21 April 2012


Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer (Canongate)

How did Bob Dylan write “Like a Rolling Stone”? The pop-science writer Jonah Lehrer wasn’t there, but he pretends to know anyway. Inspired by Dylan’s own description of “vomiting” forth the song’s lyrics, Lehrer peers inside the singer’s 1965 skull and announces confidently that the “right hemisphere” of Dylan’s brain was combining “scraps” or “fragments” of existing songs and poetry in a “mental blender”, before spitting out a set of “lyrics that make little literal sense”.

Strange, because “How does it feel / To be without a home” and so forth makes a fair amount of literal sense to me. The amazing presumption of Lehrer’s description, the shattering banality of its explanation, and its mystifying stupidity (“little literal sense”!): all are entirely characteristic of a phenomenon in popular literature that is best branded “neuroscientism”. (The term has been employed by the philosopher Colin McGinn and the critical neuroscientist Raymond Tallis, among others.) Scientism is the confidence that science can explain all aspects of human life; neuroscientism is the more specific promise that brain-scans (using the limited current technologies of fMRI and EEG) can explain the workings of the mind.

Lehrer’s neuroscientistic method consists of paraphrasing brain-imaging studies, grossly inflating what can be properly inferred from them, and so purporting to explain “creativity” or “imagination”. He doesn’t bother to distinguish between the two — presumably Coleridge, for example, can have had nothing interesting to say on the matter because the rhyming fool didn’t use an fMRI machine — but he does, as any good neuroscientistic believer should, regularly insult the preceding centuries of thought on his topic, dismissing it all blithely as “completely wrong”. Lehrer has a rage, indeed, to insist on the novelty of his extrapolations from the research, which usually means misrepresenting conventional wisdom. “It’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to relentlessly focus,” he writes condescendingly, but people have always known that going for a walk or sleeping on it — or, like Archimedes, taking a bath — can help. Nor did we need to wait for colourful neuro-pictures to learn that people sometimes have good ideas during daydreams, or on holiday.

The inconvenient truth is that observing which areas of the brain light up on a screen during experiments tells us very little about “how creativity works”. The “right hemisphere” is here suggested to be more verbally free-associative (handling “connotation”), as opposed to the pedantically literal left hemisphere (handling “denotation”). Lehrer doesn’t realise, bizarrely, that Bob Dylan could not have written “Like a Rolling Stone” without attending to the literal meanings of words — which means, on this crude scheme, that his left hemisphere, as well as his right, must have been hard at work. So the anatomical locus of creativity is not narrowed down after all. Throughout, the author reverently intones the sonorous jargon names for many different brain structures that, he says, are all important for creativity (even as he occasionally mumbles a confession that their “precise function” is unknown): not just the right hemisphere but also the “anterior superior temporal gyrus”, the “medial prefrontal cortex”, the “dorsolateral prefrontal cortex”, the “neural highway” of the dopamine system, and even “the primitive midbrain”. But this expansive catalogue of crucial parts merely invites us to conclude, by the end, that pretty much all of the brain has to be involved in any complex creative work. Which effectively leaves us back where we started.

Imagine also peddles a strain of peculiarly unhelpful self-help. Want to be more creative? Well, just “listen to” your prefrontal cortex, or direct your “attention” to your right hemisphere. (Can you concentrate on different parts of your own brain? Nice trick if so.) Sometimes it helps to take a warm shower or sit in a room with blue walls; at other times you should gulp coffee or scarf Benzedrine pills like Auden. You’ll be more creative when you’re happy, except when you ought to be sad. Lehrer explains these apparent inconsistencies by invoking different parts of the “creative process”. (Mere inspiration is not enough, he announces dramatically; you then need to edit. No benighted scrivener ever appreciated this fact before the revelatory era of neuroscience.) At another point, he offers a “parable” about how knowing less about a field of endeavour can help us think more creatively about problems in it, but we can all name a million counter-examples. (Come to think of it, there’s this cat called Bob Dylan who once made a close study of the folk-music tradition…)

The larger problem for the book as a how-to guide, though, is the sheer variety of activities that Lehrer has conflated without argument as representing “creativity” or “imagination”. The composition of a song or poem is just assumed to be the same sort of thing as the solving of a hoary riddle or word-puzzle by experimental volunteers in a magnetic-resonance-imaging tube, or the dreaming-up of new moves in surfing, or the copying of a German porn doll to market it as Barbie, or the invention of a new kind of mop.

What, you might ask, do mops and Barbies have to do with all this? Well, this is the kind of book that also tells inspirational business stories — for no good intellectual reason, though it might well have the happy side-effect of drumming up lucrative corporate-speaking gigs for the author. (This is a general, book-deforming plague in modern high-concept nonfiction.) Imagine’s very first sentence, trembling with executive drama, is “Procter and Gamble had a problem: it needed a new floor cleaner.” (OMG, tell me more already!) So Lehrer visits 3M (repeating the oft-told story about the invention of the Post-It note), the advertising guy who penned the slogan “Just do it” for Nike (his advice: hire “weird fucks”), and the film studio Pixar, where Steve Jobs ingeniously decreed that all the toilets be put in the central atrium so people would bump into one another. This, we are assured, improves employee “performance”, in the sense of “generating new ideas” for profit.

That last phrase might be a bit of a slip, though, since Lehrer doesn’t really believe in “new ideas”: he has bought into the philistine notion, much propagated by today’s anti-copyright fanatics among others, that all artistic creation is nothing but (and thus reducible to) a mashing-up or remixing of existing artworks, so that Bob Dylan writing a song is no different from a child on YouTube playing two grimecore tracks simultaneously. Near the end of the book, Lehrer attempts to demystify Shakespeare in this way, leaning heavily on Stephen Greenblatt and T S Eliot to rehearse the familiar point that the flowering of Shakespeare’s art was dependent on the environment of Elizabethan London. (The latest science tells us, believe it or not, that it’s pleasant for artistic types to live in Greenwich Village.) He emphasizes as best he can Shakespeare the mashup artist, nicker of stuff from Marlowe, Holinshed et al: “For Shakespeare,” Lehrer affects to know, “the act of creation was inseparable from the act of connection.” Every author should own a time-travelling telepathy machine.

Reaching a self-adoring climax, Lehrer writes: “For the first time in human history, it’s possible to learn how the imagination actually works. Instead of relying on myth and superstition, we can think about dopamine and dissent, the right hemisphere and social networks.” We can indeed think about such things, but an explanation of “how the imagination actually works” does not magically fall out of them, and hasn’t done so here. And the example of Shakespeare — who even Lehrer isn’t going to claim was just a kind of walking photocopier — reveals his awkward central ambivalence on the question of innate talent. Lehrer makes sceptical noises — “We tend to assume that some people are simply more creative than others,” he sniffs — because he wants to sell the “uplifting moral” that we all have “a vast reservoir of untapped creativity”. We probably do, but that still doesn’t mean we can all be Bob Dylan. And even this book concludes that Shakespeare’s “genius remains unsurpassed”, a judgment that nothing in its neuroscientistic fairy-tale begins to explain. Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is — do you, Mr Lehrer?

  • You certainly put it strongly, but it’s nice to come across a negative review of this book! So many reviews I’ve seen have all been fawning over its supposed insight – no doubt by all those who wishfully believe that sitting in a blue room will help them break into Hollywood with their first vampire novel. Perhaps Lehrer’s other books were deserving of the reputation he has now garnered, but I find this one to be a glorified self-help book of little help at all.

  • Thanks Callum. Of note, too, is this review of Lehrer’s book, much more polite than mine but with a similar burden of criticism. Of particular interest is the way Lehrer responds, in comments, to the charge of over-extrapolation from single studies, or “representing speculation as fact”:

    I’m pretty sure nearly every popular book on the brain (written by both journalists and scientists) would fail the standards you preach above. I honestly can’t cite a popular brain book that either 1) doesn’t cite fMRI localization studies at face value at some point or 2) engage in speculative links between neural mechanisms and complex mental phenomena.

    I’m pretty sure that “but everyone else does it too!” is not really a good excuse; and in any case there are some authors who are intellectually respectable enough to point out explicitly when they are indulging in “speculative links”, rather than pretending everything is now settled by science — eg, Patricia Churchland, whose recent Brain Trust I thought brilliant.

  • Caroline52

    What a terrific, insightful, satisfyingly accurate review of Imagine. Thank you Steven Poole. I’m late here, but I just came across it because people are citing it now in their comments on Lehrer’s comedown. I have always found Lehrer’s work, from page one of “Proust,” to be shallow and fatuous. It got worse when the New Yorker started implicitly endorsing his ideas. There was the idiotic “decline effect” article, the WTF article on how brainstorming has somehow now been scientifically proven to be useless, and on and on.  As you point out, his extrapolations from scientific studies have always been not only unjustified but also vapid and pointless.  Ironically, in Imagine his made-up Dylan quotes — his “extrapolations” from what Dylan actually said — had the same characteristics as his science observations. They were not only unjustified (since the quotes were made up), but also vapid and pointless (since his made-up quotes didn’t even add anything to his argument.

    The only thing in your review I’d take issue with is your endorsement of the idea that there is a school of thought that can fairly be labelled “scientism” — your assertion that there is anyone who thinks science can (currently, you imply) explain everything about human nature. That’s a straw man. What scientists actually believe is that there are no aspects of human nature that are *in principle* unexplainable by science, including subjective phenomena such as love. That doesn’t mean that *in practice* science will ever be able to explain everything about human nature.  A lot of people want to believe that science can’t in principle explain human nature because they think that would somehow diminish human dignity or take the fun out of human experience. That’s a false worry. This doesn’t diminish the human experience anymore than understanding the molecular structure of chocolate diminishes its deliciousness. Read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate for a more detailed understanding of the fears behind those who cry “scientism!”

  • “Scientism” is, unfortunately, not a straw man, as readers of Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, or Richard Dawkins know to their cost. (I’ve read The Blank Slate.) Thanks for your kind comments on the review!

  • This might appeal: a note on scientism from Huston Smith.

  • Caroline52

    I agree with you that scientism exists as you *implicitly* define it when you apply it to Lehrer’s work —  that is, the practice of “grossly overinflating what can properly be inferred from [exisiting scientific research] and therefore purporting to explain” aspects of human nature that the practice of  research can’t yet explain.  Yes, some scientists and science writers are guilty of doing this, including Lehrer, and I would argue, Jonathan Haidt. (Only someone who hasn’t understood what they read in Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins’s books, however, would think they are guilty of doing this.) My comment wasn’t about that. It was about the OTHER, explicit definition of scientism you gave, at the outset, which was quite different: “Scientism is the confidence that science can explain all aspects of human life.” By this definition, scientism is, in fact, either a straw man or an empty pejorative.  If scientism is the confidence that science can *now, today* explain human nature, then it’s a straw man, because no scientists, including the three you named in your response to my post, believe that. If, on the other hand, scientism is the confidence that science can *in principle, potentially, someday* explain all aspects of human life — then scientism is nothing more than a reasonable trust, based on experience, in the scientific method, broadly defined. The vast majority of scientists have this kind of confidence, not just the three you name.  Calling this “scientism” is just an empty pejorative.  Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins don’t engage in the “overinflating” of what scientists can currrently explain that you rightly attribute to Lehrer and Haidt.  Harris and Dawkins try to explain to the general public how scientific reasoning works, and how much it is capable of explaining–which is a lot more than lay people generally realize. If you want to accuse them of exaggerating what science can currently explain,  you should give at least one example to support your claim. Your sly dig is just ad hominem. As for your retort that you’ve read Pinker’s The Blank Slate (only one of many books one could read, of course, to learn how much the scientific method can *in principle* explain about human nature), you presumably know what you think it claims, and instinctively dislike that, and perhaps you’ve skimmed it. but, forgive me, it’s pretty clear from your response to my post that you haven’t actually read it. You missed the point of my argument, assumed your conclusion (scientism “isn’t a straw man”), engaged in circular reasoning (since some readers think these three people are guilty of scientism, therefore scientism exists), and ended with the bare retort, “I’ve read” it (pretty clearly conveying that you’d felt patronized and only wanted to put me in my place), rather than mentioning something you’d learned from the book, or how you’d disagreed with it. How disappointing, after you wrote such a terrific reviiew.

  • Nice; thanks!

  • Caroline52 — Er, no, it’s not ad hominem.

  • Caroline52

    The fact that your entire response to mine it to point out a typo confirms my suspicion that you are simply feeling patronized and needing to find a way put me down in turn. Ths is mirror-boxing. I’m a girl. I’m no threat to your status. You are playing that game all by yourself. No one cares. Why not get curious about what you don’t know, instead?

  • Caroline52

    or if not a typo, whatever irrelevant error of mine it was you were elliptically trying to point out.

  • Caroline52 — your comments, on the other hand, are increasingly ad hominem. I’m not really sure why you’re trying to start a fight, but thanks for your input! My more detailed critique of Harris and Haidt will be published in the future.

  • free reid

    an afterword is due? recap of the lehrer disaster… plagiarism, article recycling… fall from “grace” at mcmillan and new yorker?

  • Davidom

    Hi Steven,

    As I am sure you know, lots of the absurd claims about what neuroscience can tell us about ourselves are eloquently demolished in Raymond Tallis’s Aping ManKind: Neuromania, Darwinitis, and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. 

    It is worth pointing out, however, that in his laudable, detailed efforts to expose the shoddy thinking that is a feature of both popular representations of neuroscience and some of the arguments made by professional neuroscientists, Tallis himself is guilty of over-simplifying the arguments of, among others, Daniel Dennet. Still, his book is a really excellent effort to combat unreflective neurobabble.