Dec 13, 2013
The Elusive Ghost of Creativity
Posted on Apr 5, 2012
By Michael S. Roth
“Imagine: How Creativity Works”
Not many writers can make plausible links among musicians Bob Dylan, Yo-Yo Ma and David Byrne, animators at Pixar, neuroscientists at MIT, an amateur bartender in New York, entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and Israeli army reservists. Not many reporters do research about an expert surfer who has Asperger’s, information theorists, industrial psychologists and artists. Jonah Lehrer is such a writer-reporter, who weaves compelling and surprising connections based on detailed investigation and deep understanding. He says that working memory is an essential tool of the imagination, and his own little book is an excellent example of how a dynamic storehouse of captivating information feeds creative thinking and writing.
Lehrer begins with the story of a pop-culture breakthrough, the artistic reinvigoration that Bob Dylan experienced when he wrote “Like A Rolling Stone.” Dylan was just finishing a grueling tour schedule that had left him increasingly dissatisfied with making music. He decided to leave behind the madness of celebrity culture and the repetitive demands of pop performance. But once he was ensconced in Woodstock, N.Y., once he had decided to stop trying to write songs, the great song came: “It’s like a ghost is writing a song,” he said. “It gives you the song and it goes away. You don’t know what it means.” Lehrer adds, “Once the ghost arrived, all Dylan wanted to do was get out of the way.”
Many of the stories that Lehrer recounts in the first few chapters stress the benefits of paying attention to internal mental processes that seem to come from out of the blue. We can learn to pay attention to our daydreams, to the thoughts or fantasies that seem nonsensical. Sometimes this attention must be very light, so that the stream of ideas and emotions flows, as when Yo-Yo Ma feels his way into a new piece of music. Sometimes the attention must be very great, as when W.H. Auden (assisted by Benzedrine) focused on getting the words in the poem exactly right.
Lehrer explains some of the neuroscience behind these different modes of attentiveness. Making use of the power of the right hemisphere figures in, as does activating more energy from the prefrontal cortex so as to “direct the spotlight of attention.” He discusses experiments that explore which parts of the brain seem most active in different kinds of pursuits. For example, as the brain develops in childhood, the power to inhibit our flights of fancy grows. But as inhibition and focus increase, the capacity to improvise seems to diminish.
Lehrer notes that modern science has given new names to ideas that philosophers have been exploring for a very long time. Despite the fancy terminology, I found the anecdotes about scientific experiments less interesting than the anecdotes about poets, artists, surfers and inventors. That’s partly because the science stories seem to over-reach, pretending to offer explanations for creativity by finding precise locations for the multitudinous connections that the brain generates. In an organ with the networking plasticity of the brain, location might not explain so much.
The last three chapters move from individuals to contexts. Lehrer offers fascinating accounts of why cities generate intense creative work, and why certain urban-planning principles that emphasize heterogeneity (think Jane Jacobs) are so powerful. He shows us why teams that “are a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected,” such as those at Pixar, are the most innovative. Too much strangeness, and things fall apart. Too much closeness, and the generative spark is never struck.
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