Monday, July 30, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

Okay, okay, I know I said it would be another week, but I couldn't resist. Trying to get your creative juices flowing? Just imagine... (See update below)

by Jonah Lehrer 

Procured from my favorite local bookstore, One More Page

Procured in May 2012

Finished on June 23, 2012

Format: Hardback with a very groovy cover - reminds me of an eye chart

Why I gave it a try: My work was sponsoring a book club and this was one of the choices... he's a contributor to RadioLab which I love, so I was curious as to what kind of a pop science author he would be

Summary: How does creativity work? What is the creative process like? Is it the same for all people? How is creativity fostered in an organization? These are the questions that Lehrer tackles in his latest pop neuroscience tome, exploring the latest research and real life examples.

Thoughts: This is a tricky book to talk about because on the face of it, it completely fails to do what it tells you it's going to do. It tells you that it's a book about neuroscience and creativity. The truth of the matter is that there is just not enough data at this point to make very persuasive statements about the neuroscience of creativity. I had a vague, undefined sense of the lack of hard data or conclusions as I read, which were crystallized upon reading the thoughtful assessment that The Millions ran a few weeks ago. Interestingly, I think The Power of Habit accomplishes much more successfully what Lehrer states as his mission - using neuroscience to talk about every day life. The Power of Habit does not explicitly position itself as a study of habit that is infused with a lot of hard data about brain - in other words, a pop neuroscience book. However, that's pretty much exactly what it is. Imagine, however, does explicitly position itself this way and thus sets itself up to fail on some level. There's simply not enough solid, thoroughly tested research on this area of neuroscience to be able to meaningfully talk about it for an entire book. So in terms of meeting it's fundamental promise, this book does not deliver.

That being said, I found the book to be a very engaging case compilation of how various individuals and organizations approach creativity. "Imagination" and "creativity" have an innately ineffable quality to them and by having a number of perspectives presented on the topic, Lehrer does manage to paint a kind of impressionistic portrait of what these words mean. Each entity presents it's own circle in a Venn diagram and by looking at the points of overlap, we do walk away with a more concrete idea of how we might encourage the muses to inspire our own lives.

The biggest take away for me was something born out in my own work experiences, which is that while brainstorming encourages more group-think than creativity, there is tremendous value in allowing ideas to be put to test in a group environment. Especially as seen from the folks at Pixar, we get to see how important it is to let ideas be critiqued and poked at thoroughly, in the hopes that whatever emerges at the other end will be better than what one person could create by themselves. This creates a somewhat antagonistic environment (as opposed to a consensus atmosphere in a brainstorming session), but as long as everyone understands the ground rules and treats each other with respect, this approach can produce much better ideas than any one person could.

Overall, I found the book to be thought provoking and enjoyable, though as I said, if you are looking for a solid science book, this is probably not for you.


So since I posted this review on 7/30, the mess has hit the fan for old Jonah Lehrer - the same day, as a matter of fact. I guess I was just clairvoyant on the timing. Tablet magazine uncovered that Lehrer had outright made up quotations from Bob Dylan in the early chapters of the books- the ultimate journalistic no-no. On top of the "self-plagiarism" allegations that emerged about a month ago (which I chose not to mention in my original assessment, in an effort to give Lehrer the benefit of the doubt), Lehrer's reputation is pretty much in shambles at this point - his publisher's have even pulled the book from stores, making my links below moot.

What do we say about an author who has so clearly gone astray? Well, probably a lot of the same things that Oprah said to James Fry. Or Ira Glass said to Mike Daisy (BTW - there is no force more terrifying than the terrible fury of an Ira Glass spurned).

People mess up - they want to make a grand point and instead of doing the hard work that sticking to the facts often requires. What's sad in all of the cases I mentioned is that by adding some simple clarifications, these storytellers could have more or less made the same point without having their message undermined. Imagine is no less a thought provoking book for not having those Dylan quotes. That makes Lehrer's decision to lie all the more sad.


4 - I enjoyed it... a solid offering 

Barnes & Noble


  1. so apparently Lehrer made up some of the Dylan quotes and he resigned from the 'New Yorker'...sad day...

    1. Alas, people are not always what they seem... you can still enjoy the book, though, even if you know that some of it is a little shaky!