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The Elusive Ghost of Creativity

Posted on Apr 5, 2012

By Michael S. Roth

“Imagine: How Creativity Works”
A book by Jonah Lehrer

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.”

book cover


Imagine: How Creativity Works


By Jonah Lehrer


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pages


Buy the book

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.

To see long excerpts from “Imagine” at Google Books, click here.

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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By gerard, April 10, 2012 at 7:36 pm Link to this comment

CanDoJack:  Thank you for your kind words and encouragement which came just at the right time.
You might have noticed on other strings that I
took quite a beating today—more insults than
enough—and came away never really wanting to comment again.  Yet—what else can I do in my present practically demobilized state?  I want to
believe that, overall, it does more good than harm.
Someone from Oakland, on another string, also helped me out just at the right time, which is also
significant. And it should also be noted that two others who ordinarily are strong critics, lifted me.
If that’s any sample ... but I know I shouldn’t be so sensitive because if you check the number of people who read each article, the audience is a significant number.  And—Truthdig won another couple of awards.  So there we are!

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By CanDoJack, April 9, 2012 at 3:29 pm Link to this comment

Gerard, no need to apologize for filling the
available comment space. I am certain many who do not
comment appreciate your input. And, I am also certain
few of us match the volume of creativity that we are
fortunate to hear from you here.


I just finished reading Jonah Lehrer’s last three
books on my new Kindle Touch which handles Text to
Speech well (unlike the Kindle Fire). So I primarily
read the books while walking.  ‘Lehrer’, BTW, if I
remember correctly is Deutsch and Yiddish for

Leher’s books: Imagination, How to Decide, and Proust
was a Neuroscientist. All three exhibit a brilliance
in researching subjects after selecting them well,
and then presenting his material cogently, clearly
and in that masterful way that inculcates.

I am (tongue in cheekly) happy Lehrer has only three
books available in this genre at the moment for I am
getting tired of walking so much.

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By gerard, April 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm Link to this comment

One of the most “elusive ghosts of creativity” now haunts the graveyard of the institutions we call “government.”  That “ghost” is known as “creative nonviolence”. It haunts because it wants to be born and yet cannot quite break free because the majority of people in the world, though we are desperately in need of alternatives to violence and death, do not quite believe that it is a possibility to be explored and practiced in making political changes. Though it has broken through and been used in various places at various times, the majority of people have only experienced its opposite—that is, force and war. They are brain-washed by the largely unsuccessful practices of the past.

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By gerard, April 8, 2012 at 12:57 pm Link to this comment

Sorry to haunt this site, but creativity interests me more than most things.  Before quitting, I want to make one more observation:  What is most lacking in our present government is precisely creativity.
  Quoting from this article:  “The only way to maximize creativity ... is to encourage a candid discussion of mistakes. ... We can only get it right when we talk about what we got wrong.”
  Just observe how the government is trying to shut down whistle-blowers by treating them as criminals.  If government had a grain of common sense, it (the people with the power) would “encourage a candid discussion of mistakes.” Instead, they prefer to try to deny all error and maintain a position of imaginary invincibility—to their inevitable loss of trust and respect.  Free all whistleblowers!  They are your best friends!  And ours. They warn you before you walk off the end of the pier.

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By gerard, April 8, 2012 at 9:11 am Link to this comment

Surfboy:  For weeks I’ve been trying to get these people here onto destructive creativity, since we’re all on the road where it appears that might be a good idea at least. But no soap!  For most it must be more fun to just grit your teeth, turn off your brain and slide down the chute just to see what will happen. Occasionally someone comes along ... but ... every idea is “quelled to stabilize the status-quo.”(Moral:  Don’t get stabilized!)

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By Partisanpoet, April 8, 2012 at 5:44 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Creativity is an essential part of being human. More importantly, culture shapes our identity, our ways of relating to each other, our understanding of the world we live in, and the emphasis of our thoughts and behavior. The ruling class knows this and corrupts culture with their twisted anti-social values of militarism, vengeance, and commodity worship.  Commercial culture is a synthetic toxin.

We need to focus our creativity to recapture and promote a culture of community and mutual responsibility; a progressive culture that embodies our ideals. Some do it through music, some through film, I do it through poetry and as a writer. Those of us who are dedicated to progressive change need to support progressive culture.

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By gerard, April 7, 2012 at 1:15 pm Link to this comment

Surfboy:  Nobody knows anything for sure, but we have a better chance of knowing ourselves, I think, than of knowing anyone else. Yet it’s not exactly lonely on the planet, and we keep breeding more -
which might not be such a problem if we each knew ourself better ... yet ... all the babies are so eager to live, and so utterly beautiful ... It’s enough to tear your heart out…
  Then on top of that, there’s Nature. A picture postcard of a polar bear can bring tears to your eyes.  And Art.  What would you be willing to throw into a blazing fire—Shakespeare? Beethoven? Goya?  Or that all-purpose lunatic, Blake?
  And how about the “BE ATTITUDES”?

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Alan Lunn's avatar

By Alan Lunn, April 7, 2012 at 11:15 am Link to this comment

Why should Facebook and social networking be seen as
any less a creative opportunity than any other
endeavor? Actually, the possibilities are huge. It’s
a cultural shift, yes, but it’s still culture. True,
technology changed the publishing and music
businesses (not to mention the banking business as
well), but the creative possibilities expanded. The
genie that got out of the bottle has to do with the
global interconnection. In the ‘60s, drugs, sex, and
rock blew open some creative doors, and the music was
and still is magnificent. But the social networking
phenomenon just gave that creative explosion

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By gerard, April 6, 2012 at 1:57 pm Link to this comment

Surfboy:  There are some indications from anthropology that mankind, from the beginning, was a grave-digger.  Women—now that’s another story.  They have always nurtured birth because it’s their job. And fortunately or unfortunately, they need men to start the process but from then on ... men have an awesome choice to make, day after day. To kill or not to kill.  Women grew plants and made bread. Men hauled in bloody carcasses and sawed them up into steaks. Fortunately or unfortunately, human beings turned out to be onmivores.  By choice? Luckily they have not chosen to eat each other—except in dire circumstances.
  I remember in my classes teaching English to some people who escaped from dire circumstances abroad, a story about sitting in a boat trying to escape from holocaust on land, the question being the size of the middle finger determining the relative danger of becoming next week’s salvation—yours, or theirs!
  It is not so much a question of faith as of necessity that we come to terms with our appetites.

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By gerard, April 6, 2012 at 8:41 am Link to this comment

In a small way I have had the “Dillon experience” a thousand or more times and wish to take this Holy Day to thank the universe for its possibilities. We never needed creativity more than right this minute!
Love helps it emerge from the grave of hatred, fear and repression.

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