Last updated: April 14, 2012 12:07 am

Jonah Lehrer: The man with the big ideas

A rising star of popular science, who has opened up the laboratory to the everyday reader, takes on the question of creativity
Jonah Lehrer©Dylan Coulter

When two men meet each other for the first time, there is nothing quite so easy as talking about sports to establish a comfortable rapport. So it is perhaps unsurprising that when I meet author Jonah Lehrer on an unseasonably warm Monday in March, the conversation quickly turns to American football.

Just before we sit down in the downtown New York office of his publisher, the star quarterback Peyton Manning has signed with the Denver Broncos, spurning the San Francisco 49ers. Lehrer, however, isn’t interested in small talk. He uses the news to launch into a mini-lecture on the relationship between IQ scores and quarterback performance.

On the one hand, quarterback is “an intellectual position,” Lehrer says. “They have to memorise a thick playbook,” he says, as well as making snap judgments on the field. So quarterbacks coming into the National Football League are given something called the Wonderlic test, an abbreviated version of the standard IQ test.

 

But “the game is too quick” to rely on intellect alone, Lehrer tells me. “You’ll get sacked every time if you try to make a rational calculus on where to throw the ball.” As a result, Wonderlic test scores are not accurate predictors of good quarterbacks. Peyton Manning had a slightly above average Wonderlic, but is one of the best players of all time. Alex Smith, the 49ers quarterback, had a very high Wonderlic score, but has had a mediocre career. To make his point, Lehrer cites an article from the Journal of Productivity Analysis.

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As first impressions go, this one says a lot about Lehrer and his work. The author of three books, including the newly published Imagine: How Creativity Works , Lehrer trades in big ideas about the little things in life. Versed in science and the humanities, his writing artfully weaves together history, psychology and pop culture.

In person, Lehrer seems the embodiment of this. Skinny and energetic, he is handsome with short dark blonde hair. He wears the 21st-century intellectual’s outfit of jeans, dress shirt, tie and blazer, as well as horn-rimmed glasses. And while he seems casual and relaxed, he is clearly a young man with a serious mind.

Lehrer didn’t invent his area of work. He is of a kind with Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics authors, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Indeed, Gladwell uses the Wonderlic example in his book, What the Dog Saw. Like those authors, Lehrer is making a career of a tried and true structure: find a compelling anecdote to support counter-intuitive research from science and academia, and sum it all up with a pithy conclusion.

Yet Lehrer and his ilk are popular for a reason. They make the hard-to-decipher work of scientists comprehensible to everyday readers and, at times, they give readers a belief that they too might be capable of extraordinary achievements. Lehrer, for his part, is a welcome addition to the bunch. For as well as scouring the worlds of sport, art, business and politics for puzzles to solve, he is also looking inwards, trying to understand how our minds work.

Born in Los Angeles, Lehrer still lives there with his wife, who is studying to become a lawyer, and their one-year-old daughter. (“It’s my native landscape,” he says. “I don’t know any better.”) His mother runs a software company, and his father was a civil rights attorney.

Lehrer is smart, and he’s not shy about showing it. In an hour he quotes Einstein, Eliot and Dylan, among others. He studied neuroscience at Columbia University in New York, and worked in a lab for a year afterwards. “I wanted to be a scientist,” he says, “but then I really wasn’t good at it. I didn’t love the manual labour of it. I didn’t love the day-to-day experiments. I wasn’t a rigorous enough thinker.”

He was, however, bright enough to land a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, where he studied philosophy and literature. It was here that Lehrer began successfully to assimilate his peripatetic interests. He wrote about William James and reductionism, and Virginia Woolf’s relationship to psychology. “I never really could leave science behind,” he says. “I thought if I can’t be a scientist, maybe I can be a science writer. I can hang out with scientists. It’s a great job.”

Lehrer’s star has risen fast. At 30, he has published three bestsellers, is a contributing editor at Wired magazine, and regularly writes for the New Yorker. At a tumultuous time for the book trade, his publisher is investing resources in an author they have identified as a budding celebrity. His first book, Proust was a Neuroscientist, didn’t have a Kindle edition; now he expects sales of Imagine to be split evenly between print and ebooks. “I’ve been clearly very blessed to have great support here,” he says.

Get Lehrer talking about the book, and it’s clear he loves his material. At one moment he will be explaining how jazz pianists inhibit certain parts of their rational brains in order to improvise. Moments later, he will relate an anecdote about how Proctor & Gamble researchers came up with a new kind of mop . Throughout, he is creating bridges that connect academia and the mundane. “The funnest part for me is finding a connection between the two,” he says. “The liminal space between the lab and the real world, that’s what I’m drawn to.”

Yet as Lehrer mines academia for source material, he can be rather self-conscious about his appropriation of other people’s work. “I feel a little parasitic,” he tells me. “You talk to a scientist who’s been studying synaptic proteins for 15 years, and he’ll be a paragraph.” It’s a bit of soul-searching familiar to most journalists, but hearing it from Lehrer is refreshing somehow.

He can’t seem to decide whether what he does is creative or not. Admittedly, it would be a lofty claim when writing about Dylan or Einstein. “What we do is very different,” he says. “I put words together; they invent new beautiful things.” He refers to himself, modestly, as a “translator”.

Later, however, Lehrer tells me: “imagination, that is a fundamental trait of human nature” and “creativity is an invention of something new that people find useful”. It’s not confined to bursts of world-changing genius: “What neuroscience teaches us is that Bob Dylan writing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is using the same brain networks as me finding the right sentence.”

In part, it is this more democratic understanding of creativity that makes Imagine so appealing. Lehrer doesn’t suggest we can all be brilliant artists, but he does lay out a set of conditions – relaxation, curiosity, divergent interests and determination – that make creativity more likely. “For far too long,” he says, “we’ve seen creativity as this all-or-nothing thing: you’re either blessed like Bob Dylan or you’re not. But look at kids, and that’s not the case.”

He now has the chance to observe his own daughter’s developing mind. “It’s made me marvel at these three pounds of meat,” he says, referring to the human brain. “They come out and can’t do anything, and now she understands language.” Lehrer then indulges in some gushing about how lovely his daughter is, but stops himself abruptly. “I’m throwing out clichés like a Hallmark card,” he says.

Naturally, Lehrer does not deny the existence of the exceptionally creative types, the Picassos and Steve Jobses of the world. He acknowledges the limits of our understanding: “I’m not sure there’s any rigorous way of how we define genius, it depends on a lot of contextual things,” he says. “Genius is like porn, you know it when you see it.”

And if geniuses in the corporate world are rarities, Lehrer does have some advice for businesses. “Cities never die. Companies die all the time. So what’s the difference?” he says. “As cities get bigger, people get more productive.” Lehrer begins talking about “superlinear scaling” and cites the work of theoretical physicist Geoffrey West.

“Companies,” on the other hand, “erect walls,” Lehrer says. “They tell you who you can talk to, they inhibit our natural creativity.” So he advocates the breaking down of walls, both physical and symbolic, within the organisation; open floor plans, paid free time and collaboration can help companies stay innovative. “Being distractable and being smart is the perfect combination,” he says.

Yet even as Lehrer helps advance understanding of how creativity works, he is quick to point out that even the most thorough book won’t be able to fully explain how Bob Dylan writes a song, or how Picasso reimagined figurative painting. “So much remains mysterious,” he tells me. “I don’t think we’re in danger of unweaving the rainbow.”

‘Imagine: How Creativity Works’ is published by Canongate on April 19. Read the FT review here. Jonah Lehrer will be speaking at the Southbank Centre on April 27. For tickets go to www.southbankcentre.co.uk

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