Jonah Lehrer on How Creativity Works

Thursday, March 22, 2012

idea, light bulb (Cayusa/flickr)

Jonah Lehrer, contributing editor at Wired and frequent contributor to The New Yorker and Radiolab, talks about his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Comments [30]

Barbara from Brooklyn

I noticed Tom's comment about the power of silence, above. In the creative process, I've learned there is great power in relaxation and quiet after a period of exertion. --There is a dance between these two states, --and on that boundary, often new connections or "answers" appear for those giving birth to new creations. I do believe that scientists and many others share with artists thematic similarities as they pursue their own work. I'm an artists and often help other artists in career transition. I created an audio presentation: "Resistance in the Creative Process" that integrates much of what I've learned. I enjoy sharing this program with others, and would love to hear your thoughts on the creative process if you'd care to email me through my site. The audio is accessed by entering your email. My list is never inundated with sends, and you'll be free to cancel any time.

May. 18 2012 12:03 PM
Ronald Kaprov from Bronx, NY

Jonah Lehrer has some very inciteful comments about the creative process. I'd like to comment on his recent article in the New Yorker (January 30), Groupthink. I've written a doctoral dissertation at Teachers College on Creative Problem Solving and have taught secondary school students to use this method to expand their thinking abilities. I also have a master's degree in Engineering Science from Dartmouth College.

Lehrer claims that brainstorming is not effective because it doesn't encourage diverse opinions, because it discourages 'criticism and negative feedback'. However he doesn't point out that brainstorming is not to sole process in producing creative ideas. In fact the Alex Osborne is actually a 6 step process consisting of successive divergent (brainstorming)/convergent steps ( ). The brainstorming is enriched by 'piggybacking' where by each team member listens and makes connections to a given idea to expand the quantity and quality of the outputs. Lehrer's major complaint about brainstorming is that it makes people 'scared of saying the wrong thing, and they'll say nothing at all." But if he studied the field more, he'd realize that there are ways in which diverse opinions are sought for. Two I'd mention is Edward deBono's technique called Six Thinking Hats (; or by having a facilitator leading a problem solving group to enhance creative output production ( ).

Mar. 22 2012 01:49 PM

Antonia: a good publicist and WNYC's sense of loyalty to its team. It's not simply nepotism. Jonah Lehrer is good at what he's doing, as you readily admit.

Also, the other interview was on an national program (All Things Considered) on NPR closer to afternoon drive-time.

WNYC airs that program.

Mar. 22 2012 12:36 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I think part of the problem w/what Jonah Lehrer said about "brainstorming" is that many people think of that word in a generic sense, but he seemed to be using the branded version, which does have the free exchange of ideas boxed in w/"no criticism" & other rules. I think I'd heard of this brand-name Brainstorming(TM?), but I'd forgotten about it, & when Mr. Lehrer said it didn't work, it sounded to me as if he meant the generic kind, so it seemed like an overly broad dismissal.

Mar. 22 2012 11:50 AM
Norma Lee from New York City

With all respect, Jonah gfave us a very scientific discourse,and not one very creative.
As a creative writer,Clio award winner's my input.

My creativity began with 2 wonderful pareNts, who rarely criticized me and provided me with a confidence to nat need to fit in.


Mar. 22 2012 11:38 AM
art525 from Park Slope

Antonia- Incestuous.... or simply interesting?

Mar. 22 2012 11:35 AM
Chuck Cadle from Cherry Hill, NJ

Wow, it is so nice to hear someone espouce the benefits of creativity and critical thinking. Destination ImagiNation teaches the creative process to enable kids to gain the skills that Mr. Jonah Lehrer mentioned on your show and in his new book, Imagine. This year 125,000 students from 48 U.S. States and 26 countries participated in our creativity program.

Thank you for hosting such a great topic!

Mar. 22 2012 11:30 AM
Amy from Manhattan

What if a person imagined being high or drunk instead of actually taking the drugs or drinking? Brain studies have shown that remembering or imagining experiences can induce the same brain activity in the same brain areas as having those experiences.

Mar. 22 2012 11:28 AM
dan k from chelsea

i've long believed that if neuroscientists could locate, using MRI's, exactly what part of the brain is stimulated during "moments of epiphany", and then we can artificially stimulate that area, we could make revolutionary progress on many fronts. no?

Mar. 22 2012 11:26 AM
Steve from queens NY

I totally agree with Jonah about brain storming, I worked as an IT engineer at a financial institution and we would b storm to try and solve issues but we were not allowed to criticize; but if you can’t criticize a person’s ideas then it’s all out the window. You need to be able to criticize and take criticisms when you try to create or solve problems. So I would say brain storming with criticisms works.

Mar. 22 2012 11:26 AM
art525 from Park Slope

I was an art director for a big ad agency for 15 years. I found that when given an assignment I would take in all the concerns my client wanted to address and then go away and forget about it. I wouldn't think about and then the next morning I would sit down at my desk and something would just pop in to my head. Sometimes I would just start to doodle. Something usually not very linnear would appear. And more often than not that would lead to a successful solution. One idea came to me on the subway at 10:30 at night when I had just left work. I hadn't given any thought to this new assignment and I was zoned out on the train and a visual popped into my head. I drew it on an envelope. It became an international campaign. The client loved the story about the drawing on the envelop wehich I gave him and he framed it and put it on the wall of their distillery's museum.

Mar. 22 2012 11:24 AM

The ineffectiveness of brainstorming is exactly why "peer learning" or collaborative learning--an educational technique zealously espoused by lazy highschool and college professors--does not work in practice.

People grouped together under the pressure of the classroom rarely feel comfortable critiquing one another's opinions. Those who do are usually the ones who do the most talking, anyway.

Mar. 22 2012 11:24 AM
Alex from white plains NY

I'm a musician and they are tons of stories how musicians funnel they're creativity in wacky ways. Bob dylan wrote everything in a type writer, Billy Corgan didn't listen to any music while recording Siamese Dream. ect. But what that is helpful is going times of extreme boredom. math 101 is when the best ideas come.

Mar. 22 2012 11:23 AM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

I'm a bit confused; the type of creativity your guest is talking about seems to largely be problem-solving. Doing creative-artistic work - to me - doesn't really work the same as creative problem solving. It's inspiration or a proclivity to explore a particular thing or idea at the outset, then extreme focus that requires repeated work. Did Lehrer interview fine artists to see how this kind of creativity differs from creative problem solving?

Mar. 22 2012 11:22 AM
Antonia from Brooklyn

No offense to Jonah Lehrer and his work, which is incredibly engaging and interesting but how does his book get a segment on two different WNYC shows in the same week? And he's a frequent commentator on Radiolab. It all seems very incestuous. With all the books being published in the United States,in the world really, why keep presenting this one?

Mar. 22 2012 11:21 AM
Paul M from Brooklyn

Brainstorming is a lot more than suspending judgement and going for quantity. And free association is only one level of brainstorming, the level that people have to go through to get to the good ideas. Brainstorming is a six step process with areas dedicated to "criticizing." I agree there are lots of ways to be creative, but dismissing brainstorming on the basis of really shallow arguments that misrepresent it is a little flimsy. Has the author actually been in a formal brainstorming session? Or just sat around with colleagues and tossed around ideas? Those are not the same thing.

Mar. 22 2012 11:21 AM
Andrew from BKNY

Does your guest have an opinion about all people being creative? Do we simply have different creative styles?

Mar. 22 2012 11:20 AM
Jay from New York

The density and interchange of the city is wonderful.
But isn't the COST of existence in New York a critical issue?

Satellite locations seem to be where individual creativity takes place, Bushwick, Williamsburg, Danbury, Hudson?
The geographic location of stimulus vs. actual creative realization is changing.

Mar. 22 2012 11:20 AM
ethan from manhattan

great show, as always. i think your guest's perspective is very interesting and obviously supported through thorough research (which is great), but i think it's important to draw a distinction between different types of creativity. mr. lehrer seems to be treating creativity as it pertains to particle physics as interchangeable with creativity as it pertains to design, visual art, or music. i don't believe that these are necessarily even related. can he speak to that a bit?

Mar. 22 2012 11:19 AM
db from nyc

What you are stating (interaction in Pixar's interiors or brainstorming) is based on anecdotal reporting or scientific studies? If the latter, what are the major tests done on creativity?

Mar. 22 2012 11:18 AM

Wow, great program and it's only 2 minutes in.

Some of the best and most insightful thoughts I've had lately are from reading briefs from two websites: and

On both, the page provides summaries of academic papers and journalistic pieces which pick away at how the mind works and commonly held beliefs. The neurological and sociological insights provided are typically based on research at Universities. Thus, their research is beyond the skill set of me and most people.

But, based upon those summaries and the underlying reports, each individual insight is small. But, they spark my creative side by provide useful pivot points for creative work and any complex thinking I'm doing.

So, the creativity is internal, but it doesn't exist in a vacuum. Some resources provide good fodder to bounce ideas off of... or the ideas come to me and bounce off as more creative afterwards.

Mar. 22 2012 11:17 AM
Jesse from NYC

I'm very intrigued by Jonah's writing on Marijuana and Divergent Thinking. I'm in a creative field and I've had success combining the two. Is there a way to learn to tap into the same type of benefit without using cannabis I wonder?

Mar. 22 2012 11:17 AM

I find that good ideas come to me just as I'm about to doze off, when I awake and lie still for a while, when I take a morning walk, and most often in the shower. During times when I'm experiencing writer's block I may take several showers.

Mar. 22 2012 11:16 AM
Brogan from Brooklyn

What about creativity in schools. In my mind creativity is incredibly important in all walks of life regardless of whether you are a scientist, a Doctor or an artist. Schools are not nurturing this enough. In fact currently they spend a large percentage of time studying multiple choice question sheets in order to prepare for tests! Answering 'within the four corners of the text' - not thinking outside the box. Schools are in trouble in terms of keeping children creative, they are effectively shutting this natural nature down.

Mar. 22 2012 11:16 AM
Tom from UWS

I agree that "Don't criticize" is definitely a losing gambit. But it's important to remember that criticism is not in itself to be allowed to shoot down an idea - it should spur a lively and creative defense. And the criticism must make a case for itself, as well. "That's a stupid idea" will not suffice!

One of the most important creative factors for me is TURNING OFF THE OUTSIDE STIMULI. Those outside forces have already contributed to the process, but must be silenced for a time of brainwork. Shakespeare wouldn't have written Hamlet with the radio on in the background. ;)

Mar. 22 2012 11:16 AM
JR from nyc


What does Jonah say about playing with sleep patterns to disrupt sleep to catch dreams.
R.L. Stevenson's in an essay played with this idea in a way...

Mar. 22 2012 11:16 AM

I'm a student at an ivy league university, and they still assign papers on the theory of groupthink, which is typically a negative thing because it's assumed that people will be less willing to talk about personal ideas in a group.

Does this new research contradict previous research? Or is it a different thing completely?

Mar. 22 2012 11:15 AM
Emmett Mehan

Jonah: Can you speak about the relationship between ineffective brainstorming and crowdsourcing, specifically it's application to the social sector which is so often trying to solve problems that don't have a binary yes or no solution. Does this constitute defacto brainstorming?

Mar. 22 2012 11:13 AM
Peter from Brooklyn

Does he mean criticism and critiquing? I would definitely not feel confident sharing my ideas if they were being criticized.

Mar. 22 2012 11:13 AM
John A.

I think Jonah is missing it royally on the brainstorming thing. But it may be a generational thing. When workers were more company focused and less self focused, a brainstorm session was a nice 'day out for the sheep'. Today self expression happens everywhere and nowhere.

Mar. 22 2012 11:12 AM

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