Waiting for the muse

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, Canongate RRP£18.99, 279 pages

Here is a little puzzle: a man in an ordinary small town has married 20 women. All of those women are still alive and none of them is divorced. Yet the man has done nothing illegal. Who is he?

Worked it out yet? If not, it might help if you relaxed – perhaps you should take a warm shower or a gentle stroll. When you unwind, your brain will begin to produce pulses of a particular frequency known as alpha waves. And it is when your brain is in the alpha groove that you have the kind of creative insight needed to solve apparently insoluble puzzles. Back from your shower? Then you’ll know that the man in our story is a priest.

In his fascinating new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer tells us that scientists can predict up to eight seconds in advance whether you are about to have a eureka moment by sticking electrodes on your head and measuring your alpha waves. His aim is to demystify the creative process, once thought too woolly to be studied by science; or, as he puts it, “to collapse the layers of description separating the nerve cell from the finished symphony”.

First he makes clear that there is more than one way to be creative: the electrifying new insight is only part of the story. Such flashes of inspiration are what we need when we have reached an impasse: Lehrer tells us how Bob Dylan, at the age of 24, felt he had exhausted the folk tradition that had already made him world famous and so had retired to a lonely rural cabin. Then, quite suddenly, he felt the urge to write again – as if possessed by a ghost, as Dylan himself put it. The result was the wholly original song “Like a Rolling Stone”, which unleashed a new era in popular music.

Research shows that this kind of epiphany occurs when we are happy, relaxed and not dwelling directly on the problem that needs solving. It might come while you are travelling, napping or listening to a string quartet – indeed, almost anywhere other than the modern office environment, which encourages high levels of specialisation and stress. Staring at a computer screen under pressure of deadline is the enemy of inspiration.

But such intensely focused environments can foster a second kind of creativity: the tweaks and fixes that transform a good idea into a great work. Lehrer tells us how WH Auden produced much of his best poetry while taking large doses of amphetamines – yet these drugs produce the opposite of the relaxed alpha wave state. Instead, they allow acute, undisturbed concentration for long periods. In this time, Auden would revise, improve and rework until he had distilled his verses to their purest essence. This is not creative insight, but rather creative work – which, as every artist and inventor knows, is 99 per cent of the innovation process.

Lehrer explains in clear and engaging prose how these two kinds of creativity rely on different brain processes and are fostered by different environments. Whereas the eureka moment will most likely come when you are happily day-dreaming in a grassy meadow, the drive to perfect your creation is strongest when you are depressed and undistracted. Which explains the success of the modern office cubicle.

Some institutions, however, manage to foster both kinds of creative endeavour. The latter half of Imagine explores the secrets of collective innovation – “why some groups are more than the sum of their parts”. Millions will be relieved to hear that one thing creative groups don’t do is brainstorm – that puerile, cliché-generating alternative to proper thought – but engage instead in tough-minded critique of ongoing work combined with time that has been set aside for exploratory work.

Lehrer is himself something of a creative prodigy – this is already his third fine book on the interlacing of neuroscience and the humanities and he is barely 30. But the distinction at the core of Imagine between two divergent and sometimes opposing ideas of creativity is itself not new. Friedrich Nietzsche, as Lehrer acknowledges, traced this distinction back to ancient Greece: the moment of inspiration he associated with Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy; whereas the impulse to impose a perfect order Nietzsche attributed to Apollo, god of knowledge, music and poetry.

But it does not undermine the value of Imagine that many of its messages are ancient wisdom repackaged. Each generation benefits from having these truths recast in the language of their time – and the language of our time is that of brain scanners. When Nietzsche was writing, a serious discussion of creativity had to reference the Olympian gods; now it must talk about fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and dopamine. It might not improve your puzzle-solving to know what bits of your brain light up when inspiration strikes but it ensures that this compelling discussion of the creative process speaks to our scientific age.

Stephen Cave is author of ‘Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilisation’ (Biteback)

Jonah Lehrer interview in FT Weekend Magazine

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