Jonah Lehrer: The Literary Magician

Jonah Lehrer: The Literary Magician

Jonah Lehrer: The Literary Magician

A review of Imagine: How Creativity Works

Under the front cover of Jonah Lehrer’s instant bestseller Imagine are the letters of the title all mixed up and floating in a cloud, waiting for someone to be creative with them.

After considering trying my imaginative hand at all possible permutations, I remembered that The Internet Anagram Server or rather the  I, Rearrangement Servant could do this for me.  Here are the results:


Age Mini
Image In
Gamine I
Enigma I
Ma Genii
Am Genii
Age Mi In
Mega I In
Game I In
Magi En I
Gain Em I
Gain Me I
Ani Gem I
A Gem I In
A Em Gin I
A Me Gin I

You can pick your favorite.   My choice is “In Image.”

It made me think of a mirror, perhaps the kind a magician might use.   And this makes sense, because in many ways I think Lehrer is a literary magician.  In using this term I mean to suggest that he is a masterful storyteller.  Imagine is packed with stories—both of famous creators and of famous scientists who have helped us better understand how creativity works.

I think he succeeds at the task of giving fascinating stories about creativity to the general public.  He weaves a narrative about a topic that most researchers even within the field itself can’t agree on regarding a definition, and somehow manages to leave the reader coming away with the feeling that creativity is just within the grasp of each of us.

But like any crowd who is wowed by the magician, we need to think critically about the performance that we have observed.  What follows are the passages of his book that captured my interest.

Very early on he asks the question: “But how does one measure the imagination?”

In my articles If You Are Creative, Are You Also Intelligent? and Steve Jobs Leveraged His Intelligence to More Effectively Create I discuss how creativity and intelligence might actually overlap much more than we realize and that at this point we know how to measure intelligence quite well but that we don’t really know how to measure creativity very well.

On page 62 he mentions that:

“there is a strong correlation between working memory and general intelligence."

He follows this up on page 75 by saying that:

“working memory is an essential tool of the imagination.” 

If working memory is similar to general intelligence, and working memory is an essential tool of the imagination, then this means that intelligence is important to creativity!

Later Lehrer writes:

“The question now is whether our society can produce creative talent with the same efficiency that it has produced athletic talent.  Our future depends on it.” 

He goes on to say:

“We also have to ensure that those with talent are allowed to flourish, that we have institutions that can nourish our brightest kids, just as we nourish our best quarterbacks and jump shooters.” 

And finally:

“If we’re not going to properly educate our own children, then we need to at least open doors and encourage immigration.”

Therefore, our future depends on developing intellectual and creative talent.  I couldn’t agree more.  This topic has been the subject of a number of my articles including America’s Got Talent and Is America “on the Wrong Side of History”?.  I also have talked about the importance of supporting talented immigrants in my article How Do You Make An Intellectual Dream Team?.

He also uses stories to illustrate a point, and then follows each story up with some experimental study that shows something fairly surprising or interesting.

Yet I couldn’t help but wonder as I was reading about these studies whether each of the researchers had simply just invented items or used various measures that they think measures creativity.  The problem with this approach is that each individual study likely has a different definition of what creative means!  Needless to say, this simply shows how complicated the study of creativity really is.

Case in point: In her recent article Hold Your Horses Jonah Lehrer! – Steps Towards the Science of Creativity the philosopher Milena Fisher writes:

“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.”

I agree with Fisher that some myths may be generated in the public consciousness by Imagine simply because Lehrer is so widely read.  However, I’d like to believe that his book will do more good than harm.

After all, that is always the tradeoff when you write for a general audience.  If you keep all the complexity in, many people will find it too academic and boring.  If you make it too simple, the academics will point out that so much nuance was lost in the translation.  Lehrer finds his balance.  And time will tell if some of his generalizations make it into the public consciousness.

Yet I still enjoyed Lehrer’s literary magic.

When I read his descriptive prose about  how  Yo Yo Ma transformed notes from the printed page into beautiful works of performance artistry, I could almost close my eyes and not only hear but feel the music.  This section in particular I found quite beautiful.  I almost felt like I was there doing the interview myself.  To observe the way Lehrer uses words is to experience the work of an artist who has honed his craft over many years.  I think that Imagine is definitely worth a read.



As Lehrer concludes:

“The virtue of studying ages of excess genius is that they give us a way to measure ourselves.  We can learn from the creative secrets of the past, from those outlier societies that produced Shakespeare and Plato and Michelangelo  And then we should look in the mirror.”

In Image.  Imagine.

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

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