Book Review: Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

I made a promise to readers a while back that I would undertake a review of the new book Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. I wrote at that time that the title seemed destined for big sales and book club attention. These were perhaps safe bets as the book debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List for Non-fiction, but its momentum has been sustained since. Of course writing a review carries the requirement of reading the book, and I was finally able to do so in parts over the past week.

Many other reviews I have read have been sparkling. However, I have to admit that I was not entirely satisfied with this effort. I was left with a feeling that the book only scratched the surface of its potential and that much more could have been done in two areas; first the actual science behind the electric impulses that make the brain go was given short shrift. Secondly, I believe that more could have been done with practical ideas and concepts to help stimulate the creative process. Additionally, there is a mixing of causation and correlation which seems to be too easy a trap of someone of Lehrer's clear intellect to fall prey to, but which exists nonetheless.

On the first point, this is of course just a problem facing any writer who brings intellectual concepts to the masses. Lehrer probably did well to steer clear of neuroscience in all its glory. If he hadn't, his time on the Bestseller lists would have been short indeed. And, of course, for those who are interested in such things, there are books available which are far more inclusive, albeit less convenient for the beach, a flight, or the poolside, all likely habitats in which the book hunter will find Imagine.

Though my first critique more or less describes one of the limitations of those who write popular books, my second is perhaps more valid because of Lehrer's intent to do so. It seems likely that Lehrer's target audience of the average, literate masses would be keen on gaining some insights into how to unleash the incredible power of the mind. While Lehrer walks readers through the potential powers of cocaine, benzedrine and marijuana, I find it doubtful that anyone not already utilizing such substances will do so to help them write poetry or do math problems. It is also unclear what of practical everyday use should be taken from stories of those who have suffered brain trauma or disease and therefore use unaffected parts of their brains more effectively. In short, this book is no self-help guide on ramping up the creative process, and those who expect it to be will be left feeling a little disappointed.

I would say that even this criticism is targeted toward the first part of Imagine which deals with individual creativity. The second part, which covers group creativity, includes more insights which could be given practical application. Without ruining the book, offices should put their restrooms in a central location, and creative people should live in proximity to other creative people. Those with networking skills outside normal comfort zones also seem to do well (a good friend of mine living in California currently provides me with good first hand evidence of this).

In addition, after discussing the book with a friend of the site who works in early-childcare, it struck me that some of the insights from the book might actually be quite beneficial in her line of work; I suspect that practicioners of the methods of Maria Montesorri will find themselves nodding in agreement throughout various sections of Imagine. Based on this bit of evidence, it is entirely possible that, as some of the examples were inapplicable to me, that I merely missed their power.

My final critique, that of the mixing of correlation and causation, seems most apparent in sections on the rise of Silicon Valley, but can be found at other points throughout as well. It strikes me that the appearance of this issue might be linked to Lehrer's strict adherence to the formula of concept, example, example, wrap-up more than anything else. This form, though convenient for the reader and the writer who wants to stimulate him alike of course leaves the latter open to criticism from those who would suggest that some examples are inappropriate or ill-conceived.

This use of examples to prove a point also seems to be an issue in other books of this ilk (which I define loosely as those bringing the concepts of academia to the masses) including Freakonomics. However, this book wasn't written for scientists anymore than Freakonomics was written for economists, and this causation/correlation issue will probably not greatly deter from the reading experience for the intended audience. This observation can of course apply to my other criticisms (the fact that it is science-light, and the lack of actual takeaways) I have levelled against the book as well; indeed it seems that most of my criticism can be deflected merely by the idea that, by playing in this genre, Lehrer had to cut a few corners. I believe that this would be a fair assessment.

While I provide a few select criticisms here, I by no means think that the book is entirely useless, as at least one critic seems to. Despite its limitations, it is a fun read and should, as I indicated in my post linked to above, serve as good material for the beach and interesting fodder for dinner parties, as long as you are not in the habit of dining with neuroscientists. Lehrer is a very talented writer and has a knack for storytelling. In any case, I am sure that in the (very) unlikely event that he reads this, he will be able to console himself with all of the more flowery recommendations and, of course, sales. On balance, and despite my light criticism, I would say he deserves both.

1 comment:

  1. According to the New York Times 07/30/12 Mr. Lehrer made up quotes in this book attributed to Bob Dylan and as such had to resign from his position at the New Yorker. God only knows what else in this book he made up.