How do breakthroughs happen? What causes creative sparks and moments of insight? In Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer explores these questions through a combination of stories of artistic genius and companies that are renowned for their innovation, as well as current research in the field of neuroscience. Lehrer is extremely adept at taking science and making it understandable, and more importantly, compelling.
As Lehrer points out, the term creativity encompasses a “variety of distinct thought processes.” Even with new insight from research and inspiring anecdotes, exactly how it happens is difficult to explain. There is no clear cut formula to making it happen. Creativity by its nature is messy and eludes explanation, but I appreciate Lehrer’s attempt at making sense out of this often mystically viewed process.
Any artistic endeavor or project always involves a phase of intense work. You must have the skills and the experience and the knowledge to do something well, but at some point letting go of technique and letting the river take you where it leads you is vital to creativity. In one of the chapters Lehrer highlights Yo-Yo Ma who is probably one of the best known musicians in the world. Although he was a prodigy, his craft still required many years of practice. But what the author points out is that Mr. Ma’s ability to lose himself in the music in order to tell the story, accomplishing precision (but with no thought to it) is what makes him a musical genius.
We often make the mistake of thinking that creativity requires intense focus. There is a time in the process where that is important, but the breakthrough or spark usually happens when we are not focused. Creativity requires freedom and fluidity. Some recent studies have even shown that we are more creative when we are sleepy or intoxicated. In these moments, our thoughts are less structured, we are open to ideas we may not be normally, and the lines between our conscious and unconscious thoughts are a little more blurred. I don’t think the research is advocating getting intoxicated or depriving yourself of sleep in order to be more creative, but finding ways to let go and let your mind wander can be vital to the process. A relaxed mind is much more conducive to creativity. On the campus of 3M, employees can regularly be found walking the grounds or playing games to facilitate problem solving and creative insight.
Lehrer also refers a lot to conceptual blending. A common factor many of the stories and anecdotes have is that information from other areas that seem random can often solve a problem in the area in which you are working. Having tunnel vision can prevent you from seeing solutions. New ideas and creativity do not happen in a vacuum. We are always building off of previous discoveries, research and concepts. Seeing things in a completely different way is where the spark comes in.