Bits of Books - Books by Title


Jonah Lehrer

Prefrontal cortex stands guard and restrains our wilder impulses. Frontotemporal dementia where pc gets destroyed. Common symptom is sudden urge to paint or draw or sculpt to exclusion of all else (and then die after few years). When we sleep the pc shuts down, and dreams no longer inhibited. The pc is also last area of brain to fully develop, which is why young innocent children so creative and uninhibited - then as they get older, get self-conscious, and lose the creativity.

InnoCentive site originally set up by Eli Lilly because needed breakthroughs in drug research. Now challenges from hundreds of different companies, offering wide range of rewards. The solvers are overwhelmingly outsiders - they know enough about field but draw solutions and approaches from a neighboring field that they have expertise in.

One spectacular success example was a company trying to invent a polymer with very strange qualities. Experts said it was impossible. But five different groups came up with five solutions (and the plastics company paid out on each one). Main point was that company wd never have found tose solvers by conventional means - they wdn't have turned up in a search of relevant literature, they weren't even in same country , and wdn't have been hired if they were, because they weren't qualified in relevant area.

Can use priming to manipulate creativity. Two groups of students set task of listing as many different types transport they cd think of. The group who were told problem set by their local uni came up with significantly shorter list (basically cars, buses, trains and planes) than group who were told it came from Greece (which prompted them to think of horses, triremes, cycles and spacecraft).

Our cultural preconceptions. In China if you leave food on yr plate it's a compliment (Host provided more than enough food). But in America it's an insult (food wasn't tasty enough).

Study of successful Broadway musicals showed importance of collaboration. Any musical is too complex for one person to create - need a team. But if team all strangers who haven't worked together before, difficult to exchange ideas, and shows often flopped. But if collaborators too familiar with each other they tended to turn out cookie cutter versions of previous successes, which also failed. Need a blend of seasoned collaborators, but with enough new people to add novelty.

'Brainstorming' is a popular way to solve problems, but decades of research shows that it doesn't work. Teams think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas. Standard instruction of brainstorming is to stay positive and not criticize any suggestion. But it turns out that criticism works better, because it forces everyone to engage with other ideas, to pull out the best part of them. And very best way is to insist on a 'plus' - every criticism has a new idea built on the flaw uncovered.

Cities multiply citizen's productivity on just abt every scale possible. You wd expect corporations to do the same, given that they are basically organized to do that. But where cities encourage sharing of skills and information, companies try to protect all their data so they prevent idea sharing. Eventually the shortage of new ideas handicaps the company, and then even quite minor disruptions of the market cause major losses because the company is unable to adapt. So cities like New Orleans and Hiroshima can survive massive disruption, but 20 per cent of the companies in the Fortune 500 disappear every decade.

London Times Review
Jonah Lehrer meets me on a narrow street in Manhattan, outside a jewellery shop called Beads of Paradise, ready to dispense the secrets of human ingenuity. We are going to discuss: “What a piece of work is man?” and how did Shakespeare come up with that line, and how have others responded to the puzzles of the human condition. He has a lot to say on how crowded cities thrust us into the company of strangers from different walks of life and force us to think creatively.

But we need somewhere to sit down. It is a problem that requires a creative solution, particularly given that the nearest coffee shop is full. The answer comes to me as we pick our way beneath scaffolding: there is a café upstairs in the giant bookshop farther along the street. The insight had probably formed in that funny little spot in my right hemisphere seconds before announcing itself in my prefrontal cortex.

Yet even on the third floor of Barnes and Noble, in a vast room overlooking Union Square, there are no free chairs. Strangers from different walks of life are hogging all the tables and forcing us to think of the interview from a different perspective, without seating. Eventually we lean against a ledge, between a poster for The Great Gatsby and a shelf bearing several copies of the Kelley Blue Book Used Car Guide, both in their way fruits of human creativity.

Lehrer is a science writer, one of the new cast of calm young men who wear blazers over their jeans and spend their lives reading scientific papers and translating them into English. A glowing quote from Malcolm Gladwell, the dominant male of the pack, adorns his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works (Canongate, £18.99).

“I think what’s happened more recently is that people realise that this kind of empiricism has great utility,” Lehrer says. “This kind of self-knowledge, the science of human nature, whether it’s psychology or sociology or neuroscience, that this self-knowledge is useful knowledge. We’ve always tried to know ourselves through roughly the same way, through introspection, philosophy. And those are wonderful pursuits. But now we’ve got this wonderful set of tools that allow us to know ourselves in a new way. And I think there is excitement about that.”

He grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a human rights lawyer and a creator of educational software, and the second of four children. “We have these intuitions that sibling rank order is incredibly important. But it’s one of those things that the scientific literature can’t find consistent effects, life is so messy and noisy that picking up the influence of one variable is really hard.”

His was an idyllic childhood, but for a severe stutter that took years of speech therapy to iron out and perhaps still expresses itself in his tendency to repeat the start of sentences. “It made me very interested in words,” he says. “Because when you have a stutter you are always taking the weight of words.”

His plan, however, was to be a scientist. He studied neuroscience at Columbia in New York and then worked in the laboratory of Eric Kandel, who won a Nobel prize for showing how the human memory could be studied through the twitches of a sea slug. “To make a long story short, you keep on poking them until they adapt or habituate,” he says. “They remember that you poked them in the past and so they stop reacting to it. Then you can go into the neurons and see what happened at the most fundamental level, the synapses that allow the memory to exist.”

Lehrer poked a few sea slugs but he mostly worked in the fruit fly electrocuting department. He was not terribly successful: “I wasn’t good at making that leap between the big metaphysical mystery and the day to day tests and data collection.” Most of his experiments failed. “I’d be screaming at the flies: ‘Just get smarter, learn this already’.” They didn’t respond to threats. Realising that he would never be a scientist was “genuinely heartbreaking,” he says. So he bid farewell to the fruit flies, won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford to study literature and philosophy, and produced three bestselling books of popular science by the time he was 30.

His first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, showed novelists and poets pre-empting the course of neuroscience. Imagine turns neuroscience back on artists, businessmen and the inventor of Post-it Notes. Bob Dylan’s seminal album, Highway 61 Revisited, is cast as a right-brain production, a gusher of barely comprehensible lyrics that spewed out when the musician left the madness of a four-month tour for the quiet of a cabin in Woodstock.

This assumption stems from studies conducted since the 1990s. Doctors once assured patients who suffered brain damage to that hemisphere that theirs was a minor impediment, yet they struggled to understand jokes, metaphors or sarcasm. It now seems that the right side of the brain excels at making remote associations, joining disparate thoughts and solving puzzles. On a monitor, one can see it throbbing with alpha waves up to eight seconds before an insight dawns.

Lehrer tells us that we might aid the ruminations of our right hemisphere via relaxation, hot showers, or by staring at the colour blue. Marijuana has been shown to help people make remote associations. So has good old-fashioned drinking, though the scientist behind that enjoyable study cautioned that drinkers were liable to forget the insights that they gained while half-cut.

The left side of the brain, or at least the pre-frontal cortex, is the realm for logical thinking — taking our inklings and polishing them into fully fledged concepts. At this point in the creative process, there appears to be a good case for taking amphetamines. W. H. Auden drafted and redrafted many of his most celebrated poems in the sleepless months after he began experimenting with Benzedrine. Graham Greene and Philip K. Dick were addicts too, while Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was written during a six-day cocaine binge.

But amphetamines have the opposite effect on the digestion, leaving many a poet constipated, unable to sleep and suffering heart problems. The general point is that stimulants are more useful once the epiphany has been had and fierce, gritty, focus is required.

Lehrer is a little shy of offering strict prescriptions: “It’s easy to oversell and try to turn the latest draft of neuroscience into a self-help manual.” At least one hostile critic has accused him of doing just that, although he seems to have more modest aims in mind. “God knows, the brain remains a big f***ing mystery,” he says. “But there is also a sense of like, wow, you know, we can actually make ourselves a little bit better ... That’s an exciting thing.”

Less exciting, perhaps, are the studies showing how many successful writers suffer from depression. Happiness helps us to make creative leaps, but sadness helps us focus and depression apparently lends authors the determination to finish their books. Bipolar disorder, in which euphoric highs are followed by long lows, combines both — one study found that successful creative people were 20 times more likely to suffer from it.

You might decide, on balance, that you would like to remain content and forgo the opportunity to compose the great American novel. “Robert Lowell, the American poet, he believed his mental illness made his poetry better,” says Lehrer. “He still took valium. Here was a guy who loved his art, profoundly, but he didn’t want the pain.”

Perhaps the most terrifying examples of creativity unleashed come from those who suffer frontotemporal dementia. The prefrontal cortex decays, the alert, focused consciousness falls away, and the random, dreamlike ruminations of the right hemisphere surge into the breach. A cell biologist in her forties was transformed into an award-winning artist, a stockbroker became a celebrated painter. “After a few years of ecstatic productivity,” Lehrer writes, “the disease that inspired their art destroyed their brains.”

The horrors of brain disease do at least show that our creativity does not ebb away as we age but remains latent, somewhere in the three pounds of flesh inside our skulls. The problem — the reason poets and physicists go off the boil — is that we become habituated, like one of Professor Kendal’s sea slugs, to the prods of experience. We stop twitching. Travel helps to refresh our perspective. So does living in a crowded city. All these tips seem useful, but quite hard to turn into a design for life. But perhaps the creative life is too messy and noisy to discern the influence of one variable. Perhaps the works of Shakespeare cannot be fitted within a neat formula. When I ask Lehrer if his one-year-old daughter will benefit from his research, he talks about “the marshmallow experiment” — Walter Mischel’s psychological test, in which four-year-olds are offered one marshmallow immediately, or two if they wait 15 minutes.

“Whether or not kids can wait, delayed gratification predicts success in school 12 years later above and beyond the IQ score,” he says. “Having written about this and talked to Walter and having thought about how to teach my kid to wait for the marshmallow ... now she’s getting to the age where she sees something she wants, whether it’s a bite of a cookie or a sip of a milkshake or a toy. And you’re like: ‘OK! Here! Shhhh! Don’t cry.’ It’s very easy to write about your research. Life is messier.”

Here's a detailed critique of Lehrer's ideas (Personally, given how new this field is, I see books like this a suggestions, rather than dogmatic assertions. Academics might spend their days arguing over right and wrong, but I like the ideas themselves, and whether they lead to new ways of looking at how our minds work.)


Not too long ago, the idea that “you are your brain” was the revolutionary mantra of a handful of scientists, but today it raises hardly an eyebrow among the general public. The brain has become, for many, synonymous with the biological machinations of the self, and the self-knowledge promised by neuroscience has ignited a hunger to understand how it weighs in on age-old questions: Do we have free will? How do we make decisions? What happens when we fall in love? Why do we make art? Imagine, Jonah Lehrer’s polymathic new book is poised to feed this hunger. Blurring the lines between science writing, self-help, and cultural criticism with virtuosic ease, Imagine explores fields as disparate as neuroscience, sociology, and urban planning with the promise not only to explain how creativity works, but how you, too, can use these secrets to unlock your own creativity, and how we can collectively build a more creative culture.

The book ranges across a dizzying array of examples of the creative process, from Bob Dylan to the team at Pixar to the tech boom in Tel Aviv, creating a mash-up of anecdotes, science reporting and associative interjections from the humanities. In the second chapter alone, we get the guy who invented Scotch Tape; a psychologist who uses EEG to study the brain while people solve puzzles; a neuroscientist who studies insight; a passage from David Hume; a neurologist who is studying daydreaming; the invention of Post-Its; the classic children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon…and the list goes on. To say that the density and diversity of sources marshaled here are impressive would be a massive understatement. As in Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide, Lehrer has invited an eclectic mix of guests to his dinner party, and getting them all in the same room to see what happens is a rare achievement. But his real talent lies in the way he plays all these sources off each other in order to build a coherent argument, leaping from the story of how Barbie dolls were born when an American housewife saw a pornographic doll in the window of a German cigar shop to how seeing ones’ work with fresh eyes is “one of the central challenges of writing” to the neural pathways involved in reading and writing in order to demonstrate that “the only way to be creative over time — to not be undone by our expertise — is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand.” To cap off this particular moment, Lehrer offers a toast to the poet Samuel Coleridge, who said he attended public chemistry lectures in London to “renew my stock of metaphors.”

Imagine uses the same mash-up method that was so successful in How We Decide, but the science of creativity simply isn’t as developed as the science of decision-making. Because of this, it turns out that Lehrer’s tried-and-true method doesn’t work quite as well. The difficulty with pinning down creativity — scientifically or otherwise — becomes obvious when you consider the diversity of anecdotal examples in the book. Is writing a song comparable to coming up with new uses for glue or solving a puzzle that has only one correct answer? Is the person who writes twenty cookie-cutter novels engaged in the same activity as the person who writes one book so unprecedented that it changes the trajectory of literature? Are any two creative processes really the same? At most, it seems that one could point out patterns, but Lehrer boldly sets his sights on formula.

Imagine argues that “creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes” and that by understanding these processes we can all learn to be more creative. The more people you talk with, and the more diverse those people are, the better. Companies that wish to encourage creativity should have everyone use a bathroom in a centralized place, like Pixar does. If we want to be a more creative society, we should lighten up on copyright laws and share ideas, like they do in Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv. The scope widens until, by the end, Lehrer is advocating policy changes in areas such as education, copyright law, and immigration. He argues, for example, that because immigrants submit a disproportionate number of patent applications in the U.S., it seems that, as measured by the metric of patents, at least, more immigrants could make America a more creative country.

Trumpeted as “something of a popular science prodigy” by The New York Times, Lehrer has become a translator and ambassador, someone readers trust to explain what is going on in all those ivory towers full of beakers and cell cultures and genetically-engineered mice. Besides his two hugely successful books, he is a contributing editor at Wired, a frequent guest on WNYC’s RadioLab, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and a science columnist for The Wall Street Journal. For many readers he is the face of science in popular culture. And for good reason. He has repeatedly proven his skill at wrestling complex scientific ideas into nuanced and accurate discussions accessible to non-scientists. Take, for example, his excellent Wall Street Journal column in which he writes insightfully about the limitations of fMRI, a widely used brain-imaging technology with difficult-to-interpret data that ignites heated disputes both inside and outside scientific circles. Lehrer is also an expert and captivating storyteller, and Imagine aims high in grappling with the extremely difficult task of communicating subtle and complex ideas in an engaging way.

But Lehrer’s role as liaison comes with a degree of responsibility; most readers trust that he is explaining science accurately and drawing reasonable conclusions based on the data at hand. Lehrer’s polished style, affable enthusiasm, and obvious intelligence make it tempting not to question the science as he sees it. All the more troubling, then, that right from the outset of Imagine there are signs that science may be taking a backseat to story:

Most cognitive skills have elaborate biological histories, so their evolution can be traced over time. But not creativity — the human imagination has no clear precursors…The birth of creativity, in other words, arrived like any insight: out of nowhere.

If there are any truths in biology, one is that nothing arrives “out of nowhere.” For almost the whole recorded history of science, people believed that we may be the exception. For years, scientists thought we were different because we use tools. Not so, as it turned out. Chimpanzees have us there. And gorillas and orangutans and some other primates. And birds. And elephants. And a few bottlenose dolphins. Even ants use grain to carry honey. Until very recently, many scientists thought language set us apart, but in the past ten years, researchers have observed precursors to human speech in primate vocalizations and striking similarities between how infants learn to speak and songbirds learn to sing. Even self-awareness, a treasured feature of human consciousness, is no longer considered unique to humans. It’s tempting to think that we are special, but today most researchers agree with Darwin’s eloquent observation that humans are animals, too; we are different in degree rather than kind. There’s no reason to think that creativity will be the exception.

The real problem is that claiming creativity’s exceptional status makes for a better story: if creativity is what sets us apart from the animals, understanding this faculty is tantamount to unlocking the mystery of who and what we are. As Lehrer writes, “Until we understand the set of mental events that give rise to new thoughts, we will never understand what makes us so special.” This claim raises the stakes for the book. The problem is, it’s probably just not true.

2. These few sentences set off some unexpected alarm bells, so we decided to take a closer look at some of the science upon which Imagine is built, specifically neuroscience, as that’s what Lehrer is best known for and where his greatest expertise lies. In the fourth chapter, for example, Lehrer assembles an impressive array of anecdotes and neuroscience results to explain why “letting go” is “an extremely valuable source of creativity.” “The act of letting go,” he declares, “has inspired some of the most famous works of modern culture, from John Coltrane’s saxophone solos to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.” So how does letting go, Lehrer asks, lead to creativity? “The story begins in the brain,” he claims, and turns to a neuroimaging experiment in which jazz pianists were asked to improvise new tunes while in a brain scanner. During improvisation, the scanner picked up a surge of activity in a brain area previously linked to self-expression. At the same time, the scientists also observed a sharp decrease in brain activity in an area previously linked to impulse control. Lehrer concludes, “This suggests that the musician was engaged in a kind of storytelling, searching for the notes that reflected her personal style…The musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions, slipping off those mental handcuffs.” At first pass, this interpretation sounds pretty convincing: the self-control center of the brain shuts down to clear the path for unfettered self-expression.

Except that it’s impossible to draw that conclusion from the data at hand. This is an example of a common logical fallacy that plagues the interpretation of neuroimaging data. Say you notice a crowd of people at your neighbor’s house one night, and then find out she is throwing a party. You can correctly conclude that whenever your neighbor throws a party, there will be people at her house. On another night, you again notice a crowd of people at her house, and you conclude she is throwing a party — but this time you’re wrong. She is hosting a church group. While you can conclude that a party means there will be people, you cannot conclude that people means a party.

This reasoning fails because brain regions, like houses, have many functions. If you scan the brains of 100 people while they add 2+2, and in every case the same little patch of cortex jumps into action, it’s safe to infer that the cognitive act of adding 2+2 is related to activity in that brain region. So far so good. (What the region might actually be doing — adding, focusing on the number 2, catching errors — is whole separate problem). It’s tempting to say, then, that every time researchers observe that little patch of cortex lighting up, it must mean that the person in the scanner is engaged in adding 2+2. After all, it’s the 2+2 part of the brain, right? That’s where intuition can lead you astray. There is not a measurable one-to-one mapping between any brain region and any particular cognitive process; the same little patch of cortex is likely involved in multiple functions, just as a house can be filled with people for many different reasons. So when you see the patch of cortex light up under the scanner, you can’t say the person is adding 2+2. Likewise, if a brain region previously linked to “self-expression” lights up while improvising music, you can’t say — as Lehrer does — that the musician was “engaged in a kind of storytelling.”

This claim is all the more surprising because Lehrer is clearly familiar with this logical fallacy. In the Wall Street Journal column about fMRI data mentioned earlier, he offers an elegant discussion of this very problem:

Consider an op-ed piece recently published in the New York Times, which used fMRI results to demonstrate, purportedly, that people “literally love their iPhones.” The evidence? When the researchers showed subjects a video of a ringing cellphone, a part of the brain called the insula exhibited a spike in activity. Because previous studies have linked the insula with feelings of love, the authors concluded that the gadget had become a “romantic rival” for husbands and wives.

But here’s the problem: The insula is also activated by feelings of disgust and bodily pain. It plays an important role in coordinating hand movement, maintaining balance and monitoring bodily changes. In fact, activity in the insula has been implicated in nearly a third of all fMRI papers. Because the brain is such a vast knot of connections, it’s often impossible to understand what’s happening based on local patterns of activity. Perhaps we’re disgusted by our iPhones, or maybe the insula is just preparing the fingers to move. The pretty picture can’t reveal the answer.

So what’s going on? It’s baffling, really, that in Imagine Lehrer makes statements so similar to ones he thoroughly discredits in his column.

And the problems continue to arise. Near the end of the same chapter, Lehrer presents what appears to be the most convincing piece of evidence yet that inhibiting self-control enhances creativity. He reports a study in which the researcher used a harmless technique called TMS to disrupt brain activity in regions previously implicated in impulse control while the subjects drew sketches of animals. Before TMS, Lehrer reports that their drawings were “crude stick figures.” But during TMS, they exhibited “strange, new talents.” Their figures were “suddenly filled with artistic flourishes.” The section concludes with the comforting bromide that we all have inner artists, if only the brain’s inhibitory mechanisms wouldn’t “constantly hold back our latent talents.”

We were curious to see these “before” and “after” drawings, so we looked up the study. Upon viewing the drawings we felt a bit misled by Lehrer’s claim that dampening activity in the brain area he connects to impulse control led to “strange, new talents.” These before and after drawings, for example, seem to be just slightly different versions of a horse:

One might even argue that the saddle in the “before” drawing on the left represents an “artistic flourish” absent in the “after” drawings on the right. In the paper, even the researchers themselves did not claim to have observed any great shift in artistic performance. They concluded that the technique “did not lead to a systematic improvement in naturalistic drawing ability,” although the drawings did show a “change of scheme or convention.” These less-than-definitive results, coupled with the fact that the details of how TMS affects brain activity are poorly understood, renders any hypothesis about this brain area and “creativity” speculative. The researchers do argue for such a link elsewhere, and even if this unproven hypothesis turns out to be true, to say that this study supports the chapter’s claims that “the timid circuits of the prefrontal cortex keep us from risking self-expression” is still problematic. The book is representing speculation as fact. While isolated moments like these may or may not be indicative of a larger pattern, they do raise doubts about both how science is represented throughout the book and the way it is used to support Lehrer’s claims.

If dubious interpretations of scientific data appeared only once in Imagine, it might be a worrisome fluke; but they appear multiple times, which is cause for real concern. Lehrer steps over the line again when connecting amphetamine use to creativity. He states that “Because the dopamine neurons in the midbrain are excited…the world is suddenly saturated with intensely interesting ideas.” Such definitive statements imply that neuroscience has already charted a causal course from neurotransmitter chemistry to a complex cognitive process — which simply isn’t true. That it should have come from a writer who so clearly has the ability to write about science critically and intelligently still comes as a bit of a surprise.

3. All writers who translate neuroscience for the general public today work under a tremendous pressure to provide easy answers. And it’s not just writers who feel this pressure. So do scientists. It’s possible that Imagine is reflecting the sometimes unsavory habits of scientists who are worried about getting the sort of results that will ensure the millions of dollars in funding necessary to continue their research and move forward in their scientific careers. These habits often bleed over into the way scientists relate their work to journalists. The researcher who had subjects draw the “before” and “after” horses was quoted in The New York Times as calling TMS “a creativity-amplifying machine.” This sort of comment implies a causal link that has not yet been scientifically established, and it can tempt journalists into overstatement. Nevertheless, it is the job of the science writer to represent science as it is, to report on the often ambiguous reality of the scientific process — not to suggest certainty where it does not exist, even if it may seem more appealing to readers.

Everyone is looking for answers. By understanding the brain, the thinking goes, we can better understand ourselves and therefore change — our habits, diets, workplaces — in order to be better, happier versions of ourselves. This promise fuels neuroscience’s great popular appeal. However, while today’s neuroscience offers a deeper understanding the brain than ever before, it is still incomplete. It is far from providing the answers, or advice, that readers might find most satisfying. In the introduction, Imagine promises to deliver “what creativity is…how creativity works” and how “we can make it work for us” by revealing different types of creativity at work in different regions of the brain. This promise defies the reality of current brain science: despite the incredible progress of the past century, scientists really know very little about how the organ works, and can only postulate how neural mechanisms might be related to mind and behavior. People are looking, too soon, to neuroscience for answers.

We need good translators of science to the general public, and Lehrer has the public’s ear and the public’s trust. He is at his best when putting his considerable talents to the task of telling a story that is true according to the facts as we know them, rather than telling a story people want to hear.

Economist Review

WHERE do good ideas come from? For centuries, all credit for these mysterious gifts went to faith, fortune and some fair muses. But to assume creativity is some lofty trait enjoyed by the few is both foolish and unproductive, argues Jonah Lehrer in “Imagine”, a smart new book about “how creativity works”. Drawing from a wide array of scientific and sociological research—and everything from the poetry of W.H. Auden to the films of Pixar—he makes a convincing case that innovation cannot only be studied and measured, but also nurtured and encouraged.

Just outside St Paul, Minnesota, sits the sprawling corporate headquarters of 3M. The company sells more than 55,000 products, from streetlights to computer touch-screens, and is ranked as the third-most innovative in the world. But when Mr Lehrer visits, he finds employees engaged in all sorts of frivolous activities, such as playing pinball and wandering about the campus. These workers are actually pushed to take regular breaks, as time away from a problem can help spark a moment of insight. This is because interrupting work with a relaxing activity lets the mind turn inward, where it can subconsciously puzzle over subtle meanings and connections (the brain is incredibly busy when daydreaming). “That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers,” says Joydeep Bhattacharya, a psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London.

But this is just one reason for 3M’s creative output (and 3M is just one example of many in this book). The company also encourages its employees to take risks, not only by spending masses on research (nearly 8% of gross revenue), but also by expecting workers to spend around 15% of their time pursuing speculative ideas. Most of these efforts will fail, but some, such as masking tape, an early 3M concept, will generate real profit for the company. The reason why this approach works—and why it has been imitated by other crafty companies such as Google—is because many breakthroughs come when people venture beyond their area of expertise. Often it takes an outsider to ask the kind of dumb questions that may yield an unconventional solution.

This is why young people tend to be the most innovative thinkers in nearly any field, from physics to music. The ignorance of youth “comes with creative advantages,” writes Mr Lehrer (who is disarmingly fresh-faced himself), as the young are less jaded by custom and experience. Still, he reassures readers that anyone can stay creative as long as he works “to maintain the perspective of the outsider”. This can be done by considering new problems at work (3M regularly rotates its engineers from division to division), travelling to new countries or simply spending more time staring “at things we don’t fully understand”. This is why cities are such potent sites of productivity, as they expose people to unexpected experiences and force the exchange of ideas.

This is an inspiring and engaging book that reveals creativity as less a sign of rare genius than a natural human potential. Mr Lehrer points to William Shakespeare, for example, as someone who was largely a man of his time; the culture of Elizabethan London nurtured quite a few poets—much like ancient Athens gave rise to a glut of thinkers and Renaissance Florence inspired many fine artists. Shakespeare knew his way with a pen, but he also lived in a culture that put a premium on ideas, spread education, introduced new patents for inventions and did not always rigorously enforce censorship laws.

Mr Lehrer concludes with a call for better policy to “increase our collective creativity”. He suggests allowing more immigration, inviting more risk and enabling more cultural borrowing and adaptation (by stemming the flood of vague patents and copyright claims). He also warns that the work demands a lot of time, sweat and grit. Or as Albert Einstein put it: “creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

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