Photo by Nina Subin
Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, discusses the new science of creativity. [34:06]
Jonah Lehrer: We all know that the culture we live in matters but I wanted to really understand exactly how that plays out and so I looked at so-called ages of excess genius. These periods that recur throughout history where you don't get just one genius, you get this clot of geniuses, this cluster, so ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence. In the book I focus on Elizabethan England where it's not just William Shakespeare. It's William Shakespeare, it's Christopher Marlowe, it's John Dunn, it's Francis Bacon. The list goes on and on; all these geniuses living basically living in the same zip code at the same time. It's quite mysterious and for a long time historians wrote these off as accidental flukes but you do see, I think, recurring patterns in all these ages of excess genius. You see things like these are periods where there was a vast expansion in education, so Shakespeare's father was a glover, signed his name with a mark, probably illiterate, and yet Shakespeare is being taught Latin by an Oxford educated teacher at the age of eight. T.S. Elliot's got this wonderful line where he's trying to figure out what allowed Elizabethan England to exist; why so many great writers could exist in this one period. And he says, you know the secret of the time was not that they got lucky. There weren't suddenly more geniuses born during these decades. Instead, they found a way to waste less talent, they wasted less genius and that's why there are so many geniuses. So I think that's a very powerful message because it suggests that our job as a society, as a culture is to waste less genius, to squander less human capital and that's how we'll get more of it.
Â Jo Reed: That was Jonah Lehrer; he was talking about some of the connections he explores in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists that explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.Â
Creativity and innovation are getting a lot of play these days.Â Everyone seems to agree these are the engines that propel art, science and business. Less clear, is where creativity and innovation come from? Are there muses? Is there a creative class? An innovative type? Well, Jonah Lehrer has stepped into the fray with new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. In Imagine, Lehrer looks at the new science of creativity and demonstrates that creativity is not a single gift possessed by the lucky few. Rather, it's a variety of distinct thought processes that we can all learn to use more effectively. Drawing from a wide array of scientific and sociological research, and with examples ranging from the songs of Bob Dylan to the architecture of Pixar to the invention of the Swiffer, Lehrer spells out the connection between neuroscience and creative expression, and in the process, reveals the deep inventiveness of the human mind.
Jonah Lehrer is a contributing editor at Wired Magazine and the author of How We Decide and Proust was a Neuroscientist. He dropped by the studio recently to talk about Imagine: How Creativity Works. Here's our conversation.
Jo Reed: Jonah, I want to actually begin where you begin and you start your book with a story about Bob Dylan at a transitional point in his career. Tell us what was going on with him.
Jonah Lehrer: This is a story that takes place in May 1965 when Dylan has just finished this grueling tour of the east coast and the U.K. and he is exhausted. He is strung out on nicotine and all sorts of pills. His skin has this ghostly pale pallor Joan Baez says he looks like an underfed angel. And after the last set of shows in London he actually tells his manager that he is quitting the music business; that he is so sick of being in the spotlight by himself that he is done with the signing and song writing. And Dylan's not bluffing. After he returned home to New York City, he gets on his motorcycle and he rides up to Woodstock. He doesn't even bring his guitar. And of course the story doesn't end there. Bob Dylan does not retire in 1965. Instead after a couple of days in Woodstock, he feels this familiar feeling, what he calls the "itch of unwritten words" and he gets out his pencil and pad of paper and he starts to scribble. And once he starts scribbling his hand doesn't stop moving for the next several hours. He writes 25 pages of scrawl. He describes it as this vomit of associations coming out of him. And when he looks back at those 25 pages he realizes that within all those words there are the lyrics to "Like a Rolling Stone." And that is where "Like a Rolling Stone" comes from. But to me, the real lesson of the story is that it shows of that act of being stumped, that act of being so frustrated, feeling like we have nothing left to say, that's really our brain telling us we need a moment of insight, we need a big new idea now. And what science has shown is that actually going to Woodstock, finding a way to escape, is actually a great way to have an insight; that we are much more likely to have one of those epiphany's, to write our best songs, when we take a break, when we take a long shower, when we go for a walk, when we stop searching for the answer. That is when the answer arrives.
Jo Reed: So it's almost to that moment of literally just letting it be.
Jonah Lehrer: Yes, yes. It is in a sense a little zen because we have to stop looking for it in order to find it. There's this wonderful line of Einstein's that, "creativity is the residue of wasted time" and I think when you need a moment of insight, when you feel like you have no idea how to write your next song, how to reinvent yourself, you have to make time to waste time
Jo Reed: And this happens clearly not just with people like Bob Dylan, not just singers and song writers and painters, but it also happens with scientists. As you point out, this is what Einstein said.
Jonah Lehrer: Yeah, and what struck me as counterintuitive about this research thing, most people assume that when you need to solve a very difficult problem, and it doesn't matter if this is an engineering or a song writing problem or an artistic problem, then what you should do is chug another cup of coffee, drink some Red Bull, do whatever it is you need to do to stay focused. You chain yourself to your desk, stare straight ahead at your computer screen, stay late at the office. That it's all about focus, concentration, attention. That is the way to solve these problems. And yet the research suggests that that's exactly backwards and so the next time you need one of those big ideas, you need one of those epiphanies, you need to find a way to get relaxed, you need to take a break, you need to give yourself permission to do all sorts of stuff that will look totally unproductive.
Jo Reed: Now tell us what's going on in our brains while this is going on.
Jonah Lehrer: So this is primarily the research of Mark Beeman at Northwestern and John Kounios at Drexel and the problem they began with was you can't just put undergraduates in a brain scanner and say, "Have an epiphany. We're ready for you." That would be a very inefficient way to collect data. So they had to come up with a set of word problems called compound remote associate problems. The acronym is a bit unfortunate, CRAP. But the problems go like this.
Jo Reed: CRAP.
Jonah Lehrer: CRAP, yes, for those following along at home. They give people three words and they have to find a fourth word that can form a compound word with those three so the three words for instance might be pine, crab and sauce. The answer in this case is apple -- pineapple, crabapple, applesauce so apple will often leap into consciousness in one of these moments of insight and the students say, "Ah, hah, I found it," and their eyes go all wide so they've had a moment of insight. So they give people these word problems in a brain scanner and what they see in the seconds before an insight appears, a part of the brain called the interior superior temporal gyrus shows a sharp spike in activity. It's the brain area nobody knows too much about. It's been previously associated with things like the processing of jokes and also the interpretation of metaphors. And this begins to make a little sense. When we're watching "Romeo and Juliet" and Romeo says that Juliet is the sun, we know that he's not saying that Juliet's a big, flaming ball of plasmic gas. Instead, we realize that he's trafficking metaphor and the way we make sense of the metaphor is by looking past the surface dissimilarities; the fact that Juliet and suns have literally nothing in common and instead finding those underlying themes, those remote associations they actually share. Now a similar mental process is required when we try to make sense of pine, crab and sauce. Those aren't three words that go together very frequently and yet this one brain area, the interior superior temporal gyrus, seems to be very good at finding that one other word, which in this case is apple, then binds them all together. Now the same thing is required when you need a moment of insight because if the connections were obvious, if they were on the surface, if they were literal, we probably would've found them already and that's why we need an epiphany because we have to draw together things that don't even seem to be related. That was the first thing they found. They also began to identify the mental states and moods that make epiphanies, make these moments of insight, much more like it happened and this gets us back to the virtues of relaxation because it turns out when people are happy, when they're relaxed, when their brain is full of something called alpha waves, which are closely correlated with states of relaxation, people are much more likely to have one of their big ideas.
Jo Reed: Now one thing I was actually really happy about on a very personal note to read about in your book is one gets creative insights very frequently early in the morning before really starting the day. That taking time then is really a good time just to be and let the brain percolate and go wherever it goes. And I know for me, I need time in the morning. If I jump up and just have to get ready and go, I have a miserable day.
Jonah Lehrer: That can be a very productive state and more generally, it's just good to be groggy. So a study came out last month showing that when you ask subjects are you a morning person or a night person, then you give them various creative puzzles at different points of the day, what you find is that they are much more creative when they think they're least alert. So if they're a morning person, they are most creative when you give them creative puzzles at night and if they're a night person they're most creative when you give them creative puzzles in the morning. That there is virtue in being groggy and I think that's what's happening to people when we lie in bed at six in the morning -- - this always happens to me -- - I curse myself for being awake. I want to be asleep and I can't help but lie there and ruminate and I have a lot of my best ideas half asleep in bed.
Jo Reed: Yeah, exactly. And let me just go back, this really goes back to how the left side of the brain and the right side of the brain responds differently to problems or challenges, no?
Jonah Lehrer: Yes, so there's thing I think longstanding pop clichÃ© that the left hemisphere is the accountant and the right hemisphere is the artist, and that's definitely an over simplification. But what scientists have found is that our different hemispheres have different information processing tendencies; that in general the right hemisphere is more interested in the forest, in the gestalt, in seeing the connections between things whereas the left hemisphere is more granular, it's more about each tree. Now both kinds of information processing are necessary. Both kinds are necessary even for the creative process. We need to edit and we also need to have those big ideas, see the big connections, so we need the details and the whole. But when you need a moment of insight, it's not surprising that's a brain area in the right hemisphere which seems to play a leading role.
Jo Reed: And sometimes that creativity can be triggered when we shift our focus. Tell us the story about the Swiffer.
Jonah Lehrer: The Swiffer, I'm a big fan of the Swiffer mop. I've got the whole Swiffer family in my closet. But the story for the Swiffer actually begins in the early 1990s when Proctor and Gamble, the consumer products powerhouse, is trying to come with a new line of soap, and they tried everything. They experimented with all different chemical formulas but they just couldn't come up with a new line of soap for their line of mops because you make soap stronger but then it irritates delicate skin, it can peel the wood varnish off floors and so on. So after a couple years of failure, this team of 35 chemists decided to outsource the problem to a design firm called Continuum. Continuum realized that they're not going to know more about the chemistry of soap than these Proctor and Gamble chemists so instead they decided to spend the first nine months just watching people mop their floor so they made house visits all over the Boston area. And what they discovered after spending nine months watching people mop the floor is that mopping is a terrible idea. It is a huge waste of time; that people spend more time cleaning their cleaning tool, cleaning the mop, than they do cleaning the actual floor. And that gets us back to just how mopping works that over the years companies like Proctor and Gamble had come up with all different kinds of mop fibers. They were really good at getting dirt off the floor, absorbing that dirt but that made it very tough to get the dirt out of the mop head. And so you watch these videos of these poor people trying to mop their floor and you seem them trying to get the dirt out of the mop head and they splash it around Â filthyÂ water in the bathtub but they can never get the dirt out so they ended up just splashing the dirty water on the floor and nothing gets cleaned. It's so frustrating. And so for nine months Continuum, the designers, they go back to Proctor and Gamble and they say, "You know, we haven't solved your problem but we have learned that your problem's much worse than you think." Needless to say, the company isn't thrilled with this. They say, "Give us something we can take to market." So then they go back to house visits and on one of their last house visits they watch someone clean up some coffee grinds, some spilled coffee on the linoleum tiles in their kitchen floor. And they watch what this woman does, and even though she said in her preinterview that she loved to mop and she always used her vacuum, she doesn't get out her mop or her vacuum. Instead, she tears off a paper towel, wets the paper towel with some water, then runs the paper towel along the floor. And in that moment, just simply watching her clean up these coffee grinds, doing something they've all done countless times before, that is where they have their idea for the Swiffer, which is basically the pull of a mop with a disposable wipe surface on the end. It's gone on to become one of the most successful cleaning products ever launched. It's a multi-billion dollar a year business. It takes up half an isle in the supermarket now. And cleaning tests also show that it is much more effective than mopping and so on. But what I love about that story is that it shows there are so many different parts of the creative process. It's not just about that moment of insight because they had to invest nine months in watching people mop before they were even ready to watch her, to have that breakthrough while watching her use the paper towel.
Jo Reed: It's not like John Coltrane could just pick up the saxophone and start improvising. There is years of work that goes in to that.
Jonah Lehrer: It only looks easy because you work so hard.
Jo Reed: Well, Milton Glaser I think is a great example of how focus and persistence also can play a big role in an insight. Tell us about his campaign.
Jonah Lehrer: It would be wonderful if we could say the solution to every creative problem is to take a vacation, to take a long shower, to just always be relaxed.
Jo Reed: Let's all go to Woodstock.
Jonah Lehrer: Exactly, but of course in the reality, in the real world, that's not the case. When you talk to creative people, they often begin with these stories of their breakthroughs in the shower, of the epiphany that came out of nowhere and then if you keep on pressing them, they also talk about all the hard work that came after, how the idea is often the easy part. The idea is just the beginning and then you've got to go through draft after draft, iteration after iteration. And this is something that is perfectly encapsulated by Milton Glaser, one of the most famous graphic designers of all times. The slogan above his studio chiseled into the doorway is quite simple and it says, "Art is work." And that kind of says it all. He describes creativity as a verb, it's a process in which you have to just go over the idea again and again and you stick with it until it's perfect. And it's probably best exemplified by one of the most iconic ad campaigns of all times, which he was originally commissioned by the New York State Tourist Board to come up with an ad that featured the slogan "I Love New York." So Glaser thought about this for a couple of weeks and experimented with a bunch of different typefaces, came up with this friendly cursive, which he turned over to the Tourist Board and said, "Here's what I've come up with." They loved it. So by any reasonable standard, his work was done. He should have moved on to the next project, but Glaser, if he doesn't feel it's perfect, he can't let go of it. So he kept on thinking about this, he kept on wanting to make the ad campaign, this "I Love New York" campaign a little bit better. And then one day after another few weeks of working on this project which should have been finished, he's sitting in the back of a taxi stuck in mid-town traffic when all of the sudden he gets out a pad of paper and a pen and he starts to reimagine his work. And that's when he comes up with his big idea, which is the I heart New York campaign, you know, the big red heart at the center. This is now probably the most widely implement work of graphic design of the 20th century. And he only came up with that idea because he refused to stop thinking about it. He refused to give up, to surrender, until he felt it was perfect. And that's something you also see again and again in story of creative success is just people who are so persistent, who simply refuse to quit, and that's what allows them to succeed.
Jo Reed: But it really is a mixture of all of it, isn't it Jonah? It's not, okay, wait for the insight, okay, then be persistent. It really is a way of knowing when to push through and knowing when to just sit back for a moment and let go.
Jonah Lehrer: Absolutely. These are I think the two very distinct phases of the creative process. There are those moments of insight and then all the hard work that comes before and after, and then we'll keep on working and we'll feel the sense of progress and we'll hit the wall again, we'll need another insight. And so this is a pattern you see recur again and again in the creative process. T.S. Eliot has got this wonderful quote where somebody asked him why there are so many bad poets and he said, "Well, bad poets get it backwards. Bad poets are unconscious when they should be conscious, and conscious when they should be unconscious, and I think that's a mistake we all make and I think what I wanted to do in the book is give people a way of diagnosing their creative problems so they can say, "Do I need a moment of insight here? Should I have a beer on the couch? Should I find a way to get relaxed? Should I take a long shower, play some ping pong, go for a hike, or do I need to stay late at the office? Should I be drinking coffee instead? Do I need to just be persistent here?"
Jo Reed: Well, Yo-Yo Ma seems to have really reached the equilibrium between conscious and unconscious. You talked to him about creativity.
Jonah Lehrer: I'm a huge fan of Yo-Yo's work and what interested me about his performance is here is this guy who plays these incredibly intricate compositions, these incredibly difficult classical symphonies, and really all kinds of music. And yet, in the moment when he's onstage in front of thousands of people he is able to let himself go. He is able to be so expressive and so emotional and to really convey the feelings in the work of music, to make those sound waves come alive. So I wanted to know how does he do that. How does he stay lose enough on stage to still be so expressive? How does he let himself go? And one of my favorite stories in the book is a story from Yo-Yo where I was asking him how do you not get nervous and he says before he walks out on stage he often thinks about Julia Child. And Julia Child, she would be on television and she'd be cooking roast chicken and she takes this beautiful chicken out of the oven and then she may drop it on the floor. And he said, "How does Julia Child react to the dropped chicken? Does she scream in horror? Does she let the smile leave her face? No, she just picks up the chicken, dusts it off and then she goes on." That in a sense, she welcomes that first mistake because then she can be free, then she can just be herself. And Yo-Yo feels the same way. He says when you're performing you have to realize you are going to make a mistake but you have to see that mistake as an act of liberation because now you can just let yourself go and worry about what is more important, which is not perfection but expression. And this got me interested in the larger question of how we let ourselves go, how performers make themselves prepared to enter that very fluid mind, mental state. And there's been some very interesting work on jazz improvisers so pianists, for instance, who can improvise for a living. They can just step out on stage and trust for the next 60 minutes they can pour beauty out into the air, which is a kind of awe-inspiring act. A guy like John Coltrane could just for 60 minutes create new melodies that were beautiful and staggering but he didn't even know what he was going to create. And what these neuroscientists have found is that what improvisers do is when you ask them to improvise, they're able to on-command inhibit their inhibitions. That they deactivated a part of the brain called the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex. It is the part of the brain closely associated with self-control so it allows us to not eat all the Haagen-Dazs in the freezer. It allows us to say the first thing that comes to our mind. It's that voice in our head saying, "Don't do that. Don't do that. No, no, no." So it's very useful. Self-control is a good trait to have but when it comes to creative performance that voice can also get in the way. That when you need to improvise you need to be able to create without worrying about what you're creating, and that's what these jazz pianists are able to do. Now as you pointed out before, this is not something one can just walk out onto stage. I can't be John Coltrane. It takes thousands and thousands of hours of practice to get to that point where you can not only learn how to let yourself go, but you can trust that if you let yourself go something beautiful and meaningful will come out of you. In a sense, they do make it look easy but that's an illusion. That look of ease hides all the work that came before.
Jo Reed: It's almost as though it's all the work that allows you to be free?
Jonah Lehrer: Exactly, yeah, perfectly put. The scientists often compare this to the act of learning a second language. You have to memorize all the verb charts and really practice and learn all the vocabulary; put in lots of work. But in the goal of all that work is when you're in the midst of a conversation, you don't have to think about it. You can trust that these patterns, this beautiful thing, this act of expression will just come to mind automatically.
Jo Reed: Now some companies are really known for the creative atmosphere that they have and we think of Google and we think of Apple. You bring up 3M and I have to say, that was one of the most surprising things in the book for me, how creative 3M is. And then I started looking around my house, or noticing rather in my house, how many 3M products I have.
Jonah Lehrer: No, and that's what drew me to 3M is because they're not the sexiest company in the world. I think most people don't associate the St. Paul manufacturer of Post-It notes and Scotch Tape and Scotch Guard with high stakes innovation and yet, they really are. At one point they pioneered many of the techniques that I think we now associate with sexier companies like Google, like the 15 percent rule, like internal science fairs, stuff like that. And I think 3M does have this incredible track record of innovation. They have 55,000 employees and 55,000 products, so it's a one to one employee product ratio, which is pretty impressive. And they've been doing it for a long time. They are no flash in the pan. They have been a innovation powerhouse for 60 plus years.
Jo Reed: And they have the 15 percent rule that we think of as a Google rule?
Jonah Lehrer: Yes, but it really was developed decades ago at 3M. The rule is simple. They give every engineer, every researcher, every scientist, 15 percent of their workday to work on whatever they want. It can be a side project, it can be a hobby, it can be a quirky pursuit. The only requirement is they share this information, this new knowledge with their colleagues. And what you find is that time and time again the 15 percent rule has paid dividends even though management consultants at first said that's a terrible idea; you're just writing off 15 percent of your employee's time; they're going to goof off; they're not going to be productive at all. The 15 percent rule has actually led to many breakthrough products. Scotch Guard, for instance, began when a chemist spilled a compound on her shoes then she noticed so over the next few weeks that where she spilled that compound on her shoes, her shoes were stain-resistant; that her shoes stayed a gleaming shade of white. Then she took her 15 percent hours and decided to invest in this product, tried to figure out how it worked and if she could make it into a actual stain-resistant fabric, a stain-resistant coating, and that's where Scotch Guard came from. So you see that again and again at 3M but I think the real value of the 15 percent rule is it sends a message to the employees that 3M isn't going to try to micro-manage their mind; that they hired these people because they're smart, because they want to trust them and so if you're working on a problem and you need to take a walk, you need to take a nap, you need to find a way to relax, you need that moment of insight, then go take a nap, go for a walk. That's okay. They give their employees what they call intentional freedom, which is that we trust you to manage your own mind. If you need to focus and stay late, then focus and stay late, look productive, but if you need to waste time then you can waste time too. Sometimes people have their best ideas when they're wasting time, so they don't get in the way.
Jo Reed: Â Â Pixar is another company you look at and Pixar, there are many reasons why Pixar is a very creative, innovative company but one of them is the architecture of the place.
Jonah Lehrer: Yes, the Pixar studios were largely designed by Steve Jobs. People at Pixar will often refer to the building as "Steve's Movie." And the original plan for the Pixar Studios called for three separate buildings. One building for the animators, one building for the computer scientists, one building for everyone else, the writers, directors, editors and so on. Jobs took one look at this and said that's a terrible idea. He then insisted everyone be in the exact same space because the success of Pixar would depend on these cultures learning how to collaborate; getting the engineers and the computer scientists and the animators to work together, to learn from each other, to share knowledge. But Jobs realized it's not enough to just put people in the same building. You have to force them to mix and mingle so then he carved up this big atrium in the center and he started putting everything important in the atrium, the lobby. He put the gift store there and the mail boxes there and the coffee shop there and the Luxo CafÃ© there and he realized, you know what, even that's not enough because you can build people this lovely cafeteria but the computer scientists would still have lunch with the computer scientists and so on; that they still wouldn't interact. That's when he had his big idea, which was that there should be only two bathrooms in the entire Pixar Studios and he put those in the atrium so there's one place everyone has to go every day, it's the bathroom. And even though this was so inconvenient because that meant you would have to walk ten minutes to pee if you were located on far side of the office, now you hear again and again at Pixar these stories of the bathroom epiphany; about the great unexpected conversation people had while washing their hands or in the hallway on their way to the bathroom, that as Jobs once put it, "creativity is just connecting things." Well most of those connections come from other people which is why it I think one of the secrets of Pixar's success is that they are always forcing their employees to interact.
Jo Reed: What makes some cities centers of creativity? Is it this forced interaction?
Jonah Lehrer: Well, I think all cities are centers of creativity, at least when compared to non-cities and I think this is really what's driving urbanization which is in many respects the great theme of the 21st century. More people are going to move to cities in the next hundred years than have moved to cities in all of human history, so we are moving together into megalopolises, which keep on getting bigger. And that's because cities make us better, cities make us more productive so as people move to bigger cities they're going to make more money, they're going to invent more patents per capital, more trademarks per capital. By every metric of productivity we have, people in cities look better and that's because even in this day and age of email and Skype and video chats, we still get smart being around other smart people. We still have more ideas when we are immersed in ideas. We still come up with new knowledge when we are surrounded by knowledge spillovers, by just random interactions, by striking up those conversations on the sidewalk while waiting in line for a latte. Those are still incredibly valuable things. It really is the serendipity of a city that makes it so valuable. Now I think the best cites, whether it's because they are very dense or because they forced us to interact in the right way, the best cities, they take advantage of that. They're less about giving us our own private spaces and more about hurling us together. Of course, this can make us a little uncomfortable. Sometimes it's nice to have private space, too, until the best cities find a way to balance it. They force us to interact but try to minimize the downside. What the science can say for sure right is that the best cities, what makes them so effective and makes them so innovative is that they get us to interact in the right way. They're a bit like those Pixar bathrooms.
Jo Reed: You write that often it's outsiders who can come up with solutions because they're not burdened by expertise.
Jonah Lehrer: Yeah, and this struck me as quite surprising. I think in this day and age when we've got a hard technical problem we often assume that we should give the problem to the people who know the most, to those experts on the inside, but that often turns out to be a big mistake. And I think it's probably best demonstrated by a website called Innocentive.com, which was originally set up by Eli Lily but it's now used by various Fortune 100 firms -- - Eli Lily, Proctor and Gamble, Kraft Foods, General Electric. And what these companies do is they post their hardest scientific problems online, these problems that their own scientists say are impossible, that they can't solve. And they'll post these problems online and they'll say, if you can solve it, you can have a monetary reward. Maybe it's ten thousand dollars, maybe it's a million dollars depending on how valuable the innovation is. And I think to the shock of many people, Innocentive is remarkably effective, that somewhere between forty and fifty percent of problems posted on Innocentive are solved within six months; many of them are solved within a week. Now think for a second how surprising this is because here are companies with billions of dollars in their R&D budgets with thousands and thousands of scientists and they can't solve these problems and yet they put them online, they make them public and they're being solved by some stranger sitting in his pajamas on his couch eating Fruit Loops in his spare time. It is quite weird. Now when you actually figure out what allows these problems to be solved by these strangers, what you find is they're often solved by outsiders so let's say General Electric posts a chemistry problem. That problem is almost never solved by another chemist. Instead it's typically solved by someone on the fringe of that domain so it's solved by a biophysicist or a molecular biologist or just a standard biologist; someone who knows enough to understand the terms of the question but not so much they run into the exact same stumbling blocks, the exact same wall that those chemists at GE did. So this helps explain why being an outsider can actually be really valuable because in a sense knowledge comes with blind spots. We develop assumptions, we become invested in the status quo and that definitely has its virtues, that definitely comes with perks which is why it's good to have experts too, but when it comes to really difficult problems sometimes people who know less see more.
Jo Reed: Something else you wrote that surprised me, Innocentive surprised me, 3M surprised me, the other thing that really surprised me was that brainstorming doesn't work.
Jonah Lehrer: Yes, brainstorming is probably the most widely implemented creativity technique in the world. It was first invented by Alex Osborne, a marketing executive back in the late 1940s, and he credited brainstorming with helping him come up with many of his best ad slogans, like the "Mmm, Mmm, Good" campaign for Campbell's Soup. As outlined by Osborne in a series of bestselling business books there are just two simple rules to brainstorming. The first rule is whatever you do, don't criticize; that the imagination is meek and shy and if it's worried about being criticized it will just clam up and so then it won't be able to create or free associate at all. So no criticism is allowed; all ideas are good ideas. The second rule is it's all about quantity, not quality; that can come later. Now this is a lovely technique. It makes us feel good. We can all go into a room, free associate, fill the white board with ideas. We all feel productive. The only problem is that brainstorming doesn't work, and study after study has shown this. Psychologists have been testing brainstorming for sixty plus years and in study after study, people who work by themselves come up with more ideas and better ideas than those who are forced to brainstorm as a group. Now this doesn't mean it's always better to work alone. In fact, if anything the opposite is true. It just means that we have to collaborate, work together in the right way. And I think a much more effective model is that outlined by Charlan Nemeth at UC Berkeley. She has shown that groups that engage in debate and descent, groups that are encouraged to constructively criticize each other, they come up with many more ideas and those ideas are rated as much more original by someone else. And this is because the act of criticism, if it's done well, it's invigorating. It's surprising, it draws us in. It forces us to dig below the superficial surface of the imagination and that's when things get interesting.
Jo Reed: What surprised you as you did the research for this book?
Jonah Lehrer: A couple of things. I think one thing that's really changed my own process is this research on the virtue of relaxation, that when you are stuck and stumped you need to find a way to relax. You need to find a way to step away from the office; to let yourself go, to take a hot shower; whatever it is that puts you at ease that gets you to stop thinking about those problems at work that is going to be really valuable. So that is one thing that surprised me. I think the other thing that surprised me is just how social innovation and creativity are. I think we tend to valorize and romanticize the solitary artist, that individual working by themselves, yet when you look at the literature on creativity what you find is finding the right social network is often incredibly important. That it's really important to have a diverse mixture of friends, to not just spend time with people who are just like you. It's probably best demonstrated by Martin Ruef, a sociologist at Princeton who he tracks 766 graduates of Stanford Business School who have gone on to start their own companies and what he found is that people with diverse social networks, people who hung out with all sorts of different folks, so if they were an engineer they also hung out with filmmakers and novelists and poets and biologists and so on, that they were three times more innovative than those with predictable social networks. So this is just great, great evidence that it really is valuable to have people in your life who think differently than you, who tackle with different kinds of problems, have a different set of assumptions, who speak in different languages, that that kind of diversity is really invaluable.
Jo Reed:Â Â That was Jonah Lehrer. We were talking about his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works
You've been listening to Art works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor
Excerpt from "Foreric: piano study" from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.Â
Next week, novelist, Maxine Hong Kingston. Â Â
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Jo Reed: Jonah, thank you so much. Your book was wonderful. It really was, and I just want to say for a book that I think goes through such complicated ideas, you do it in such a lucid way and also it's so wonderfully written. I literally just, I read it as though I was reading a novel.
Jonah Lehrer: Oh, that's so kind of you to say that. It means a lot. Thank you very much.
Jo Reed: It really is the truth. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Jonah Lehrer: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
Jo Reed: That was Jonah Lehrer, we were talking about his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works
Youâve been listening to artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.
Next week, novelist, Maxine Hong Kingston
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.