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Jonah Lehrer Lectures on the Mystery of Creativity

Talk Concludes UCSB’s “Innovation Matters” Series


To demystify creativity would be to illuminate maybe the most mysterious of the human faculties. He doesn’t quite do that, but, in his third foray into the popular-science genre, author Jonah Lehrer succeeds in moving the discussion forward. His book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, weaves together the latest studies on the science of creativity within a charming and engrossing narrative, exploring not only how artists generate novel ideas but also how business professionals manage to boast innovations year after year.

“Moments of insight,” said Lehrer, at a lecture he gave last Thursday in UCSB’s Campbell Hall, “tend to come when we least expect them — and somehow, we know they’re right.”

Those key moments of inspiration — when our thoughts seem so frustratingly unconnected but then suddenly find their elusive relation — are, said Lehrer, some of the most prized and powerful experiences we can have. To Lehrer, there’s no mystery why we should try to understand them.

Epiphanies, as those experiences are also known, occur most often in states of relaxation. But don’t expect the insight muse to stop by if you don’t put in the work. Only after feverish study and focus does the tranquil loosening of the mind make room for new ideas to make an entrance, said Lehrer.

“Countless ingenuities have been sparked by taking baths or drinking beer, or both,” he said. “It’s important to escape the white noise in our world, to step back and let the big picture wash over us. There’s no excuse for not putting the work in. However, it’s just as crucial that we make time to waste time.”

When we’ve retreated from the turmoil of effortful thought and become relaxed, said Lehrer, the right hemisphere of our brain emanates “alpha waves,” which are closely associated with calming activity. Yet, we still comprehend little about the waves themselves. But with mental games that stimulate free association — for example, find a single word that belongs with “age,” “mile,” and “sand” — researchers are beginning to see what the brain is doing when it tries to make new connections. (The word, if you were stumped, is “stone.”) Those subjects who had fewer alpha waves, the researchers found, couldn’t come upon the right word even when given hints. The evidence, Lehrer said, is still nascent and preliminary, but compelling all the same.

What does seem to be universal among talented creators is a certain personality trait, something psychologists call “grit.”

“Beethoven, the cliché of artistic genius, had it — he wouldn’t be satisfied with a symphony until he’d reworked it over 70 times,” said Lehrer. “J.K. Rowling had it — again and again she was rejected, but she kept scrawling away in coffee shops regardless.”

Essentially, he said, it’s about persistence and setting smart, achievable goals. “Grit indicates passion, and passion indicates love. To create is to bring something new into the world — and it’s often only those with an intense drive that make it happen.”

In ending his lecture, Lehrer quickly dismissed the commonly hailed efficacy of what’s popularly become known as “brainstorming,” the — in his view — overly lauded technique for collaborative creativity. He denies its starting premise that we’re better at generating ideas in an atmosphere free of opposition and criticism. On the contrary, he said, the best innovations come when we’re positively critiqued, challenged, and prodded for clarity.

Jonah Lehrer’s talk capped off the lecture series put on by UCSB’s Arts and Lectures program. This summer, it will continue with a series of cinema titled “Robots! Space Aliens! Body Snatchers!” which will showcase classic sci-fi movies from the 1950s.

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