Jim Fleming: But first, Jonah Lehrer. He's a contributing Editor at Wired Magazine and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Lehrer is also the author of three books. His latest is called "Imagine, How Creativity Works." Lehrer tells Steve Paulson that our standard definition of creativity is completely wrong.
Jonah Lehrer: For thousands of years we have seen creativity as this single mode of thought and that some people have it. Those are those wacky, creative types, and the rest of us are just doomed to repeat their inventions, that creativity is an all or nothing phenomena and that most of us just don't have it, and that just isn't the case. What you actually discover when you look at creativity from the perspective of the brain, is that creativity is actually a catch-all term for a series of distinct mental processes. Sometimes we have epiphanies in the shower and sometimes we chug Red Bull and caffeine and just keep on working and working and working, so there are many different ways to get to the answer and you know, the particular approach we should seek at that moment should depend on the type of creative problem we're trying to resolve, and what you also discover is that creativity if embedded very deep in our programming code. Creativity is this fundamental trait of human nature. We are all naturally creative, we are connection machines.
Steve Paulson: Now are you saying that different things happen in the brain to spur us to be creative? I mean, it's not just a one size fits all and there are different parts of the brain that get tapped?
Lehrer: That's exactly right, so depending on the type of creativity you're engaging in at the moment, different parts of the brain are going to be involved, so the imagination doesn't have a single substrate. The imagination is really a series of distinct networks within your head.
Paulson: Let's talk about some examples here. You write about Bob Dylan, about the time when he was really burned out, and this was back in the 60's. He had already become a huge name, but he talked about actually giving up music at that point. He seemed to be sick of it all, so what happened
Lehrer: This is this interesting moment in Bob Dylan's career where he's transitioning primarly from being a folk singer, singing on political themes, writing classic songs, iconic songs like The Times, They Are A Changing, Blowing in the Wind, and he's sick of that. He's sick of being this rock poet who speaks to relevant political issues, but he doesn't know what to do next. He has no idea how to re-invent himself, so he tells his manager that he's quitting the music business, that he's done with the singing, done with the songwriting. He's going to move to this remote cabin in upstate New York and he's going to paint and write his novel, didn't even bring his guitar, and so he's there for a couple of days and not writing any music, he feels free, and then all of a sudden out of nowhere, he gets this itch. He says it's like the ghost takes over his mind and the ghost just begins writing and writing and writing, and he describes it as like this vomit of words coming out of him, vomit is his verb, and he just can't stop it. He needs to get it out, this uncontrollable insight, and over the next few hours he writes more than 25 pages of ambiguous, vague, obscure lyrics, but within those 25 pages are the lyrics to Like a Rolling Stone, and it's that song, that six minute rock single that would really reinvent Bob Dylan's career and show himself, and it showed Bob Dylan what he was actually capable of.
Paulson: So you're saying that he actually found a different way of doing music, of writing a song?
Lehrer: Exactly, I mean Like a Rolling Stone broke every rule in the rock and roll business. It was way too long, it was six minutes, it was not a transparent love song, it was not clear at all what Bob Dylan was singing about. It was full of obscure rhymes, lyrics that made no sense, it was this collage of influences. For the first time, Bob Dylan could really bring together all those influences so there was a bit of Fellini, a little Brecht, some Robert Johnson, some Woody Guthrie, all of these different influences, for the first time coalesced in this one song. I think that's really what made Like a Rolling Stone so influential, not just for Bob Dylan, but for every other rock and roll artist since.
[Like a Rolling Stone excerpt here]
Paulson: Now what's striking about the story is that he got stuck. He got to a point where he felt like he couldn't go anymore but somehow getting stuck seemed to be essential to moving onto the next level.
Lehrer: Exactly, it came at his darkest moment. It came when he quit, it came when he hit the wall, when he had no idea what else to do, and then it came out of the blue and when it arrived, it felt like a revelation. It came attached with this feeling of certainty and those are both defining features of this very particular creative moment called a moment of insight and the defining features of this moment as defined by psychologists over the last few decades are one, the answer comes out of the blue. The answer comes when we least expect it. The answer comes often after we've been stumped, after we've been blocked, after we've basically given up, and then once it arrives, it feels like the answer. We don't have to double check the math or reread the lyrics. We know this is what we've been waiting for. Now it's a very, very mysterious mental phenomenon. The cortex is showing one of its secrets, and yet psychologists and neuro scientists have found some very interesting ways to study it and to really understand how the brain engineers these epiphanies.
Paulson: So what's your guess as to what might have happened in Bob Dylanâ's brain? What parts of the brain might have been activated?
Lehrer: Yeah, it's tough to speculate on Bob Dylan's brain in particular because that's a special three pounds of jello.
Paulson: There might not be any other brain like that.
Lehrer: Yeah, but boy it would be fun to get him in an fMRI machine, but what scientists have found, and they've been forced to study moments of insight in some very clever ways, because obviously you can't just put undergrads in a brain scanner and say, "okay, have a break through, do it now." That would be a very inefficient way to collect data, so instead what they do is they give students, they give undergrads, they give their subjects a series of puzzles which are often solved in moments of insight, and that allows them to study the underlying brain substrate behind these moments of insight and what they discovered is a few seconds before the insight appears, there's typically a sharp spike in activity in a part of the brain called the Superior Inferior Temporal Gyrus. It's a part of the brain nobody knows too much about, in the back of your right hemisphere just behind the ear. Its previously associated with things like the processing of jokes and interpretation of metaphors and what it seems to be particularly good at is drawing together remote association, so looking at two ideas that seem completely unrelated, seems like they have nothing in common. You know, what this one brain area seems to be good at is finding that thin thread they actually share, so it's able to draw together seemingly disparate and disconnected ideas and finding the connection between them. You know of course, when you need an insight, that's often a very, very important talent.
Paulson: Well, there's some fascinating implications to this. I mean if you work in an office for instance, where you are supposed to be doing creative work, and chances are you're going to be focused very intently at the task at hand, but you're saying that maybe you need to actually get away from that for a while.
Lehrer: Yeah, that's exactly accurate. I think we've got this very narrow notion of what productivity is, that productivity is being well caffeinated and being chained to your desk and staring at your computer screen, but when you're solving really hard problems and when you get stuck on that problem, that's the worst possible thing you can do. It's in moments like that that you should get up from your desk and take that walk, take that hot shower, play some ping pong, do whatever it is you need to do to get relaxed. There's this great line of Einstein's which is that "creativity is the residue of time wasted. " You know, I think that captured a lot of wisdom, that sometimes we need to get better at wasting time.
Paulson: You tell some great stories of breakthroughs in all kinds of walks of life. One has to do with an engineer at 3M named Arthur Fry. What did he manage to come up with?
Lehrer: He managed to invent this product, you may have heard of it. It's called the post-it note and he came up with it in a very, very interesting way. So 3M for several years, before Arthur Fry invents the post-it note, there had been this guy who had been working on a very weak glue. He'd been working on developing an adhesive that was so weak, it barely stuck things together, and engineers at 3M had this vague intuition that this might be useful, but no one could figure out what it could be used for, because after all, if you want to use a glue, it's because you actually want things to stick together, so what's the advantage of a glue that doesn't actually work very well. So no one could figure out what to do with it, and so the product had languished on the shelves for several years at that point. Fast forward, Arthur Fry, he sings in his church choir and he's got this annoying problem with where he puts book marks in his choral book to mark the pages that feature the songs that he's going to sing that week, but as he turns the pages and holds the book, these bookmarks often fall out and that's very frustrating to him, so one Sunday he's listening to a sermon and it's a particularly tedious sermon that week, and he starts to daydream. His mind wanders off and it's at this point he connects his problem, his bookmark problem, trying to fix the bookmarks in his choral book to this very weak glue he'd heard about the week before at 3M and all of a sudden he realizes that what he needs to do is coat his bookmarks in this very weak glue and maybe, just maybe, the glue will be so weak that it'll stick the bookmarks to the pages, but wont tear the pages when he wants to move the bookmarks, so it's in a sense a temporary fastener, a temporary stick for these bookmarks and he then spends the next few months tinkering with the product and eventually he realizes that if you really want to sell the product, it shouldn't be a bookmark. It should be note that you can leave comments on and post to documents because then people can actually consume it, and a few years later the post-it note is introduced and is now, of course, a staple of offices everywhere. But, what makes that story so interesting to me is that it arrived in the midst of a daydream. It arrived, not when Fry was at his office plugging away, but when he was listening to a slightly tedious sermon and just let his mind wander off.
Paulson: Yeah, and the implication is that boredom has its values. Sometimes you need to hit a spot where, for whatever reason, your mind is taken away from the task at hand.
Lehrer: Absolutely, and this also explains by studies by Jonathan Schooler, UCSB, have found that daydreamers will also score higher on tests of creativity. You know, daydreaming is one of the first states of mind we drill out of our kids. In second grade, you're told stop staring at the window, focus, focus, focus, but daydreaming is actually a really important mental mode. We spend, some studies estimate, up to half our life, in the midst of a daydream. The brain consumes tons of energy while daydreaming. It's because all these different brain areas are engaged in this elaborate crosstalk and we're making new connections, we're mashing up ideas, we're exploring counter-factuals. It's a very rich kind of thought and we should encourage it. We should learn how to daydream productively, and I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons there are so many anecdotes now about people having their best ideas in the shower, is because the shower is one of the last places we can't take our phones. We can't take our smart phones and so we can't check our email and we can't check Twitter and we can't check Facebook, and so we're forced to actually daydream for a few minutes, you know, while shampooing our hair without interrupting that process. So maybe that's why the shower is this, you know, this incubator of good ideas now.
Paulson: Well, this also raises questions about how groups can come together to cook up some new idea and every office knows about brainstorming, you know. Every business has brainstorming sessions, you know how to do this, but you say that actually most brainstorming is not very effective.
Lehrer: Yes, brainstorming is a technique pioneered by Alex Osborn. He was a Don Draper like figure, the head of BBDO in his day in the late 40's and early 50's. In his series of best -selling books, he introduces this idea called brainstorming, very simple technique. The first rule of brainstorming is thou shalt not criticize. Whatever you do, don't criticize because imagination is very meek and very shy and if it's worried about being criticized, it will just clam up, so you can't criticize. That kills the imagination. Brainstorming has since gone on to become one of the most popular creativity techniques of all time. It's used in boardrooms and advertising offices and schools and design offices. Whenever we want to come together to create an idea, we often talk about brainstorming. The only problem with brainstorming, because it is a feel good technique, you know. It's nice not being criticized. We can all feel very productive because we can fill a whiteboard with our free associations, no one's had their feelings hurt. The only problem with brainstorming though, is that it just doesn't work. Study after study has shown that brainstorming actually gets in the way, that people do better working on their own than they do coming together to solve problems, using this technique called brainstorming. Now the reason brainstorming doesn't work gets back to that very first rule which is thou shalt not criticize. Studies led by Charlan Nemethat U.C. Berkley have consistently shown that when people engage in acts of debate and dissent, they actually solve problems better. They have more ideas and these ideas are rated as better by an independent panel of judges, so there's something about criticism, about constructive criticism that, instead of shutting down the imagination, it really draws us out, forces us to engage, forces us to listen, really means there's some skin in the game. It wakes us up and that's a good thing and so she argues that the real problem with brainstorming is the fact that instead of unleashing the imagination, it's just a little bit boring. It doesn't fully stimulate us, instead, debate and dissent do.
Paulson: But doesn't it depend on what kind of criticism you offer, because so often criticism does shut down the conversation and people don't want to participate then?
Lehrer: Well she argues that criticism should be constructive, it should never be personally and you know, obviously this is a very tough thing to manage. I think that's the challenge obviously with encouraging people to engage in acts of debate and dissention, and ensuring that it doesn't get too personal, but what she's found is actually that debate and dissent do the opposite. They don't shut us down in general. They really do wake us up. One of her most interesting findings comes when, after the experiment is over a few hours later, she then brings people back into her lab and she says, "Okay, since the study was over... and in a typical study, she might ask people to come up with ways to reduce traffic in the Bay area for instance, San Francisco Bay area. She'll say, â€˜okay, since the study's over, have you had any more new ideas since, you know? We haven't been asking you to think about it, but is the problem still in your head, are you still mulling it over, are you still ruminating on it?" and what she finds is that people in the debate and dissent condition have up to seven times more new ideas than those in the brainstorming conditions. They can't stop thinking about. There's something very motivating about being in an atmosphere that features debate and dissent.
Fleming: Jim Lehrer is the author of "Imagine: How Creativity Works." He spoke with Steve Paulson.