Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: "Imagine" by Jonah Lehrer

Imagine: How Creativity Works
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.


  1. I just discovered your review, and I completely agree, couldn't have expressed it better, especially because my written English isn't very good.
    (I'm Swiss;-) One Detail: while all men here do have to join the army in principle, the bigger part of the male population finds ways around that..., especially those who study at universities. And the army would be completely overwhelmed if suddenly all men would decide to serve.)

    Me too, I found the book too anecdotal. The best part may be the chapter about the creative university.

  2. Creativity: 1) Seek a blue rose. 2) There are no blue roses. 3) Grab one where it is not. Management is rewarded for measurable enforcement, process not product. Management is about numbers. This is wildly successful for creating numbers - obtaining Africa, not blue roses.

    And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared, Genrich Altshuller and TRIZ. TRIZ breaks the back of every problem with managerially intolerable unalloyed insubordination. US grant funding is tightly-focused, zero-risk, diversity-staffed research. Its remaining creative researchers hold F-1 and J-1 visas. Pull in parallel! IQs in a committee add like ohms in parallel resistors. Managers cannot manage creativity, they can only manage to end it.

  3. Hi Bee,

    Thanks again for your review on the book.

    I have a good sense now of the experimental requirement you subscribe too, so I can see where you are asking for evidence and a concerted effort to establish a line of reasoning which all could subscribe too in terms of creativity.

    So in the research it seems even though institutions are involved it does not really seem your rules of science with what came out in the book.

    So you say all this.

    How then would you describe creativity.....knowing that in some artistic form you use this in your drawing. Is it s structured that there is no room as to the style and artistic perception that you use everyone could immediately understand your process?

    While examining different areas the timing of this review seems appropriate toward the question of an Embodied Mind? Is this a better format for your discussion about the subject of creativity?


  4. Hi Bee,
    The New York Times had at least two reviews of this book. One of the reviewers, Christopher Chabris, was quite harsh.

    For instance:

    "Malcolm Gladwell says on the book’s jacket that Lehrer “knows more about science than a lot of scientists.” However he has determined this, it cannot be from this book, which includes many elementary errors. Visual information from the left eye does not go only to the brain’s right hemisphere; information from the left visual field does. The different electrodes in an EEG don’t record brain waves of different frequencies; they record from different locations on the scalp. And the enzyme COMT is not involved in producing dopamine; it breaks it down. Even simple facts are wrong. Bridgeport, Conn., is not an “abnormally wealthy” city (it is poorer than average), and the Apple I computer did not have 256 kilobytes of memory (it had 4)."


    "The nadir of his book’s logic is reached when even the anecdotes don’t support the conclusions Lehrer draws from them."

  5. Hi Arun,

    Thanks... I rarely read reviews before I've finished a book. I have read some of Lehrer's articles online and found he writes very well, so I'd give the book a chance. The book reads like it was written on time squeezed in at airports. It would have needed a year more work or so and it could have been really good. I'm not surprised Chabris notes a bunch of mistakes. They don't actually matter for the rest that Lehrer is trying to say, which makes one wonder why he bothered to begin with. Best,


  6. Hi Bee,

    Despite what you mention here with the author attempting to convey that creativity has two ingredients, imagination and perspiration it doesn’t appear that he sweat enough about what it was that had him inspired. That is from what you describe this is just another of the many self help books, with the self representing the fortunes of the author. From my own perspective the main ingredient of creativity is missed here entirely and that being one first has to care deeply enough in what one is concerned with for this is what drives one’s imagination to sweat it in the first place. So in this case Bee I thank you for caring enough to write this review so that others might be saved the bother of having to ;-)

    ”The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one, like the difference between a good mathematician and a bad one, is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality. He has to care!”

    -Robert M. Pirsig- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - page 253



  7. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the clarification regarding Swiss military service! Best,


  8. Hi Bee,

    Sadly, "Jonah Lehrer Resigns From The New Yorker After Fabricated Quotes Found In His Book"


    "Celebrated science writer Jonah Lehrer has resigned his staff writing position at The New Yorker after quotes in his latest book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” were found to be fabricated.

    The quotes in question were raised by Michael C. Moynihan in an article for Tablet Magazine titled “Jonah Lehrer’s Deceptions.” In the first chapter of “Imagine,” Lehrer quotes Bob Dylan on the creative process: “It’s a hard thing to describe. It’s just this sense that you got something to say.” Moynihan writes that there is no evidence that the Dylan quote exists. When Moynihan approached Lehrer about it, the author told him the quotes came from an archival interview. Three weeks later, still unable to confirm the quotes, Moynihan followed up with Lehrer at which point the author responded, “I couldn’t find the original sources. I panicked. And I’m deeply sorry for lying.” "

    End quote.

  9. Hi Arun,

    Thanks for the link. This is a sad story. It is good though to see that in the end reality won. I mean, the world is meanwhile so full of fabricated quotes, the publisher might just have shrugged it off and wiggled out. It speaks for them they're taking it seriously. Also sends a message to other aspiring science writers to check and reference sources. Best,



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