Through Jonah Lehrer’s study “Imagine: How Creativity Works” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $26), we tentatively begin to understand why and how imagination works. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, people have assumed that creativity, the human imagination, is separate from other thought processes; but new studies suggest that is a false assumption. With the modern brain scanner, we can study that massive network of electrical cells that excite the neurons and begin to see that creativity is an amalgamation of a variety of distinct thought processes.
“But just because we’ve begun to decipher the anatomy of the imagination doesn’t mean we’ve unlocked its secret. In fact, this is what makes the subject of creativity so interesting: It requires a description from multiple perspectives,” writes Lehrer, who then gives us examples of creativity in the real world where someone’s brain has automatically formed new associations, “continually connecting an everyday X to an unexpected Y.”
The book is divided into two sections. The first shows how individuals have developed successful solutions to problems they faced and stubbornly pursued with imaginative solutions. The second gives examples of group cooperation where a creative problem is so challenging that it requires people to connect their imaginations together. Below are two case histories of the dozens included in this thought-provoking work.
“Creativity is the residue of time wasted,” said Albert Einstein, and the case of Dick Drew is a classic example of creativity. Drew was a salesman for 3M and spent time demonstrating the effectiveness of its sandpaper in auto body shops. Sometimes after he made his sales pitch, he would sit back and watch the men work. He noticed that when the mechanics were applying two-tone paint they would protect the new coat of paint with sheets of butcher paper held in place by a strong adhesive. Removing the paper often caused the newly applied paint to peel.
After watching this happen time after time, Drew experimented with several possible solutions; none worked. However, he refused to give up. His boss told him to stop working on the project and go back to selling sandpaper. Drew stubbornly focused on his idea; he worked after closing time testing different backing tapes and glues, and eventually came up with masking tape. It was an instant success in the marketplace, and by 1928 the company was selling more masking tape than sandpaper. Lehrer devotes a chapter to 3M’s current emphasis on innovation and the company’s rule that 15 percent of a researcher’s workday should be spent pursuing new ideas. Now many other successful companies (Google, for instance) follow this same track.
Pixar is the iconic film production company that thrives on collaboration. The company gathered talented people with varied backgrounds to work together; newly hired animators and computer scientists rubbed shoulders with older, more experienced employees. Imaginative executives concluded the only way to cultivate any degree of collaboration was to have everyone in the same building. The original architectural plan for the studio was to have three buildings with separate offices for the computer scientists, animators and management.
“Before long, (founder Steve) Jobs had completely reimagined the studio. Instead of three buildings, there was going to be a single vast space with an airy atrium at its center,” Lehrer writes.
But Jobs realized that it simply wasn’t enough to create an airy atrium; he needed to force people to go there. First he shifted the mailboxes to the lobby, then he moved meeting rooms, the coffee bar, cafeteria and gift shop to the center of the building. He decided to locate the only set of bathrooms in the atrium. Jobs realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things can happen.
“I saw people collaborating in the art gallery and listened to animators talk shop while sitting in their Barcaloungers. ... And then there’s Pixar University, a collection of 110 different classes, from creative writing to comic improv, that are offered to all employees,” Lehrer writes.
He sums up his study with this: “The mystery is this: although the imagination is inspired by the everyday world – by its flaws and beauties – we are able to see beyond our sources, to imagine things that exist only in the mind. We notice an incompleteness and we can complete it; the cracks in things become a source of light. And so the mop turned into the Swiffer, and Tin Pan Alley gives rise to Bob Dylan, and a hackneyed tragedy becomes Hamlet. Every creative story is different. And every creative story is the same. There was nothing. Now there is something. It’s almost like magic.”
The book contains an introduction, coda, notes, acknowledgements and index.
Jonah Lehrer is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, contributes to, among others, The New Yorker, Nature, Scientific American and The New York Times magazines and is author of two previous books. He graduated from Columbia University and attended Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.