March 2012

The science of creativity

By Jonah Lehrer
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Although Jonah Lehrer discusses brain functions and their connections to different forms of creativity in Imagine: How Creativity Works, the real delights and revelations here are his stories of individuals, companies and cities that fostered new ways of looking at problems and new ways of solving them.

Creativity—whether it manifests itself as a Bob Dylan song, a W.H. Auden poem or a new kind of mop—is almost always more than the torrential activity of an isolated mind. Dylan spun songs out of older forms, literary conventions and melodies, but with such particularity of insight that he made them his own. Auden found inspiration in New York City nightlife and the stamina to keep writing through massive consumption of caffeine, nicotine and Benzedrine. Procter and Gamble’s Swiffer mop, which replaced a permanent mop head with a disposable one, took the company and an outside research team three years to conceive and develop.

Companies known for their innovations have contrived ways to cross-pollinate their employees’ best ideas, Lehrer observes. 3M has an annual Tech Forum at which all the company’s scientists present their latest research. When Steve Jobs took over Pixar, he consolidated everything under one roof and then shifted the meeting rooms, cafeteria, coffee shop and even the restrooms to the center of the building—all this to ensure that everyone, regardless of his or her job, would at least bump into everyone else. There’s now even a Pixar University with a curriculum of 110 classes—from juggling to comic improvisation—that’s open to all employees.

But the granddaddy of creativity, Lehrer asserts, is the big city, where one is awash in other ideas and cultures whether one wants to be or not. Accommodating these irritating but provocative influences is the grain of sand that produces a pearl. “Once people started living in dense clumps,” Lehrer continues, “they created a kind of settlement capable of reinventing itself, so a city founded on the fur trade could one day give birth to Wall Street, and an island in the Seine chosen for its military advantages might eventually become a place full of avant-garde artists.”

This is not a how-to book, and it is obvious that there is no single wellspring of creativity equally accessible to and nourishing for all. But there’s plenty here to think about—which is a good place for creativity to start.

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By Jonah Lehrer
ISBN 9780547386072

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