180px-Imagine_-_How_Creativity_Works_(Jonah_Lehrer_book)Where does our creativity come from? We know its somewhere inside our brain but how do we access it? Wouldn’t it be great if we could just turn on a switch and be creative? Sort of a creativity on command?

I love the song “Imagine,” by the late John Lennon, as I, well, imagine, many people do. Imagination is a critical component of problem solving. Its at the root of it in fact. If the problem did not require imagination to solve, it would have already been solved. But whether its a fancy marketing campaign that goes viral and catches the attention of millions, or writing a great song or book, or solving a delicate relationship, business or even world political problem, we need our imagination – and the more we know about how imagination works, and how to activate it, or at least pay attention when its activated, the better our problem solving skills become.

Author Johan Lehrer, previously covered in this series for his book, How We Decide, delves into the mystical world of our imagination, in Imagine: How Creativity Works. 

“You know an idea has promise when it seems obvious in retrospect,” says Lehrer (xiv).

It really is interesting when you think about it. The human imagination has no known precursor. Monkeys may be able to fly into low Earth orbit but they don’t build rockets and they can’t paint great works of art. Chimpanzees don’t write poems and most animals can only exhibit rudimentary signs of problem-solving (Lehrer xvi). With brain imaging scanners we now know that creativity and imagination is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes (Lehrer xvii). In fact, you may prefer not to know this but it turns out all of the frustration and disappointment and restarted projects are actually important parts of the creative process.

I will revisit my favorite author, Nelson DeMille. I typically listen to his books on audio tape while I ride my bike or, for some reason, while I walk down Park Avenue in New York. At the end of one of his books he talked with Scott Brick who does the narration for DeMille’s John Corey series. He was discussing Corey’s well-known rapid fire and sarcastic wit. DeMille said that the dialogue Corey says, that seems to just roll out of his mouth effortlessly in the book, could have actually taken DeMille 15 minutes or longer for him to come up with while he was writing the book.

Did you know that Bob Dylan did some of his greatest work, including Like a Rolling Stone, after he had decided to give up on the music business? (Lehrer 22) However, it was his own release from the stress of having to write and perform that allowed his mind to get out of the way of his imagination. Even Bruce Springsteen talks about how some of the best songs come at the moments you least expect it.

“These are the songs that you wait for,” Springsteen said in a VH1 Storytellers special when talking about The Rising“And so you pray to the gods of creativity and aliveness that you remain awake and alert and in command of your senses, so that when the moments arrive, you are ready.”

  • Every creative journey begins with a problem. It typically starts with a feeling of frustration, we have worked hard and have hit the wall and have no idea what to do next (Lehrer 6). 
  • The act of being stumped it an essential part of the process (Lehrer 6). I remember from Tony Robbins seminars that whenever anybody in the audience said they were confused he would have the crowd applaud wildly, explaining that when you’re confused you’re on the verge of a break-through. It turns out there is some science to back up this claim.
  • Often only at the point after we stop searching for the answer, the answer arrives. And disappointingly, it may not all come in one gigantic epiphany. It may come in small puzzle pieces, one at a time, that still needs to be put together. I guess if it was easy everybody would have done it. But as it comes together the solution becomes so clear we are actually upset with ourselves for not thinking about it sooner.
  • It seems the “insight experience,” has three distinct stages. The first stage is the impasse, before there can be a breakthrough there has to be a block. This hopelessness eventually gives way to the second stage, the revelation. Then comes a feeling of certainty that accompanies the new idea, the so-called eureka moment (Lehrer 7).

We are often stuck and then we are not and we have no idea what happened to create a breakthrough (Lehrer 8). Why is the answer there when we least expect it, rather than when we are thinking so hard about it? (Lehrer 8) It turns out the world is so complex our brain processes it in two different ways at the same time; it needs to see the forest AND the trees (Lehrer 9). So for all of you Mr. Spock lover left-brainers here’s the bad news, you need that emotional side of your brain. And for all of you Captain Kirk emotional, act-first-and-think-later right-brainers, turns out you need a little Mr. Spock in your life to keep you in balance and to keep making those creative breakthroughs.

Lehrer, Jonah. Imagine: How Creativity Works. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

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