I really resisted reading “Imagine: How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer. The book has been so hyped, I was afraid of both what I might find (formulas) and what I would not (new insights). But as an idea person, I could not responsibly resist for long.
Of the many, many examples I could cite from this far-ranging book, I will stay away from the obvious ones such as corporate imaginations — or how 3M and Pixar and Disney work at creativity (there’s a reason that “work” is in the sub-title) — and highlight two that struck me more personally.
Daydreaming: Reviewing research in this area, notably by psychologist Jonathan Schooler, Mr. Lehrer says that “productive daydreaming requires a delicate mental balancing act.” Yes, “a relaxed form of thinking … can become a rich source of insights.” Yet, in order for productive output (remember that word in the subtitle?), “you need to maintain a foothold in the real world.” Dr. Schooler has put his research into action by taking a “dedicated daydreaming walk,” a hike in the same place — “the bluffs above a scenic Santa Barbara beach” — every day. The physical activity in a beautiful natural location (he’s not inside staring at the wall of his office) and the daily discipline provide the foothold that he maintains is necessary. ”This is where I have all my best ideas.”
Collective imagination: Mr. Lehrer focusses on the need for people to be inspired by each other. There is a place for the lonely genius, and there is a place for the commons, the public domain, precursors (Shakespeare being an example of both, I think.) He cites Bob Dylan, whose autobiography “repeatedly describes his creative process as one of love and theft. The process begins when he finds a sound or song that ‘touches the bone.’ He then tries to deconstruct the sound to figure out how it works.” That is, he studied and, yes, copied, from the musicians who came before him, for “learning an old song meant that he was on the verge of inventing a new one.” And I hope he would not mind someone practicing “love and theft” of his work, too, in the service of “inventing a new one.”