With his third book, Imagine, neuroscience researcher Jonah Lehrer (Proust Was a Neuroscientist, How We Decide) answers the question “Where does creativity come from?” with some questions of his own: Why do long jogs inspire jolts of insight? How did anybody dream up Scotch tape before Scotch tape existed? And what does any of that have to do with Bob Dylan?
Imagine, which came out yesterday, opens with a close look at something most of us would rather ignore — abject failure. All those bad takes, rejected screenplays and shitty first drafts? Yes, they make us miserable, but they're actually essential. We're programmed to think of failure as something to avoid; Lehrer's research demonstrates that if it weren't for false starts, none of us would ever produce anything worthwhile.
“My favorite line in the book comes from the president of Pixar, Lee Unkrich,” Lehrer told me by phone from his office in Laurel Canyon. “He says, if you're trying something new, you're going to screw up a lot. Failure is inevitable. The question becomes, how can we fail quickly? How do we get it out of the way?”
This won't be news to most of Hollywood's creative class. Learning to handle rejection elegantly is, after all, a large part of what actors, screenwriters, directors and producers do. More surprising is Lehrer's insight into what separates the super-successful from the rest of us. We know persistence counts for more than talent alone; Imagine reveals the reasons it's not just the strongest who survive but those willing to ignore everything we think we know about hard work.
Lehrer argues that a crucial element of creative productivity is the ability to daydream. When your blood pressure rises because you're worried about screwing up — or because you're at the office, anxious about a deadline –you're less likely to break through a mental block. But when you allow your thoughts to wander, the right brain releases a steady stream of alpha waves, which help turn obstacles into epiphanies. This is why the best ideas tend to turn up early in the morning or halfway through a warm shower, when the mind is at ease enough to let the subconscious play.
There's a reason, Lehrer writes, why Bob Dylan had to flee the East Village for upstate New York to write the lyrics for “Like a Rolling Stone.” Or why Talking Heads lead singer David Byrne gets all his best ideas bicycling around Manhattan. Or why Jonathan Schooler, pioneer psychologist in the study of insight, builds time into his workday to take long walks along PCH without his iPhone.
“It's not until we're being massaged by warm water, unable to check our email, that we're finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along — we just weren't listening,” Lehrer writes.
Fortunately, L.A. is a city whose very design fosters innovation. Hiking trails and empty stretches of coast offer space in which to unravel complicated ideas. Even exposure to the color blue — which, most days, just means going outside and looking up — doubled rates of imaginative insight in lab tests. And those endless snarls of impossible traffic? Also important incubators of creativity.
“My wife thinks I'm crazy,” Lehrer said, “but now what I do when I'm stuck in traffic is I turn off the radio. I don't put on music. I sit there in this dead silent car and just force myself to daydream, and it's actually weirdly productive. The first five minutes are intensely awful. But when you push on through, you'll find that you're actually having interesting thoughts.”
Lehrer said he hopes his latest book will help artists rethink the way they come to the workday. Yes, finishing a pilot or a painting can sometimes mean chugging a third espresso and abusing a friend's ADD meds. Other times it's enough to abandon your laptop in favor of a nap or a long jog around the neighborhood.
Imagine's later chapters suggest larger implications for his research. To see how theories of creativity play out in the real world, the author visits the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, an arts school dedicated to cultivating talent by way of student curiousity. NOCCA uses a master/apprentice approach to education, meaning students learn by doing, making mistakes and asking questions.
“When we obsess over tests,” Lehrer quotes the school's CEO, Kyle Wedberg, as saying, “we send the wrong message to our students. We're basically telling them that creativity is a bad idea. That it's a waste of time. That it's less important than filling in the right bubble. And I can't imagine a worse message than that.”
Lehrer, who, at all of 30 is a New York Times best-selling author, a contributing editor for Wired and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, insists his own success came about as the result of a series of failures. As a Columbia University undergraduate and aspiring scientist in the early 2000s, he spent five years working as a lab assistant, discovering ways “to make even the simplest experiments not work.” After college, Lehrer studied literature as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he thought he might become a writer.
“I spent one summer trying to write a novel and realized I was, in fact, the worst kind of novelist,” he says. “Add it all together and somehow you come up with science writer. For me, it's a great compromise. I get to work with scientists. I get to talk to scientists. But I don't have to wear latex gloves.”
Or, he riffs, “as Bob Dylan puts it, 'There's no success like failure.'”
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