Book Review: Imagine That

A book review of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

Reviewer’s Note: Much news has been released in recent weeks about the fabricated quotes present in Imagine. However damaging this may be, the meat of the book appears to still be intact. It is currently out of print due to these issues, but a second edition with corrected information has been planned for release.

The physicist Richard Feynmann once had an artist friend, who would hold up a beautiful flower and complain: “You as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” During a dinner party, the poet John Keats accused Isaac Newton of destroying the rainbow’s beauty by reducing it to its constituent parts. (Amusingly it wasn’t even Newton who did this, but that’s another story.)

In his ground-breaking book Unweaving the Rainbow, however, Richard Dawkins argued that science and art are not at odds, and that understanding the mystery only adds to Nature’s splendor. Imagine is a massive step towards unweaving the rainbow of the brain, and I was certainly awed at the brain’s inner machinations.

Imagine is packed into a tight 250 pages, its epic scope spanning from the creative brain to creative cultures. Lehrer deconstructs what it means to be creative, why creativity can flourish or shrivel up and die, and how creativity can be encouraged or discouraged in individuals and groups. This is done through an unapologetically pragmatic, reductionist view of the brain. (Descartes would be rolling in his grave.) Lehrer bravely declares that “the start of every idea is the same,” and from that idea we can make creativity work for us.

Almost sounds like a syrupy self-help book, right? Can’t you just see a cover that shouts things like “unleash your inner creative” or “find solutions to any problem!” Imagine is anything but that, though. Lehrer has deftly crafting a book that is part going down the rabbit hole! adventure and part we’re screwing everything up! cultural manifesto. Lehrer often challenges conventional wisdom: why the left/right brained idea of the brain is wrong, why the constant growth model of businesses could be what kills them off in the end, and how both the Einsteinian epiphany and Edisonian concept of creativity (“one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration”) can co-exist.

Each chapter explores tangent after tangent of thought while never getting too off track. In just a few pages, Lehrer can jump from 3M’s corporate strategy to Harold and the Purple Crayon to the philosophy of David Hume, which is a tribute to his skill at weaving stories together. It also has the dubious honor of being the first book I’ve read that effortlessly integrates the word “hipster” into its prose not once, but multiple times.

While Imagine‘s strength in its first half is its focus on the individual, it falters in the latter half on group creativity. Here, Lehrer often gravitates towards the trope that random “collisions” between the right people are the best thing that can happen for creativity to flourish, whether in a city or in a company. When Lehrer extolled the virtues of a centralized corporate bathroom in improving employee creativity, I already knew what he was going to say because he’d said it before in Imagine. Showcasing group creativity serves to complete the big picture, but this part of the book could have used some tighter editing.

Creativity is not often thought of as a topic that invites controversy, but Lehrer doesn’t shy away from exploring its darker side in Imagine. The mental image of a writer burning the midnight oil with a mug of black coffee is a common one; but harder drugs are often only thought as substances reserved for escapists and addicts. Lehrer breaks this mold apart by explaining how drugs can interact with the human mind to spur the creative process–for example, flooding the midbrain with dopamine using amphetamines can flood it with ideas as well. I found myself wondering: Is it okay to use drugs in moderation to improve creativity? Is it ethical to implicitly expect other people to use drugs to keep up? Is using drugs something that I would consider doing? I think I’m all the better for questioning my long-held philosophies on drug use.

Imagine is also often surprisingly sad, detailing how crippling disease can itself lead to creative outbursts, and how brutish expectations can lead to the best work. At one point, Lehrer delves into Toy Story 2’s hailstorm final months: The process of entirely re-imagining the film into a far superior work caused many employees to suffer from stress-related health problems even during one of the most creative times of their lives.

Imagine is most surprising, and perhaps most interesting, in its willingness to be candid. Humans are almost solely defined by their creativity–any insight into how creativity works is insight into what it means to be human. It is this balanced, bittersweet take on creativity that elevates it beyond a simple, sunny pop-psych book. Ultimately, Imagine is a great read for anybody who wants to learn more about themselves, as unpleasant as that may be. You will often feel challenged by the content contained within, but it’s worth it come the end–just keep an open mind.

Joshua Yearsley is a graduate student in engineering whose research has made him a nemesis to wordy kludge in all its forms. He loves board games just a little too much and doesn’t get to play drums nearly as often as he’d like. To find out what makes him tick, head over to his blog Synonyms for Fun.


7 thoughts on “Book Review: Imagine That

  1. The whole thing confuses me. I am a writer, myself. I am certainly not condoning fabricating anything. But what this guy who is so bright and had such a wonderful career going, would make up Bob Dylan quotes is completely beyond me. His publisher instantly recalls all the books. Booksellers are told to stop selling the books immediately. He loses his job. He is clearly disgraced. And they are thinking of removing the quotes and reprinting the book? On purely moral and ethical grounds what does this teach us? Lie, cheat, make things up. You will be publicly disgraced for a minute. And then we’ll probably sell more copies of the book then we ever would have in the first place because of all the controversy and publicity — and you’ll be richer than ever. Imagine. (do like your review, by the way.)

  2. I’ll be interested to see how Lehrer is viewed after all of this has passed. Certainly, he’ll be viewed with skepticism; but public memory manages to be both disturbingly short and eidetic, simultaneously.

    I found a New York Times blog post that does a pretty good job discussing the situation, explaining why something like this might have happened: Journalists Dancing on the Edge of Truth, by David Carr.

    1. I’ll bet you’re right. Sadly, I think. Read the blog post. It’s very good, thanks for sharing. So much of this, and worse going on. We’re morally and ethically bankrupt. Maybe that should be the subject of a blog post of my own.

      1. I’d love to read that post. I bet if you dig a little (maybe five minutes’ Googling would do it), you’ll find other, similar lapses in the past. It’d be fascinating to see how past, similar experiences match up with this one.

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