Monday, May 28, 2012
Book Review: "Imagine" by Jonah Lehrer
By Jonah Lehrer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (March 19, 2012)
Jonah Lehrer's book promises to address the question how creativity works. Lehrer begins with the discussion of some insights from the field of neurobiology, brain scans and so on, and moves on to the social sciences and some more or less recent studies about the productivity of groups and cities. He has visited several places were creative work is done, Pixar and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts for example, and spoke to some researchers about their insights.
That all sounds very promising. But the one word that you should pay attention to in the previous paragraph is the word "some."
Lehrer seems to have collected some studies that crossed his desk and that roughly fit to the theme of his book. He quotes study results but he doesn't actually tell you much about the details of these studies, or the assumptions that went into them. For a popular science book one can forgive that - brevity arguably has its merits. Worse is that Lehrer does not discuss the status of these studies, does not mention if there have been conflicting results, or how the results are judged by the community other than the people who have done the studies to begin with.
That lack of discussion about the relevance of the research he refers to unfortunately has me questioning the accuracy of pretty much everything he says.
The theme of the book is "creativity" but Lehrer doesn't actually explain what he means by that to begin with, so everything remains very vague. He goes on to collect evidence that goes nicely with the story he wants to tell and with the advice he wants to give. Basically his message is that creativity has two ingredients, imagination and perspiration, and that, to make an idea work, you need both. To remain creative, you should on occasion change the field you work in so you remain "an outsider" and you have to travel and talk to a lot of people.
Lehrer doesn't so much as touch on the question of whether there are individual differences in people's creativity.
His book centers very much around US America. Of course he does mention some artists or researchers who are not American (eg he spends some time on Shakespeare) but most of the companies, labs and cities he writes about are. The exception are a few pages about the technology boom in Israel which, if you believe Lehrer, came about because it's a small country and most men below the age of 45 have to serve for the military a few weeks annually. (Which, incidentally, is also the case for Switzerland.) He doesn't so much as acknowledge that his collection of points in favor of his message (connectivity is the key to creativity) is a little bit of an oversimplification, or that he has ignored to look outside his own cocoon of culture.
He also in some places promotes correlations that have been found in the study of creativity into causations. There is for example the study that shows that high impact papers are more likely to have multiple authors, which he takes as evidence for the benefit of connectivity for creativity. He mentions in the passing that the mathematician Paul Erdos was on speed most of his time as a researcher, yet no reference for that, and explains "A system has entropy when it's defined by the presence of disorder" which gives you a good impression of the level of explanation you get in that book.
In summary, it's a sloppy book. It's not a bad book in the sense that it's fluently written and is entertaining and I haven't noticed any typos. It also contained references to some studies I hadn't known about. Yet, the summary of these studies is so useless I'll just have to go and look them up myself. The one thing that I really like about the book is the cover. If it came printed on a shirt, preferably sleeveless, I'd probably buy it. I'd give this book two out of five stars.