Monday, July 2, 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works / Jonah Lehrer -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer is an entertaining, though, rudimentary introduction to the psychological and sociological dimensions of creativity. It leaves one with more questions than answers. Furthermore, the answers it provides are not especially Earth shaking and the questions it raises are largely due to a superficial treatment of the topic.

The most significant shortcoming is Lehrer's failure to give a clear definition of creativity. While he occasionally writes about artistic creativity, most of the book focuses on problem solving in the high-tech industry. This is perhaps unsurprising in that Lehrer is first of all a contributing editor at Wired magazine. Not only are his central cases of creativity peculiar, Lehrer gives us no sense of the scope of problem solving. Some problems stand out for us and require significant time and energy to solve. Others are routine and mundane. For example, how to open an unfamiliar cabinet door might count as a problem to be solved, but the solution might also reveal itself after only a moment's examination. To be fair, one could distinguish degrees of creativity that map to the difficulty of the problem, but complex problems could be broken down into numerous smaller problems. Any of these problems might also be more or less obvious depending upon the background knowledge of the person solving the problem. The point here, is that the concept of problem solving is not as simple as it appears in Lehrer's book. To make problem solving the central case of creativity without exploring these complexities provides us with only a superficial insight into creativity.

The specific claims about problem solving that Lehrer does make are few and sometimes contradictory. Certainly, Lehrer is not unaware of these contradictions, but he provides us with little help in understanding how we can resolve them. For example, his first substantive claim is that creativity (in solving a problem) often comes after one has focused on a problem long enough to conclude that it is unsolvable. Then, after taking one's mind off of the problem and relaxing, one is able to see the problem from a broader perspective and possibly connect seemingly unrelated facts or concepts in manner that provides the necessary insight.

In contrast to this, Lehrer also observes that problems are often solved by sheer, dogged concentration. Instead of a relaxing walk in the woods or taking a warm shower, the problem is solved by taking enough Benzedrine to keep one's mind fixed on the problem. All that a reader can conclude from this is that problems get solved in lots of different ways. This is by no means a surprising revelation.

The more interesting portion of his work comes when he discusses the social context of problem solving. Lehrer observes that many problems are solved by "outsiders," i.e., people who are not steeped in the paradigms of the field that contains the problem. They are sometimes capable of pursuing solutions that an insider would discount as implausible from the start. He also observes that difficult problems are more likely to be solved when numerous people with different backgrounds collaborate in seeking a solution. One is reminded of the commonplace maxim, "two heads are better than one."

Again, Lehrer's observations about society and creativity are not terribly enlightening; however, the final chapter begins to make a bit more of the social elements of creativity. Lehrer points out that different times in history, social circumstances have fostered creativity. His chief example is Elizabethan England. According to Lehrer, the liberal attitude toward theatre productions and the availability of written material in 16th and 17th century England made possible a flowering of excellent dramatic productions, including the work of William Shakespeare. According to Lehrer, Shakespeare's success was in large part due to favorable social conditions, though his genius certainly made him stand out from the numerous other talented playwrights of his time.

This emphasis on the social climate for creativity does not, however, reach far enough. Lehrer overlooks (or at least understates) the role that resources play in problem solving. According to Lehrer, venture capital funding "is widely regarded as one of the best measures of innovation; money chases good ideas." While it may be true that venture capitalists constantly are seeking to invest in good ideas, a more likely relationship is that venture capital, along with a lot of unanticipated and coincidental factors make an idea successful. Without these external circumstances, good ideas are apt to come to nothing. We have no way of tracking all those extremely creative, but unlucky ideas. While so many other factors are involved in the success of an idea, one cannot use success alone as a defining characteristic of a good idea. Because Lehrer overlooks these factors, his book tends to reinforce the cult of the entrepreneur.

Among the best aspects of the Imagine is Lehrer's effort to ground his claims about creativity and problem solving on scientific research. Unfortunately, he does not always provide complete citations for these references. While one could track down some of the original research, it would be difficult to get to all of it. This forces the reader to simply accept Lehrer's judgements about the quality and representativeness of much of the research on which he draws.

All in all Imagine is an easy and often entertaining work, aimed at a popular audience, but for anyone genuinely interested in creativity, it's not a good use of time.

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