Jonah Lehrer is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, a feature writer for The New Yorker, and the author of the best-selling books Proust Was a Neuroscientist (2007) and How We Decide (2010).

His new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, tackles a topic to which Greater Good devoted a special issue in 2009, entitled “Why Make Art?”

But Lehrer’s preoccupation is much broader than just art—he starts Imagine by describing how Proctor and Gamble came up with the Swiffer, a floor-cleaning product. Indeed, much of the book is dedicated to applying new neuroscientific discoveries about creativity to practical realms like business and urban design.

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I recently caught up with Lehrer in San Francisco. This is part one of our conversation; part two tackles “How to Foster Group Creativity.” You can also read this adaptation from Imagine, “Five Tips for Reaching Your Creative Potential.”

Jeremy Adam Smith: How do you define creativity?

Jonah Lehrer: It’s the invention of something new that’s useful. The second part of that is crucial. It’s not just about random new things; it’s not about erratic expression. It’s about a second life. It’s got to be useful or beautiful or meaningful to somebody else. That’s what takes a new thing and makes it a creative new thing.

JAS: Is that different from the traditional definition of creativity?

JL: There are a bunch of longstanding myths about creativity, such as the idea that it’s an all-or-nothing phenomenon, that it’s this really rare gift that only a few select among us have—they are the ones who have access to the muses, who take dictation from the gods, and the rest of us are reduced to just repeating the work of others.

You see this in these sad surveys of school kids. In the second grade, every kid says, “I’m creative.” Ninety-five percent will say, “I like to paint, I like to draw, I’m creative.” By fifth grade it’s down to about 50 percent.

This reflects what educators refer to as the fourth grade slump. Then by the time they’re seniors in high school, you’re down to around five percent who believe they are creative types, and the rest believing that they just don’t have it.

But the science is very clear that creativity is a universal human trait, a universal human talent—it’s something that we are all capable of. And we can all get better at it. Some people have it a bit more than others. Like any other human talent, it’s a bell curve. But it is universal. The human mind is a connection machine. This is what we are meant to do. 

JAS: When you described the surveys of school kids, I got very sad. I have a seven year old, and I can see that starting to happen in his cohort, where kids are starting to sort themselves into creatives and non-creatives.

JL: In part, that’s part of the normal course of brain development. It’s in fourth grade that their frontal lobes are coming online. The kids are able to raise their hand, they’re able exert self-control. These are wonderful skills. They help us become more mature.

But when it comes to creative expression these skills also get in the way, because that ability to control our impulses also leads us to conclude that we can draw in the wrong place, that our brush strokes don’t quite live up to our expectations. And that’s when you lose interest in creating.

That’s why it’s so important to focus on third, fourth, and fifth grade, and realize that these are the crucial windows when we have to mount these interventions and teach kids that if they invest time and effort, their drawing can improve. If you invest hours of practice, it can get good.

JAS: This is what researcher Carol Dweck talks about—the “growth mindset.” That’s when we praise effort, not the person’s intrinsic qualities. Saying, “You must have studied really hard to get that A,” as opposed to, “You’re so smart.”

JL: That’s right. And we just don’t do that for creativity. If you want to encourage creativity in kids, there are two things we need to do. One is expose kids to a menu of possibilities early on—a menu of things they might fall in love with, passions they might develop. So then when they put in the work it doesn’t feel like work, they just enjoy it. The second is to focus on that crucial transition period, third to fifth grade, when so many kids come to believe that they are not creative.

JAS: But certain kids will emerge as more creative than others.

JL: Creativity is like any other human talent, in that it’s not distributed evenly. That said, we have to do a better job of allowing kids to fall in love with something and expose them to things they might actually enjoy.

The last chapter of my book is about ages of excess genius—moments in history when you seem to have so many talented people all living in the same zip code at the same time. The single most important thing you see in all these ages of excess genius is a vast expansion in education. Shakespeare wrote in the same city at the same time as Christopher Marlowe and John Donne and Francis Bacon and so on. Shakespeare’s father was a glover who signed his name with a mark—he was probably illiterate. But Shakespeare was being given lessons in Latin by an Oxford-educated teacher at the age of eight.

When you expand educational possibilities, you simply expand the pool of human capital. You gain access to talents like Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, who also came from a poor family but got a full scholarship to Cambridge.

That doesn’t mean we’re all potential Shakespeares. Of course not. But it means that you’re not wasting possible talent, by giving as many people as possible access to education. When TS Eliot tried to explain the Elizabethan Age, he said something like, “You know what? They didn’t have more geniuses then. They simply wasted less genius.”

Right now, we’re wasting lots of genius. There are lots of kids who could go on to do great things, but we leave them on the table because we don’t give them access. We don’t tempt them with stuff they might actually fall in love with.

Schools are focusing on a very narrow model of cognition. They assume that the way to be productive is to always focus, focus, focus, to always look straight ahead. We tell kids not to daydream, to not look out the window, to only look at the blackboard. That’s important. A big part of the creative process involves a phase of paying attention, putting in the work, being stubborn and persistent.

But the research is very clear that our best ideas or moments of insight arrive when we least expect them—when we’re distracted. That’s why kids with ADHD are often able to be creative achievers in the real world. This thing which is a burden in the classroom may actually be an asset in the real world. Because if you’re distractible, you’re always combining ideas in unexpected ways. People who daydream more score higher on tests of creativity. So daydreaming is a very effective and important mental state.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 279 pages

We need to expand our notion of what being a productive thinker looks like. Sometimes you need to focus. But it’s also about teaching kids about how to productively daydream. It’s also about teaching kids to how to express themselves. It’s about encouraging kids to explore new ideas. We have to embrace a more interesting and diverse pedagogy, and teach kids how to find moments of insight.

JAS: How have discoveries in neuroscience changed our view of creativity?

JL: The first thing neuroscience teaches you is that the imagination actually does come from these three pounds of meat inside your head—which is a pretty startling idea, and that’s why we’ve always outsourced the imagination to the muses or the gods. 

But neuroscience has also found very interesting ways of studying some of the most mysterious aspects of creativity, like these moments of insight, these epiphanies that come to us in the shower or behind the wheel. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of localizing the process in the brain. In many cases, our insights come from the anterior superior temporal gyrus, in the back of the right hemisphere. That’s the part of the brain involved with the interpretation of jokes and the processing of metaphors.

The more practical part of the project is that you can understand the moods and mental states that make these moments of insights more likely to happen. For example, neuroscientists have found that people are much more likely to have these breakthroughs when they’re in a relaxed state of mind. When they’re not focused. When they’ve got lots of alpha waves, which are closely associated with times of relaxation. That’s when people are far more likely to have an actual epiphany. That’s when they turn the spotlight inward and they can hear that quiet voice at last giving us the answer. Maybe that voice has been there for days or weeks or months. We just haven’t taken a moment to listen.

Einstein said, “Creativity is the residue of wasted time.” That’s a marvelous quote, but it means we have to make time to waste time.

In part two of our conversation with Jonah Lehrer, we explore the principles of creativity for teams, collectives, and collaborations. You can also read this adaptation from Imagine, “Five Tips for Reaching Your Creative Potential.”

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