Hold Your Horses Jonah Lehrer! – Steps Towards the Science of Creativity

Hold Your Horses Jonah Lehrer! – Steps Towards the Science of Creativity

Hold Your Horses Jonah Lehrer! – Steps Towards the Science of Creativity

Scientific studies on creativity require an understanding of “creativity-in-context”, a multilayered, critical investigation of data coming from different disciplines.

The subject of “creativity” is awfully popular these days, and yet nobody knows exactly what “creativity” really is.  Johan Lehrer, in his book Imagine tries to tackle the subject. He elegantly and effortlessly skims through different aspects of creativity, telling fascinating, artfully crafted stories about creative people and various aspects of the “science of creativity”. The book is charming and engaging, so it is quite disappointing that along with this beautiful literature some of his claims aren’t very well supported. Lehrer worked in a neuroscience lab, so he should know better that we are far, far away from the real “science of creativity” and even more importantly we are probably not on the right track yet.

So-called “creativity research” is very incongruent and severely fragmented. You don’t believe me? Check it out for yourself; creativity in business is often described as a goal oriented perseverance of a visionary entrepreneur, or depicted and associated with a set of tools that every “creative professional” can use in their daily practice (see the 99%percent website run by a prominent ad agency). According to this view producing ideas is easy. Execution of those ideas is what we should worry about.  Creativity research in psychology seems to be focused on “artistic”, free-association thinking; nobody tests the creativity of entrepreneurs or software designers. Researchers are ferociously debating self-made concepts (like convergent/divergent thinking), which were originally defined to establish the “science of creativity”, but ironically turned out to be not very “scientific” at all.  Nowadays the public psyche is infatuated with “brain talk”, but those who understand science know that researchers are just testing the waters there, that our knowledge about complex brain operations is still full of the unknown. (Critical Neuroscience).

Jonah Lehrer tries to stitch together multiple studies and approaches to creativity and God bless him for that. The fragmentation of research gives many people the impression that the very concept of creativity is “esoteric” and highly unidentifiable. I hope that Imagine will help to put those claims to rest.  Creativity is a complex issue, but we shouldn’t be spooked by its intricacy; we successfully research and study complicated, layered problems, although it is very possible that in the process of studying creativity we will have to drop a few of our old, one-dimensional methodological habits.

In my opinion, the right way to approach the subject is by establishing a model of interdisciplinary studies on creativity. I don’t believe that we can research creativity without paying attention to its context, and to say it even stronger: some fast-and-loose generalizations and impressions of “how creativity really works” might backfire and stifle further research. Preconceptions and oversimplifications sink into popular dialog and distort the discussion for years. Some myths about the brain are still here, despite the fact that they were debunked by science a long time ago! Remember when we were told that we use only 10 percent of our brain, or that we can get smarter by listening to Mozart, or that we learn through subliminal messages? Those “facts” were debunked by science, but they linger in popular literature today. 

Interdisciplinary studies – a modus operandi (not an option)

A long time ago, George A. Miller on the footsteps of the cognitive revolution, the interdisciplinary attempt to understand modes of human thought, said: “It was becoming clear in several disciplines that the solution to some of their problems depended crucially on solving problems traditionally allocated to other disciplines. Collaboration was called for.” (“The cognitive revolution: a historical perspective”) Today cognitive science consists of multiple research disciplines and it spans many levels of analysis, from low-level learning and decision mechanisms to high-level logic and planning, from neural circuitry to modular brain organization. It was established by a conscious decision of collaboration between well-established disciplines, which were all too narrow to research “cognition” only within their own paradigms.

The same interdisciplinary, comprehensive effort is needed to study creativity. “Creativity studies” should on the one hand maintain close engagement with lab work (psychology, neuroscience), crucial for building accurately informed analyses, while on the other hand, should provide an interface through which philosophical, cultural, economical analysis would feed back to the lab in order to establish better contexts for experimental research.

We, the creativity people, should remember that If we are serious about implementing changes in education (Ken Robinson), if we want to attempt to change policy and public mentality which would value, nourish and foster “creativities” on different levels, we need to be more serious about researching the concept itself; we need more consolidated knowledge about what creativity really is and what are the real implications of its absence.


Creativity research in its current state is full of strange “frames” and narrative patterns, which powerfully but often unnoticed pre-organize our knowledge and judgment.  As few authors before, but most recently Cordelia Fine brilliantly pointed out: biases creep into scientific assumptions and get tangled in experimental paradigms; some cultural stereotypes are then reified in the labs as “facts”.  It is particularly observable in research on more complex, not fully defined subjects. The “brain talk” (and subsequently “neuroscience of creativity”) contains abundance of “junk science” (see Neuroimage This! by Arne Dietrich). Research in neuroscience and the psychology of creativity is still full of “voodoo correlations” .We don’t fully understand how our brain works, so we have to be vigilant and cautious in forming any type of far reaching generalizations.  Sadly, I can sense it already, that Imagine (probably against Jonah’s intentions) will bring to life another set of silly pre-conceptions: from obsession with “open lobbies” and blue rooms to encouraging a flow of small talks at the workplace. The book doesn’t take into consideration that some conclusions might be highly “industry sensitive”, that responsible advice about “how to be creative” might vary from person to person. What works for Apple/Pixar/Google might be worthless if applied blindly to different industries. Let me give you an example: Jonah is talking about the benefits of cooperation between “investors” on Wall Street (gathering from his description he probably means “day traders”). To put it softly: his view exhibits a lack of understanding of what the Stock Market is all about. Successful investing is predominantly based on “contrarian thinking”. So, yes indeed, the exchange of “exclusive” information on the trading floor might be valuable, but other than that one simple rule is in force: investors always work against the crowd, you buy low (when everybody is selling) and you sell high (when the rest of the people are happy and optimistic). This is one of the reasons why many legendary investors (including Warren Buffett) avoid any “metropolis” – they try to avoid being exposed to the emotional “ups” and “downs” of everyday trading. Social psychology produced a ton of research on group dynamics and we should take it under consideration while speaking of any kind of cooperation. A strong need for “alone time” is characteristic not only of thinkers with Asperger’s syndrome, but equally for many thinkers involved in hi-abstract, system-building disciplines (philosophers, theoretical physicists, mathematicians, etc.). A vision that the free-flow of information ultimately benefits creativity in all industries is inaccurate.  In some realms creativity comes purely from NOT exchanging thoughts, from not following the crowd, from not bothering with the existing paradigm. 

Many great researchers somehow overlook the reciprocal relationship between creativity and its cultural and economic background. Some cultures bluntly don’t value creativity (they value the voice of the group and tradition instead). Goal-directed creativity correlates with non-conformism and thrives only under very specific economic and cultural circumstances. Jonah talks briefly about the phenomenon of Silicon Valley; it puzzles him that this place, the epiphany of innovation, was born outside of a metropolis, he is baffled by this “irregularity” and finally calls it “an outlier”. It is quite surprising that this is the only aspect he concerns himself with. Silicon Valley is a conglomerate of many economic, cultural and logistic connections. It not only produces technological innovation, but also actively creates an environment with the capacity to boost, materialize and finance great ideas. Although the whopping majority of already financed ideas are not fully successful here, there is a system in place, set up by VC’s (Venture Capitals) and Angels, which enables different levels of “recycling” of data and reusing collected knowledge in new projects. The success of Silicon Valley has nothing to do with Jonah’s assumptions about a “free exchange of ideas”, about signing or not signing “non-compete” documents; it has everything to do with the presence of a certain “infrastructure”. Logically speaking there is a bi-conditional relation; the culture of innovation is possible if and only if we can create a certain economic environment where investors can meet inventors, where certain ideas can be tested, where artwork is sold and where people are paid for their creative effort. There is nothing “lofty” or idealistic about it.

Jonah approaches the question of creativity in an extremely wide fashion, which is absolutely the right thing to do. Although “Aha moments” are undeniably a part of the creative process, we don’t pay enough attention to the conditions for fostering creativity, which are settled in our individual differences. A lot of people (probably a vast majority of the human population) like the road most traveled. Jonah quotes Nietzsche (and Heidegger) so as a Nietzsche (and Heidegger) scholar I have a quick “heads-up” here; if Jonah will go to “intelligent people heaven” he should be on watch for both gentlemen. They might want to kick his butt for quoting them in the book based on the premise that a hi-tech metropolis is beneficial for creativity (that would be Heidegger’s beef) and that “everybody is creative” (which would unnerve Nietzsche). I don’t recommend an open confrontation; we all know that both philosophers had a temper. On a more serious note, Nietzsche in particular is worth mentioning in the context of creativity. He was not only the author of a few catchy (and overused) aphorisms; if read closely he presents deep insights: into conformism (aka “herd mentality”) which is sustained and nourished in groups, about the wide-spread lack of desire for critical thinking, about the rare value of independent reasoning, about contempt for mediocre (stolen, borrowed, regurgitated) ideas and about a certain courage required to create and stand by one’s work.  The “romantic” vision of the artist/creator has many flaws, but it contains a grain of truth. We might all have the capacity for being creative, but very often we choose not to be. It is usually way more convenient to follow a script, but creativity takes courage!

Creativity research needs to open itself a bit. In my opinion, not necessarily “the preachers of creativity” but a scientist, a tech genius or a teacher might have something important to add. For example, Lisa Randall hit the nail on the head by writing:

In science, too, the right questions often come from having both the big and the small pictures in mind. Identifying the big questions is rarely sufficient, since it's often the solutions to the smaller ones that lead to progress. (…) An almost indispensable skill for any creative person is the ability to pose the right questions. Creative people identify promising, exciting, and, most important, accessible routes to progress -- and eventually formulate the questions correctly.

Also, Jeff Hawkins while taking about the creativity in his “memory-prediction model” points out that creativity depends on a certain amount of information (expertise) you already have at your disposal.

Asking the right questions, either in art or science, might have more to do with “critical reasoning” than “daydreaming” after all. The ability to create meaningful, relevant connections might be more dependent on cognition and gathering knowledge and on the motivation to peruse self-assigned task. Some character traits might be way more significant and meaningful for boosting creativity than inspiration induced by the color blue or open space in a building.

Creativity is a highly complex phenomenon and we are at the beginning of the road to understanding it. Interdisciplinary research is needed. If we set up our research strategy correctly, if we describe and position “creativity” as a complex interplay between different factors, the process of looking for “a net force” in the creative process will get more clear over time. Not to mention that it would be a fascinating and important subject to study.  Here is where should we start:

A Backbone

a. Theory-practice model and the “creativity studies” as a hybrid discipline

 Convergence of disciplines into a new area of research was done in science multiple times before. Collapsing old dichotomies, building bridges between methodologies was successfully accomplished in cognitive science, and seems to be practiced across the board today. The rise of  “cultural neuroscience” (Chiao & Ambady, 2007; Frith&Frith, 2010, “cultural biology” aka “cross cultural psychiatry” (Laurence J. Kirmayer), not to mention well established  epigenetics are strong proof that a multidisciplinary approach is needed for full understanding of more complex subjects. The “lab-only” studies (which, for example were feeding behaviorism) are replaced by an ethological approach (see: Ethology, a lecture at Stanford University, by Robert Sapolsky). Advanced, multidisciplinary science is not always “neat”. But, it is driven by the important observation that gathering a full spectrum of data requires studying organisms and their affairs not only in a laboratory setting, but also in their natural environment. In that context, it is quite surprising that in the research of creativity we try to “divide and conquer” by intentionally NOT paying attention to knowledge collected in related disciplines. It is silly and has to stop.

Scientific studies on creativity require an understanding of “creativity-in-context”, a multilayered, critical investigation of data coming from different disciplines. (see: Integrative pluralism described by Sandra Mitchell). I see “creativity studies” as an interplay between 8 disciplines: the theoretical backbone would consist of theoretical framework built upon psychology, neuroscience, anthropology and philosophy, but at the same time I strongly believe that creativity studies have to learn from practice. Theory about creativity should be enriched by a constant feed of information coming from: education, art, business and technology. So, “creativity Studies” should have a form of an “octogram”.

An integration of distinct perspectives and their methodological approaches, a tension between ontological and epistemological frameworks can produce knowledge, which will be rigorous, applicable and relevant. All disciplines called upon here hold crucial pieces of the puzzle; understanding “creativity” from only one vantage point will never provide a necessary, satisfactory answer.  Engagement between disciplines will also create space to explore alternative possibilities; by allowing pluralistic viewpoints and methodologies we consequently permit layered explanation of complex phenomena. We were not able to describe “cognition” in the realm of one discipline; so we will not be able to crack the enigma of “creativity” by using only one set of tools.

b. the method of inquiry  (multiple looping)

Interdisciplinary projects are usually easier to talk about than to accomplish. While drawing from multiple fields of research, we have to be prepared to examine subtle relationships and feedback loops between the domains. But, multiple and classificatory looping (see: Ian Hacking) as the method of inquiry will spin together some key threads of theory and practice and simultaneously motivate and shape further studies. Also, by bringing new perspectives to the table we can test hypotheses faster. By exposure to practical knowledge coming from education, business practice and reformed art theory, we can “open” our academic speculations to new options and solutions. I believe that the incorporation of practical knowledge will help us to deal with academic frames faster and more efficiently.

c. The New Interdisciplinarity

One possible obstacle in moving forward with establishing a new interdisciplinary study on creativity is actually more “petty” than one might assume. Getting to the bottom of any issue in multidisciplinary settings requires the presence of a certain kind of researcher equipped with an open-minded attitude and a strong sense of self-confidence. That confidence has to come from the ability to communicate and learn effectively, rather than from juggling words of unnecessary jargon. But I’m very optimistic. This new kind of scientist is emerging; we are getting more perceptive, more open for collaboration and more connected to the world outside purely academic settings.  Equally important: we finally have an adequate technology to communicate in real time even without being in the same room. The fast metabolism of information, interconnectivity between scientific groups will speed up the process of communication and experimentation. Study shows that the next generation of researchers will have an easier time learning from each other and will be more open to trying different approaches (see. Millennials). Problems in science will get so complex that they will require interdisciplinary cooperation. Thanks to “fresh air” coming from an “Open Science Movement”, goal oriented collaboration is not just the hope of a distant future. We are ready. 

The Evolution of Creativity Studies

Creativity is not only the capacity of our imagination; it is also a way to introduce new concepts and work on solutions to existing problems. I might agree with Jonah Lehrer that to some degree we all are creative.  But, it is obvious that some creations, some associations “make more sense” than others.

Our existing “science of creativity” is full of shortcomings. But, scientific research is not at fault here; it is very often a trivialization of its findings, the wrong application of research studies, which causes damage.  Many times it is hard to understand certain mechanisms and “regularities” just by using even the most perceptive and clever observation.  Many times a proper understanding of inconsistencies and internal connections typical for certain areas of expertise requires the presence an expert, somebody who understands underling causes. This is exactly why “creativity studies” should be an interdisciplinary endeavor, where we listen closely to people who are familiar with the substance of each discipline and engage researchers into moving our inquiry (enterprise) forward.

To eliminate “junk science”, creativity research should have scientific backbone and work on tools to promote and explain scientific advancements without trivialization.  It will happen only if the era of “academic quietism” comes to its end; for way too long scientists were not “allowed” to operate on a broader level of understanding that would transcend clearly circumscribed local expertise. Scientists were not encouraged to explain their work to the general public, which created an avalanche of semi-scientific literature, then digested by the general public in incorrect doses.

Creativity is a fickle lady. To court her we need to have a lot of different tools at our disposal, and we should communicate loudly and clearly that easy fixes in “the department of creativity” might be counterproductive. Jonah says:

Nevertheless, this sense of magic shouldn’t prevent us from trying to become more creative. Thanks to modern science, we’ve been blessed with an unprecedented creative advantage, a meta-idea that we can all apply at the individual level. For the first time in human history, it’s possible to learn how the imagination actually works. Instead of relying on myth and superstition, we can think about dopamine and dissent, the right hemisphere and social networks. This self-knowledge is extremely useful knowledge; because we’ve begun to identify the catalysts behind our creativity, we can make sure that we’re thinking in the right way at the right time, that we’re fully utilizing this astonishing tool inside the head. (There is no more important meta-idea than knowing where every idea comes from.) If we want to increase our creative powers, then we have to put this research to work in our own lives. We can imagine more than we know.  Lehrer, Jonah (2012-03-19). Imagine: How Creativity Works (p. 247). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

 I cannot agree more, and I strongly believe that Jonah’s (and my) dream about understanding creativity will become reality. But, we are not there yet; we have to hold our horses and try much harder. Even the most beautifully served, but still fragmented observation, which then turns itself into a generalization, will not do. We carefully gather opinions and voices and we present them every day on The Creativity Post. They are the prelude to a multidisciplinary effort to understand the phenomenon of human creativity in its full spectrum. We listen closely to academics, scientists, entrepreneurs, teachers, artists and activists; we gather their valuable opinions and read their remarks with an ultimate attention. The human desire to create and innovate is important on so many levels that we might consider the notion that creativity is an important part of what really makes us human.

Special thanks to fantastic scholars: Scott Barry Kaufman and Elliot Samuel Paul, co-founders of The Creativity Post and my dear friends.

Article Featured Image Caption; "Taming Pegasus" by Francis Poland; TouchofArt European Painting Gallery

comments powered by Disqus