Creative conundrum

Inpsiration flows only when you stop trying so hard


Jonah Lehrer

Allen Lane 304 pp.

Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” is broadly acknowledged as a masterstroke of creativity. Few would place it however in the same category as the Swiffer or the Post-it note. Indeed most people have probably never thought or cared much about the inspiration for either of those. But not Jonah Lehrer.

In Imagine: How Creativity Works Lehrer links “Like a Rolling Stone” Toy Story 3 and other creations commonly associated with creativity to more mundane devices he argues were no less inspired. They’re all products of the same force he believes but it’s not widely understood. It’s this that drove him to write Imagine .

“It really just grew out of my interest in the mystery of creativity and especially moments of insight” he says “when we have one of those epiphanies in the shower. It’s one of the most mysterious things that will ever happen to us and I wanted to know more about how that process unfolds.”

The process Lehrer discovered is rarely quick or straightforward. Arthur Fry for instance first imagined the Post-it note while daydreaming during a boring sermon rather than spending hours consciously contemplating how to temporarily mark hymns in his hymnal. Moments of insight Lehrer says often occur when we least expect them rather than when we’re intent on having them.

“I assumed that the way to solve a very difficult problem was to stay focused to get out a cup of coffee and stay up late” he says. “But the science suggests that when you’re faced with a seemingly impossible problem that’s your brain telling you what you need is an epiphany a moment of insight. And so what you should do instead is find a way to relax take a break take a hot shower go play some ping pong go for a walk that the answer will only arrive after you stop looking for it.”

As Lehrer also discovered however creativity isn’t all about you. The surrounding community is also a major influence one that can both facilitate and impair innovation. A sprawling city lacking crowded public spaces he believes prompts less innovation than a densely populated one because urban density promotes the constant interactions or “human friction” that help spur creativity.

“The data suggests that density is good” he says “that cities that are more dense do increase the productivity of their citizens of their residents” he says. “Now it’s not always going to be fun it’s not always going to be pleasant” he says. “Human friction also leads to crime and body odour on the subway. So I think the job of a well-planned city is to maximize the upside and minimize the downside.”

So besides building denser cities how else can we maximize creativity? Lehrer offers a few suggestions in Imagine such as accepting more immigrants providing more financial support for creative risk-taking and loosening copyright and patent regulations. But improving education he believes is the key.

“I think we need to do a better job in the classroom” he says. “That’s the place to start the low-hanging fruit so to speak. I think we need to first of all just not choke creativity off. Kids are naturally creative we just have to not destroy it.”

Indeed Lehrer believes creativity occurs naturally in all of us — the challenge lies in how best to harness its potential. And that’s a challenge he says we can’t afford to lose.

“I think we all want to live in a more creative age. We live in a world of very hard problems and we’re going to need all the creativity we’ve got to solve these problems.”