Imagine by Jonah Lehrer
THE sub-title of Lehrer's book is How creativity works.
Creativity has always been somewhat of a mystery, something that comes down
from somewhere or out of somewhere, randomly and unexpectedly.
Lehrer explains the creative process based on quality
scientific research, which means that we are now able to understand the process
of creativity and repeat it.
The creative process always starts with an impasse, a
problem that seems insoluble. This is the phase of the creative process that is
most often glossed over, but is central to the way the brain produces creative
The first chapter of the book is a description of this
process using Bob Dylan as a focal point.
The year is 1965 and Dylan is in the last week of a
gruelling tour schedule. He is constantly bombarded by fans, thin from drugs
and insomnia, and playing music almost mechanically.
It was there that Dylan made the decision to quit music
forever. When he returned to America, he rode off on his Triumph to a cabin in
Woodstock, not even taking a guitar. He no longer wanted to be part of
music-making that was formulaic and predictable and commercial.
Dylan describes how the hit song, Like a Rolling Stone,
seemed to force its way out of him. It had no logic, it had no meaning - it was
simply a pure outpouring of associative ideas.
In the 1990s Mark Beeman, a researcher at the National
Institute of Health, was studying patients with brain damage to their right
hemisphere. At the time the importance of the right hemisphere was
The left hemisphere is where speech ability is located,
where the meaning of words is understood, but the right hemisphere was vaguely
associated with creativity. Beeman identified the role of the right hemisphere
as the seat of connotations of words and metaphors.
It was not a question of left or right brain thinking, as
described by pop psychologists, but how the two hemispheres build on each other
Brain researchers have been able to identify how the brain
works because active brain cells consume more energy and oxygen, and so they
trigger a rush of blood to those areas.
Using FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and EEG
(electroencephalography) technologies, researchers can monitor what is going on
in the brain as subjects are solving puzzles.
They have been able to identify what parts are active before
creative insights, and even when a creative insight is about to happen.
The process begins with an intense search in the left
hemisphere and when this is exhausted (and the person too,) it will shift to
the right hemisphere if given the appropriate conditions.
There will be a visible gamma wave rhythm before the answer
erupts, the highest electrical frequency in the brain.
The anterior superior temporal gyrus, a small lobe just
above the ear on the outer side of the right hemisphere, is the area where
insight actually occurs.
Dylan's breakthrough came when he could find no solution to
his musical dilemma and had given up. His insights were to create from an
uninhibited expression of the right hemisphere.
All the music that came to define Dylan was this outpouring
beginning with Highway 61 Revisited - itself a major musical achievement.
Imagine goes beyond simply describing the processes to
describing how they have been applied in business.
The fact that our brains work very differently when we are
daydreaming - they are anything but idle - has been harnessed by the
astonishingly creative 3M Company, producer of some 55 000 different products.
In the 1990s, Eli Lily's vice-president of research, Alpheus
Bingham, was frustrated by the unpredictability of the drug development model
in use in the company and the industry.
Research was done in secret so competitors would be given no
advantages, but Bingham decided to break with this by posting the hardest
problems they faced on the internet in a system called Innocentive.
A reward was offered to anyone who solved the posted
problem. Answers poured in and 40% of problems were solved in six months, and
some in days.
The common premise has been that the hardest problems would
only be solved by people with deep technical expertise. The Innocentive
programme proved the value of the insights of people on the edges of the
discipline where perspectives are informed by other, very different areas of
Functional fixedness caused by well-worn neural pathways is
A problem that was posted concerned a polymer with unique
and perplexing chemical properties. Five solutions were found and five prizes
paid for a problem thought to be insurmountable.
The importance of this example lies in the skill sets of the
people who solved the problem: a researcher studying carbohydrates in Sweden, a
small agribusiness, a retired aerospace engineer, a vet, and a transdermal drug
delivery systems specialist. You will never find this group inside any company.
The book is a treasure trove of ideas that can be used in
business, in addition to being a well crafted review of the state of knowledge
of creativity from various sciences, from neurology to sociology.
Readability: Light ---+- Serious
* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on
leadership and strategy.