Where Does Creativity Come From? Jonah Lehrer Unlocks the Science

The epiphany, that instant of transcendence that leads to Art – how can it be unlocked? Jonah Lehrer tells us in his new book

For those of us who work closely with artists, it’s an enduring mystery: where does inspiration come from?

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This is what Jonah Lehrer seeks to understand in his bestselling new book, “Imagine.” He traces a series of true eureka moments, including when Bob Dylan wrote the '60s anthem “Like a Rolling Stone,” which came to him in a rush — or rather, was “vomited” out of him — shortly after he’d decided to abandon music for painting.

Or how a mining company invented masking tape, becoming the innovative 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) whose inventions include the ubiquitous, yellow sticky square.

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Seriously, I needed to meet this guy.  So I tracked Lehrer down on book tour to ask how he happened to ask himself one of the most interesting questions, ever.

“When you talk to creative people you expect them to be able to explain their creativity,” said Lehrer, who is all of 30. “But they’re as befuddled as the rest of us.

“So here’s this defining piece of human nature: We made all this stuff – the iPhone. We invented it out of thin air. It’s clearly a unique human talent. But we don’t know where the best ideas come from, and how to apply that to the real world: Why Pixar is 12 for 12. How Yo-Yo Ma gets so expressive on stage. How Bob Dylan wrote ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’”

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And how ad agency Wieden-Kennedy created the perfect slogan: “Just do it.” And how a mop company invented the Swiffer while seeking a better way to clean floors.

Lehrer, a neuroscientist turned writer, finds that these moments emanate from a certain part of the brain. Creativity, he finds, corresponds to a steady rhythm of alpha waves emanating from the brain’s right hemisphere. And that is stimulated by relaxation.

Jonah Lehrer

“Why is a relaxed state of mind so important for creative insights?” he writes. “When our minds are at ease – when those alpha waves are rippling through the brain – we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward… In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward.”

We all know this. Our best ideas come when we least try to summon them. In the shower, or on long, quiet hikes. When we are least trying to think of solutions. 

But that is not enough. Brilliant moments are perforce preceded by agonizing days and weeks and months of hard work. Of wracking the brain and squeezing the imagination hard.

“A good poem is never easy. It must be pulled out of us, like a splinter,” writes Lehrer, in one of many memorable observations.

We admire acts “of radical genius,” as Lehrer called them. “But the sobering reality is that the grandest revelations often still need work. The new idea – that 30 millisecond burst of gamma waves – has to be refined. The rough drafts of the right hemisphere must be transformed into a finished piece of work.”

Well, this makes more sense. Otherwise, we’d all write “Ode to Joy,” right?

Lehrer concurs. “I’d love it if it only took a hot shower or going to Woodstock,” he said. “There’s also lots of hard work. After Dylan wrote 'Like a Rolling Stone,' he wrote the rest of it. There’s always the edits and revisions that come after. The hard work comes before, so you can hit the wall. You can’t just put a textbook under your pillow. You get stumped. Then you go to Woodstock or take a hot shower.”

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Still, I confess this is a little bit of a bummer. If you can deconstruct creativity, aren’t we robbing artists, and ourselves, of the romance, the mystery of the creative process?

Lehrer understands the hazard, what he called “the unweaving the rainbow.”

“I think that’s why I’m always very careful,” he said. “One can lapse into conversations with scientists where the imagination is nothing but the superior anterior, where a Rembrandt is nothing but some region in the visual cortex becoming active.

“I think that’s a dangerous move. But I see neuroscience as another layer, another way to understand ourselves. As long as one sees neuroscience as another level of description that makes our understanding thicker and richer, then it’s great.

“One thing science can help us do is make sure we’re thinking in the right way at the right time. So I’m willing to trade a loss of romance, the slight pleasure of mystery, to figure out how to think and how to make ourselves more creative.”

Lehrer’s book hit the New York Times Bestseller list last month and is still going strong.  

Coming Next, Part II: How Drugs Fuel Creativity, Then Destroy It