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The Mechanics of Genius

by Jeff Nania on June 13, 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works
by Jonah Lehrer
HMH Books, 279 pages, $26

Genius is something that can be cultivated. Creativity is not the bastion of the select few. Alpha waves allow creative insights. The prefrontal cortex is what allows us to follow our creative pursuits through to their logical conclusions.

These are just a few of the nuggets of wisdom that author Jonah Lehrer slips into his newest book, Imagine. He talks about the concept of information spillover, and the inverse relationships between sizes of cities and sizes of companies. As the size of a city increases, so does the creativity of each individual. As the size of a company increases just the inverse is true—creativity suffers and the focus moves to efficiency.

Did you know that sometimes the best person for the job is not a certified, bona fide specialist, but actually an outsider? Take the company 3M for instance. The company’s key to success has been its practice of mixing people from different fields within the company to come up with innovative uses for their creations. For instance, when one person created what he thought was a failed product—a weak glue that couldn’t bond two pieces of paper—he left his creation on the cutting room floor. Another employee had grown tired losing his bookmarks out of his hymnal in church. He remembered the “failed” product of the other employee, and with a few tweaks, the post-it note was born.

This idea of setting the truly vexing problems to a public that may not be specialists is the idea behind Innocentive.com. Lehrer talks about the unexpected successes that companies have found when they post their most puzzling problems online and offer cash prizes to anyone who can solve them. Often the answers come from people on the fringe: people that have enough knowledge to have a basic understanding of the problems but are not held back by an overabundance of preconceptions that get in the way when trying to unravel problems that bend or abandon “the rules.” This same concept can be used in our daily lives to increase our perceived creativity. Think about things you enjoy doing but are not necessarily an expert at. Without taking things too seriously, you may be able to “crack the code” of everyday life.

Depending on what kind of creative problem you are facing, you may want to chug a tall coffee, or you may be better off just going for a long walk. Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation when you find that you can’t dredge up a detail even though you know you know it? This is the kind of problem you can typically solve with a little bit of caffeine, a problem when you can feel yourself getting close to the answer. But what about those creative problems when you don’t feel yourself closing in on the answer? These types of problems require an “aha!” moment. These are the problems that rely on alpha waves and daydreams. Lehrer takes us through a surprising find that a small area on the right hemisphere of the brain is actually responsible for these moments. In fact, this area, called the “anterior superior temporal gyrus,” actually lights up in brain scans right before people are struck with an epiphany, but it remains inactive when people figure things out through analysis. This phenomenon was studied through the use of puzzles that required the use of insight and could not be solved by linear logical thinking.

Cultural differences can also be sources of creative insights. Lehrer points out that the incredible success of the Barbie doll was essentially an innocent mistake due to a cultural misunderstanding. A woman had suggested that girls might enjoy playing with dolls that were not babies, but the men in power at the time thought this idea was preposterous. Come to find out, a doll like the Barbie doll already existed in Germany, but not as a children’s toy. . . . The woman saw the doll while on vacation, and because she didn’t realize the taboo, she decided that this was proof that the children’s adult-looking doll was a good idea. Ideas can sometimes shift their significance when taken across cultural boundaries.

Lehrer also takes us inside the minds of those creative musicians that have developed the skills of improvisation. Studies were conducted that allowed jazz musicians to practice their craft while their brains were scanned inside an MRI. The autobiographical center of the brain lit up as the musicians essentially told stories about their own style of playing, but the center of impulse control also was ignited, which unsurprisingly suggests that this spontaneous prose also exists within a set of parameters.

Imagine is a valuable look at various methods of creativity. We can all take something from this book and make our lives more interesting, be it through epiphanies, old-fashioned grit or spontaneity.