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Jonah Lehrer and the New Science of Creativity

The following is a repost of my latest article originally posted on ScientificAmerican.com. It is a review of Jonah Lehrer’s latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, which was released March 19th.

Bob Dylan was stuck. At the tail end of a grueling tour that took him across the United States and through England he told his manager that he was quitting music. He was physically drained – insomnia and drugs had taken their toll – and unsatisfied with his career. He was sick of performing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and answering the same questions from reporters. After finishing a series of shows at a sold out Royal Albert Hall in London, he escaped to a cabin in Woodstock, New York to rethink his creative direction.

What came next would change rock ‘n’ roll forever. As soon as Dylan settled into his new home he grabbed a pencil and started writing whatever came to his mind. Most of it was a mindless stream of conscious. “I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long,” he once told interviewers. The song he was writing started like any children’s book – “Once Upon a Time” – but what emerged was a tour de force that left people like Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon in awe. A few months later, “Like A Rolling Stone” was released to critical acclaim.

Creativity in the 21st Century

Every creative journey begins with a problem. For Dylan it was the predictability and shallowness of his previous songs. He wasn’t challenging his listeners enough; they were too comfortable. What Dylan really wanted to do to was replace the expected with the unexpected. He wanted to push boundaries and avoid appealing to the norm; he wanted to reinvent himself.

For most of human history, the creative process has been associated with higher powers; it was about channeling the muses or harnessing one’s inner Apollonian and Dionysian; it was otherwordly. Science has barely touched creativity. In fact, in the second half of the 20th century less than 1 percent of psychology papers investigated aspects of the creative process. This changed in the last decade. Creativity is now one of the most popular topics in cognitive science.

The latest installment is Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works – released today. With grandiose style á la Proust Was Neuroscientist and How We Decide, Lehrer tells stories of scientific invention and tales of artistic breakthroughs – including Dylan’s – while weaving in findings from psychology and neuroscience. What emerges from his chronicles is a clearer picture of what happens in the brain when we are exercising – either successfully or unsuccessfully – our creative juices. The question is: what are the secrets to creativity? 

How To Think

There’s nothing fun about creativity. Breakthroughs are usually the tale end of frustration, sweat and repeated failure. Consider the story of Swiffer. Back in the 1980s Procter and Gamble hired the design firm Continuum to study how people cleaned their floors. The team “visited people’s homes and watched dozens of them engage in the tedious ritual of floor cleaning. [They] took detailed notes on the vacuuming of carpets and the sweeping of kitchens. When the notes weren’t enough, they set up video cameras in living rooms.” The leader of the team, Harry West, described the footage as the most boring stuff imaginable. After months of poring through the tapes he and his team knew as much about how people cleaned their floors as anybody else – very little.

But they stuck with it. And eventually landed on a key insight: people spend more time cleaning their mops than they did cleaning the floor. That’s when they realized that a paper towel could be used as a disposable cleaning surface. Swiffer launched in the spring of 1999 and by the end of the year it generated more than $500 million in sales.

Discovery and invention require relentless work and focus. But when we’re searching for an insight stepping back from a problem and relaxing is also vital; the unconscious mind needs time to mull it over before the insight happens – what Steve Berlin Johnson calls the “incubation period.” This is the story of Arthur Fry, which Lehrer charmingly brings to life.

In 1974 Fry attended a seminar given by his 3M colleague Spencer Silver about a new adhesive. It was a weak paste, not even strong enough to hold two pieces of paper together. Fry tried to think of an application but eventually gave up.

Later in the year he found himself singing in his Church’s choir. He was frustrated with the makeshift bookmarkers he fashioned to mark the pages in his hymnal book; they either fell out or got caught in the seams. What he really needed was glue strong enough so his bookmarkers would stick to the page but weak enough so they wouldn’t rip the paper when he removed them. That’s when he had his moment of insight: why not use Silver’s adhesive for the bookmark? He called it the Post-it Note.

Fry’s story bodes well with tales of insight throughout history. Henrí Poincaré is famous for thinking up Non-Euclidean geometry while boarding a bus, and then there’s Newton’s apple-induced revelation about the law of gravity. Lehrer delves into the relevant research to make sense of these stories from the neurological level. Fascinating studies from Mark Jung-Beeman, John Kounios and Joy Bhattacharya give us good reason to take Lehrer’s advice: “Rather than relentlessly focusing, take a warm shower, or play some Ping-Pong, or walk on the beach.”

When it comes to the creative process, then, it’s important to balance repose with red bull. As Lehrer explains: “the insight process… is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focused, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight.”

Other People

The flip side of the creative process is other people. The world’s great ideas are as much about our peers as they are about the individual who makes it into the textbook. To explore how the people around us influence our ideas Lehrer explains the research of Brian Uzzi who, a few years ago, set out to answer this question: what determines the success of a Broadway musical?

With his colleague Jarrett Spiro, Uzzi thoroughly examined a data set that included 2,092 people who worked on 474 musicals from 1945 to 1989. They considered metrics such as reviews and financial success and controlled for talent and any economic or geographic advantages – big New York City musicals would likely flub the data. They found that productions failed for two reasons. The first was too much like-mindedness: “When the artists were so close that they all thought in similar ways… theatrical innovation [was crushed].” On the other hand, when “the artists didn’t know one another, they struggled to work together and exchange ideas.” Successful productions, in contrast, found an even distribution between novelty and familiarity within its members. This is why West Side Story was such a hit: it balanced new blood with industry veterans.

This is what the website InnoCentive.com teaches us. InnoCentive is a website where, as Matt Ridley would suggest, ideas go to have sex. The framework is simple: “seekers” go to the website to post their problems for “solvers.” The problems aren’t trivial but the rewards are lucrative. For example, the Sandler-Kenner Foundation is currently offering a $10,000 reward for anybody who can create “diagnostic tools for identification of adenocarcinoma and neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer at early stages of development.” Another company is offering $8,000 to anyone who can prevent ice formation inside packages of frozen foods.

What’s remarkable about InnoCentive is that it works. Karim Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School, conducted a study that found that about 40 percent of the difficult problems posted on InnoCentive were solved within 6 months. A handful of the problems were even solved within days. “Think, for a moment,” Lehrer says, “about how strange this is: a disparate network of strangers managed to solve challenges that Fortune 500 companies like Eli Lilly, Kraft Foods, SAP, Dow Chemical, and General Electric—companies with research budgets in the billions of dollars—had been unable to solve.”

The secret was outside thinking:

The problem solvers on InnoCentive were most effective when working at the margins of their fields. In other words, chemists didn’t solve chemistry problems, they solved molecular biology problems, just as molecular biologists solved chemistry problems. While these people were close enough to understand the challenges, they weren’t so close that their knowledge held them back and caused them to run into the same stumbling blocks as the corporate scientists.

This is the lesson from West Side Story: great ideas flourish under the right balance of minds. John Donne was right: no man is an island.

Conclusion

There are so many wonderful nuggets to take away from Imagine, and Lehrer does an excellent job of gathering stories from history to bring the relevant psychological research to life. The few stories and studies I’ve mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg.

When I asked him what the takeaway of his book is (if there could be just one) he said:

The larger lesson is that creativity is a catchall term for a bundle of distinct processes. If you really want to solve the hardest problems you will need all these little hacks in order to solve these problems. This is why what the cognitive sciences are saying about creativity is so important.

He’s right. We think about creativity as being a distinct thing and as people being either creative or not, but the empirical research Lehrer discusses tells a different story. Creativity engages multiple cognitive processes that anybody can access.

This is why Dylan’s story is so important: It’s the story of a musician being discontent with his creative direction, having a moment of insight, working tirelessly to bring this insight and new sounds to life to ultimately change the norm. Dylan’s genius isn’t about a specific skill that nobody else possessed. It’s about his ability to wage through the creative process by using the right parts of the brain at the right times.

Not everybody can be Dylan, but Imagine reminds us that as mysterious and magical as creativity seems, “for the first time in human history, it’s possible to learn how the imagination actually works.”

To Speed Up The Creative Process, Slow Down

It was Sunday in church, 1973, when Arthur Fry had his moment of insight. Fry, a member of the choir, was having trouble marking pages for the hymnals. Whenever he opened the book his makeshift bookmarks fell out or got caught in the seams. The problem was innocent enough, yet it persisted. What Fry really needed was an adhesive strong enough so his bookmarks stuck to the pages but weak enough so he wouldn’t damage the pages when he removed the bookmarks.

He recalled a seminar given by his 3M colleague, Spencer Silver, a few years ago. Silver described a new adhesive he discovered during his talk and Fry had been wondering how it could be applied ever since. That’s when the answer came to him: why not use Silver’s adhesive for the bookmark?

He called his idea the Post-It note.

Fry, of course, isn’t the only person to experience a moment of insight. Henrí Poincaré is famous for thinking up Non-Euclidean geometry while boarding a bus. “At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it…. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had the time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with the conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty.” Einstein, moreover, is known to have thought up Special Relativity after glimpsing at Bern’s famous clock tower.

When we think about eureka moments Rodin’s The Thinker comes to mind, maybe Newton’s famous apple inspired insight (as the story goes). We associate insights with deep concentration and contemplation. But surprising new research is demonstrating another side to the story. This is what Fry’s story tells us, that breakthroughs occur when we are relaxed, when the mind is not focused but at ease. An insight requires a lot hard work; it is often the peak of years of work. But on the path to discovery it’s important to let the mind wonder.

A recent experiment by Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks demonstrated this nicely. They recruited 428 undergrads who identified themselves as either night owls or morning larks. Next Wieth and Zacks asked them to attempt 6 problem-solving tasks; half the problems were insights-based while the other half was analytical-based and they were given four minutes to solve them.

Here’s where things got interesting. Half of the students were tested between 8:30am and 9:30am while the other half were tested between 4 and 5:30pm. The researchers found that the undergrads were better at solving the insight problems when they tested during their least optimal time of function. This means that owls did better in the morning while larks did better in the afternoon. The BPS Research Digest explains the details:

When larks were tested in the evening and owls were tested in the morning, they achieved an average success rate of 56, 22 and 49 per cent, for the three insight tasks, compared with success rates of 51, 16, and 31 per cent achieved by students tested at their preferred time of day. By contrast, performance on the analytic tasks was unaffected by time of day.

Their findings are counter-intuitive but consistent with other recent research. Mark Jung-Beeman is a psychologist from the University of Northwestern who studies what happens in the brains when it has a moment of insight. A few years ago he teamed with John Kounios to try to understand the neuroscience behind problem solving. To do this they used EEG and fMRI to measure subjects while they completed Compound Remote Associate Problems (C.R.A.P problems, as the joke goes). Here’ an example: What word fits with “pine,” crab,” and “sauce?” The correct answer is “apple” (pineapple, crabapple, and applesauce).

They found that participants went through several phases as they tackled the problems. First was the preparatory phase where the prefrontal cortex was hot with activity. Next was the search phase where many parts of the brain were active. After that subjects either gave up or solved the problems. Jung-Beeman and Kounis found that the successful ones showed a burst in gamma rhythm, which is generated when neurons bind to each other. They also found a spike of activity in the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG) moments before the insight. The aSTG is a fairly mysterious brain region but it is has been linked to the processing of metaphors. This makes some sense. C.R.A.P problems are, after all, about linking seemingly unrelated ideas.

What does this mean? One New Yorker article explains that, “the insight process… is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focused, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight.”

Research by Joy Bhattacharya of University London, Goldsmith confirmed this. Bhattacharya found that EEG data accurately predicted if a subject was going to solve a problem up to eight second in advance. What tipped the subjects off were alpha waves, which are electrical neural oscillations that show up when you are about to fall asleep, when you’re getting out of bed or when you’re taking a warm shower. “Sleeping on it” turns out to have some neurological merit.

The British Comedian John Cleese also confirms this research with an enlightening talk about his early day at Cambridge:

If I was trying to write a sketch at night and I got stuck… I would go to bed. And when I woke up in the morning and made myself a cup of coffee and went back to my desk and looked at the problem not only was the solution to this problem immediately apparent to me, but I couldn’t even remember what the problem had been the previous night.

In a Red-Bull driven society it’s believed that intense focus, determination and willingness to never give up are vital, but Cleese and this informing research remind us that a clenched state of mind is sometimes counter-productive. Indeed, caffeine might be our best friend when it comes to solving problems, but certainly not always.

The important role relaxation plays in problem solving, insights, aha-moments and the so-called creative process is receiving a lot of attention. In a recent article on Time.com the science writer Annie Murphy Paul described the study by Wieth and Zacks and reminded readers that, “by not giving yourself time to tune in to your meandering mind, you’re missing out on the surprising solutions it may offer.” Similarly, “when you have to be creative,” says University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock on PsychologyToday.com, “working at your non-optimal time of day is actually optimal.” (There is even new research suggesting that being sleepy and drunk is good for creativity!)

To be sure, empirical results from the science of insights are confirming, not discovering, what many have known for centuries. The Austrian born physicist Fritjof Capra has a wonderful quote that captures this point. In his book The Tao Of Physics he explains the following:

Rational knowledge and rational activities certainly constitute the major part of scientific research, but are not all there is to it.  The rational part of research would, in fact, be useless if it were not complemented by the intuition that gives scientists new insights and makes them creative.   These insights tend to come suddenly and, characteristically, not when sitting at a desk working out the equations, but when relaxing, in the bath, during a walk in the woods, on the beach, etc.  During these periods of relaxation after concentrated intellectual activity, the intuitive mind seems to take over and can produce the sudden clarifying insights which give so much joy and delight to scientific research.

So it was with Fry, who, on the fateful Sunday morning, was innocuously singing hymnals when he had his insight. He wasn’t thinking about Silver’s research; he probably wasn’t thinking about much at all. But that was the important part. It was the calming presences of his fellow choir members, the congregation and warming resonance of the hymns that allowed his neurons to relax and form brand new synapses. And with his new neural network he left church to change the world, one Post-It note at a time.

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