Jonah Lehrer is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, a feature writer for The New Yorker, and author of Imagine: How Creativity Works. This is the second of a two-part Q&A. In part one, we explored how neuroscience has transformed our understanding of creativity—and how our educational system is failing to foster creativity in children. In part two, we discuss how the field has expanded in the past ten years, and what our newfound knowledge tells us about how to foster creativity through collaboration.
Jeremy Adam Smith: In the book, you write that from 1950 to 2000, less than one percent of scientific papers investigated creativity. That brought to mind a point we make a lot at the Greater Good Science Center, which is that during the same period, very few studies dealt with positive and prosocial emotions and behaviors. Violence was studied, but not peace or cooperation. We knew a lot about hate, but little about love. What’s your take on why science was so slow to study the best in humanity?
Jonah Lehrer: The imagination wasn’t a disease, so it was tough to fund. It’s also tough to quantify. How do you measure the imagination?
It also didn’t help that people took a long time to figure out how to study things like moments of insight, because you can’t just stick an undergrad in a brain scanner and say, “Have an epiphany, we’re ready for ya.” We had to figure out how to generate lots of insights, lots of creativity in the lab. And that’s really hard to do. Companies didn’t know how to do it, so science had to figure out to generate sparks so as to observe them.
So there were some real intellectual challenges to get past. But it was also hindered by the fact that it wasn’t a disease, wasn’t a negative thing. And I think scientists bought into the myth that some people have it and they’re geniuses, end of story.
JAS: What does the field look like now? Where are we at in the study of creativity?
JL: We’re at the stage of knowing how much we don’t know. We’re just realizing that it’s not just a neuroscience problem, it’s not just a sociology problem, it’s not a cognitive psychology problem. It needs to be addressed from all those angles. You have to understand culture, because the culture and cities we live inside play a huge role in influencing our creative potential. You also have to think about the brain, how these three pounds of meat generate epiphanies. There’s a lot we can learn from the neuroscience of it, and psychology teaches us a lot about how to collaborate, what the best way is to structure a team, how to creatively interact in groups. It won’t be solved by any single field.
JAS: In the book, you spend a lot of time talking about creativity in groups—a sharp departure from the idea of creativity as the domain of one individual’s imagination, which comes with the idea that groups and teams squelch individual creativity. Why are groups so important? Can you, in fact, manufacture creativity in groups?
JL: Group creativity is becoming more and more important. The work of researcher Ben Jones has shown that over the past century, the returns on collaboration have increased dramatically. Fifty years ago the biggest papers in a given field were really the products of a lone individual—Einstein, Darwin, people who all by themselves saw further than the rest of us. They shifted paradigms, just on their own.
Now, science is really the story of teams. By the early 1990s, the most highly cited papers in the field were nearly almost always the product of people coming together, of collaboration. And this is largely because the problems are getting harder. The low-hanging fruit is gone, and so we’ve got to learn to succeed together, or fail alone. The problems faced by science today require multiple disciplines to interact; they can’t be solved by one person with one kind of background. The question becomes, how does one collaborate?
In the book I focus on the failure of brainstorming, where people voice whatever ideas come into their heads and their colleagues are not allowed to criticize them. Brainstorming is the most widely implemented group creativity technique in the world, and it just doesn’t work.
It was pioneered by an ad executive named Alex Osborn in the 1950s, and numerous studies over the past half century have shown that it just doesn’t result in more creative ideas. From a lot of lab experiments, we now know that debate and dissent are actually much better ways to generate new ideas. We get more ideas and those ideas are more original, as measured in the lab.
But the results of these studies have limitations. It’s one thing for scientists to conduct one-off experiments with undergraduates and find debate and dissent is a vast improvement over classic brainstorming—constructive criticism draws us out, it’s invigorating, it’s surprising, it wakes us up, so we dig below the superficial surface and that’s when things get interesting.
But I’m not sure it’s clear right now how we can apply that to the office. Because these are undergrads who are coming together for one afternoon. They don’t have to show up again and again in an office and work with each other every day.
So I think the more complicated question is, how one can create a culture, how one can create an office in which colleagues can collegially and constructively criticize each other’s ideas. We know it’s essential. We don’t yet know how to fully implement it in the real world. The science tells companies what they need to do. The science can’t exactly tell them how to execute.
JAS: You have a chapter devoted to cities. What role do cities play in collaborative creativity?
JL: When we talk about innovation in the twenty-first century, it’s the story of cities. They’re vessels for human interaction. It’s not a complicated idea. It’s people crammed together into a space that’s too small.
So you get people bumping into each other, you get lots of random chats on the sidewalks while waiting in line for a latte. All those bumps add up. Jane Jacobs called them “knowledge spillovers,” and that’s where new knowledge comes from. Cities force us to spill lots of knowledge. We are surrounded, we are immersed, in other ideas, and that’s when we have our own new ideas.
That’s essentially the secret of cities, and that’s why denser cities score higher in metrics of innovation like patents per capita. That’s why the average walking speed of pedestrians helps predict the number of patents per capita, because you get more bumps. People are like particles—the higher their velocity the more interactions they have. Most of those interactions will just be small talk, but every once in a while they lead to a new idea that’s worthwhile.
That tells us something about creativity, too. It’s the freewheeling, chaotic nature of a city that makes it so innovative. This illustrates the challenges of managing creativity in corporations.
Geoffrey West, a researcher I interviewed for the book, asks provocative questions about the differences between cities and companies. They look similar from a certain perspective, but they’re also quite different. Cities never die. Cities are immortal. You can have a devastating earthquake like San Francisco did in 1906—but the city is still here. You can nuke a city—it comes back. You flood a city—it comes back.
But companies die all the time. The average lifetime of a Fortune 100 company is 45 years. Twenty-five percent of Fortune 500 companies die every decade. Only two companies in the original Dow Jones still exist.
So why do companies die while cities live forever? What’s the difference? And what does that tell us about creativity?
Geoffrey West found that as a city gets bigger, everyone in that city becomes more productive. They invent more patents, make more trademarks, make more money, and so on. As companies get bigger, the opposite happens. Everyone in the company becomes less productive. There are fewer patents and fewer profits per employee.
In the end, this makes companies very vulnerable. Wall Streets says, “Get bigger! Get bigger!” Then they have this big expensive bureaucracy to maintain and they become more aligned with their old ideas. They’ve got to invest lots of money in expensive new acquisitions and sometimes those acquisitions don’t work out. Eventually their old ideas are no longer relevant, and they go belly up.
West argues that this difference between companies and cities emerges because companies get in the way of creativity. They tell you who to talk to. They tell you what problems to work on.
JAS: In the name of efficiency.
JL: Efficiency, and sometimes well-intentioned attempts to micromanage the creative process. They tell employees to brainstorm, they erect these hierarchies, they hire chief innovation officers, they silo knowledge. They become very vertical instead of becoming sprawling and horizontal. All that stuff gets in the way, holds us back. West’s advice to companies is simple: When in doubt, imitate the city.
JAS: That’s the exact opposite advice some politicians give city governments, saying that they should imitate for-profit companies. But if corporations aren’t good models of innovation for government, how can you apply your insights so that government can innovate from within? This is a question people never ask.
JL: How to make the IRS creative? [Laughter] You don’t want the IRS getting too creative. They’re about execution.
But if you want government to be more innovative, I think you’d prescribe the same things to government that you’d prescribe to companies. Focus on the horizontal directions. Just like with big companies, governments have lots of people in different domains and disciplines. So you want to get those people to share knowledge—that’s going to be the key.
Sadly, many big companies and governments do exactly the opposite. They encourage people to stay within their hierarchies, to stay within their domains. When they do that, they’re squandering a tremendous asset.