A little over a week ago I posted on a new book by Jonah Lehrer called Imagine, How Creativity Works. After hearing an interview Lehrer gave I was curious to learn more about this book (I still haven’t read it, by the way). Since then I’ve come across a couple of other references to Lehrer’s new work, one positive and one a little critical.
First the positive. Horn player and blogger Jeffrey Agrell wrote a post he calls Of Cartoons, Bathrooms, and Creativity. Agrell’s Horn Insights blog is a great read for anyone interested in creativity and he has a number of posts dealing with that topic. Like Lehrer, Agrell finds inspiration can come from moving outside of your normal range of influences and mingling with people in other fields.
There are still ways to stay in the same building and get inspiration. One is simply to poke your head out of your own narrow field. I have written quite a few articles over the years; I found it easy to get ideas and inspiration for a new article simply by looking past what horn players do and bringing back ideas from outside the gates of horn tradition. What are the other brasses doing (e.g. look in their instrumental journals)? How about woodwinds? In what ways could I bring back ideas from the world of percussion? How about other styles than classical? Jazz. Latin. World music. Electronic. What about going beyond music all together? Psychology. Brain physiology. Business. Sports. Language/linguistics. Child development. Video games. Magic/illusion.
On the flip side, Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist offer a critical review of Lehrer’s book. For one thing, they feel that Lehrer’s examples are too broad and perhaps aren’t related enough to bolster his ideas.
The difficulty with pinning down creativity — scientifically or otherwise — becomes obvious when you consider the diversity of anecdotal examples in the book. Is writing a song comparable to coming up with new uses for glue or solving a puzzle that has only one correct answer? Is the person who writes twenty cookie-cutter novels engaged in the same activity as the person who writes one book so unprecedented that it changes the trajectory of literature? Are any two creative processes really the same? At most, it seems that one could point out patterns, but Lehrer boldly sets his sights on formula.
Requarth and Crist also take issue with some of the science that Lehrer cites in Imagine. They argue that his analysis of many of these studies aren’t actually supported by the data and find Lehrer leaps to conclusions.
If you scan the brains of 100 people while they add 2+2, and in every case the same little patch of cortex jumps into action, it’s safe to infer that the cognitive act of adding 2+2 is related to activity in that brain region. So far so good. (What the region might actually be doing — adding, focusing on the number 2, catching errors — is whole separate problem). It’s tempting to say, then, that every time researchers observe that little patch of cortex lighting up, it must mean that the person in the scanner is engaged in adding 2+2. After all, it’s the 2+2 part of the brain, right? That’s where intuition can lead you astray. There is not a measurable one-to-one mapping between any brain region and any particular cognitive process; the same little patch of cortex is likely involved in multiple functions, just as a house can be filled with people for many different reasons. So when you see the patch of cortex light up under the scanner, you can’t say the person is adding 2+2. Likewise, if a brain region previously linked to “self-expression” lights up while improvising music, you can’t say — as Lehrer does — that the musician was “engaged in a kind of storytelling.”
The comments in this article are also interesting to read and generally constructively given and polite. Lehrer himself posts a couple of rejoinders to Requarth and Crist and they offer further clarifications.
Regardless, Imagine sounds like it’s an interesting read and I’m keeping an eye at my library for a copy.