that call Lehrer’s journalistic integrity into question. First, there were the revelations that Lehrer recycled his own work in writing this book and in columns for the New Yorker. Soon after, Lehrer was caught by a fellow journalist fabricating Bob Dylan quotes that are used in the opening chapters. At first, Lehrer insisted that the quotes came from unreleased footage from Martin Scorcese’s movie No Direction Home. When this and other ruses failed to dissuade his accuser, Lehrer owned up to the offense. As a result of these journalistic misdeeds, he resigned from his staff writer position at the New Yorker.

After the experiences of authors such as Greg Mortenson or James Frey, it is a wonder that Lehrer thought he could get away with it. It should have been obvious that fake Bob Dylan quotes could never withstand the scrutiny that comes when your book spends months on the bestseller list. Especially in the Internet age, it is easier than ever to catch a plagiarist. Just this spring, it was Mike Daisy being harangued on “This American Life” for claiming as fact a fictional story about a Foxconn factory in China. It remains to be seen if Lehrer will receive the same treatment on “Radiolab,” where he is a regular guest.

Moreover, it is simply wrong to put words in the mouth of a living legend. It betrays your readers and embarrasses the publications you work for. And yet, surely Lehrer does not deserve the same level of outrage as Mortenson or Frey or Daisy, all of whom manipulated their readers’ emotions to sell a false narrative. Lehrer, on the other hand, seems to have made up or combined quotations that, though false, get the spirit of Dylan right. While Dylan may never have said, about his songs, “I just write them. There’s no great message. Stop asking me to explain,” he certainly conveyed a similar point in interviews throughout his career. Even the more egregious invented quotes, though they were never spoken, seem to be an attempt by Lehrer to put into fewer words what Dylan said in many. Because the phony quotes so closely resemble some of Dylan’s past statements, it’s odd that Lehrer felt the need to make them up at all.

This is not to excuse Lehrer’s actions. Fabricating quotes is always wrong and his castigation is well-deserved. However, the thesis of Imagine is not undone by a few made-up or rephrased quotations. It is worth remembering why Lehrer brings up Bob Dylan at all. Imagine is not a biography. Lehrer does not purport to tell the story of Dylan. Rather, he uses the story of “Like a Rolling Stone” to show how a part of the brain creates insight. Even if the details of that story are wrong, the message about how creativity works is still enlightening.

Despite the criticism of its author, Imagine does a great service in translating the findings of neuroscience into language for the rest of us. Even if some of the nuance is lost along the way, Lehrer’s presentation makes it clear that this burgeoning new science has a lot to offer, not only for our understanding of how the mind works but also for how we lead our lives. Throughout the book, Lehrer insists we can utilize new insights from brain science to help us lead creative lives and take control of our psychology. The best advice in Imagine sounds as if it came right from the lips of the current cultural creative hero, Don Draper. When stumped with a problem you cannot solve, work as hard as you possibly can on it, and then relax and forget all about it. This notion that we can improve our creative capacity may be the most powerful idea in the book. According to Lehrer, creativity is not innate. Rather, it is something anyone can develop, first by learning about how your brain works and then putting that knowledge into action. Yet, as the scandal surrounding Lehrer shows, our vast creative potential can cut both ways. We must be careful how we use it.


Max Neumeyer