Beethoven would try as many as 70 different versions of a musical phrase before settling on the right one. But other great ideas seem to come out of the blue. Bob Dylan, for example, came up with the lyrics to the chorus for "Like a Rolling Stone" soon after telling his manager that he was creatively exhausted and ready to bail from the music industry. After going to an isolated cabin, Dylan got an uncontrollable urge to write and spilled out his thoughts in dozens of pages — including the lyrics to the iconic song.
Scientists are now learning more about how such moments occur, says science writer Jonah Lehrer. His new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, explores where innovative thoughts originate and explains how some companies are now working to create environments where they're more likely to occur.
"Moments of insight are a very-well studied psychological phenomenon with two defining features," Lehrer tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "The answer comes out of the blue – when we least expect it. ... [And] as soon as the answer arrives we know this is the answer we've been looking for. ... The answer comes attached with a feeling of certainty, it feels like a revelation. These are the two defining features of a moment of insight, and they do seem to play a big role in creativity."
Scientists have determined that people in a relaxed state and a good mood are far more likely to develop innovative or creative thoughts. And companies are now taking advantage of this fact. Lehrer points to 3M, which started out making packaging tape and has now expanded into other sectors including electronics and pharmaceutical delivery.
"They have an incredible track record of [innovation] — they've got almost 1 to 1 employee: product ratios ... And I think one of the things they discovered early on is giving people control of their own intention," says Lehrer.
At 3M, every engineer has an hour a day to do whatever they want: whether that's work on a side project or simply tinker with a hobby.
"It doesn't have to be directly relevant, they don't have to justify it to their boss — all they have to do is promise to share it with their colleagues," says Lehrer. "This sends an important message early on: we've hired you, we think you're smart, we trust you, we trust you to find solutions, you manage your time in your own way."
By giving their engineers and product managers a time to relax, 3M's management is actually fostering creativity, says Lehrer.
"They trust their employees to manage their own intentions and I think when you look at the research on creativity that's a good thing," he says. "When you look at where insights come from, they come from where we least expect them. They only arrive after we stop looking at them. If you're an engineer working on a problem and you're stumped by your technical problem, chugging caffeine at your desk and chaining yourself to your computer, you're going to be really frustrated. You're going to waste lots of time. You may look productive, but you're actually wasting time. Instead, at that moment, you should go for a walk. You should play some ping-pong. You should find a way to relax."
On outsider knowledge
"In many cases, when you're trying to solve a technical problem, our assumption is that we should give it to the guy who knows the most – the ultimate insider, the expert in that field. But what various studies and real-world studies have show, is that it's often the outsiders who do better: people on the fringes of that field — people who know enough to understand the question but don't know enough that they're going to run into the same stumbling blocks as the people on the inside who have already tried to solve it."
On hard work
"It would be wonderful if the recipe for all kinds of creativity was to take showers and play ping-pong and go on vacation and go for walks on the beach, but when you really talk to people in the creative business, they want to tell their romantic stories about the epiphanies but then if you push them, they say even that epiphany had to go through lots of edits on it and iterations and lots of hard work after we have the big idea. And that's a big part of the creative process too, and it is not as fun. In fact, there's evidence that it makes us melancholy and a little bit depressed. But it's a crucial part in creating something interesting and worthwhile. If creativity were always easy or about these blinding flashes, Picasso would not be so famous."
On the link between depression and creativity
"One of the surprising things that's emerged from the study of moods in recent moods is that putting them in a bad mood — making them a little bit sad or melancholy — comes with some cognitive benefits. ... So sadness, although it is not fun and is not pleasant, it does sharpen the mind a little bit. And one of the long-standing mysteries in the field of creativity is this correlation — and this was first identified by Kay Redfield Jamison and others — is people suffering from various kinds of depression and creative output. People who are successful creators — especially writers — are anywhere between 8 and 40 times more likely to suffer from bipolar depression than the general public. And no one's known what to make of this. It's tough to associate creativity with mental illness because obviously if you're very ill, it gets in the way. ... But one of the theories now is that the terrible swings of the mental illness – of bipolar depression – you get these manic highs, these euphorias, where the ideas just pour out of you. And you need to write them down. That's followed by this dismal low period when maybe you're a better editor. Maybe it's easier for you to focus and refine those epiphanies into a perfect form. ... The thinking is maybe the correlation exists because the swings of mental illness echo the natural swings of the creative process."
On Yo-Yo Ma and Julia Child
"For Yo-Yo, it's about learning how to relax. He told me this great story where before he goes out on stage, he often thinks about Julia Child. And at first, I was like, 'Why Julia Child?' And he tells this great story about Julia Child making a roast chicken and it looked beautiful and she was talking to the camera and the chicken would just fall off the plate, onto the floor. And he said, 'Did she make this look of horror? Did she scream? No, the smile never left her face. She picked up the chicken, dusted it off and just went on with the show.' And he said that's an inspiring story to think about when you're in the middle of performance, because you're going to make a mistake and your attitude has to be, 'I welcome that first mistake because now I'm free.'"
On young people and creativity
"[The school of thought was] different fields have different peak ages. If you're a physicist or a poet, your peak age of creativity is going to be pretty young – maybe in your late 20s or early 30s. If you're a biologist, it's going to be in your late 30s. If you're a historian, it may be in your late 40s. ... [The school of thought was also] after we peak at the age of 35, let's say — depending on the field — the imagination begins to fall apart. The memory declines with age, maybe the imagination was the same way. This is kind of a depressing idea. There's nothing you can do to stop this dismal, downward trend. But now the thinking is there's nothing inevitable about this loss, which is why some creative people can maintain their imaginative output for their entire career. Instead, the decline of creativity is what psychologists refer to as 'inculturation.' That as we get older, as we get tenure in a field, we become invested in the status quo. We develop habitual ways of thinking, routines, we develop customs in terms of how we solve problems. Those make our lives a little bit easier, they make it easier to apply for grants. They make our days a little more efficient but they also make it harder to think outside the box."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You know how when you have a good idea, it sometimes seems to have come out of the blue, while you were walking or taking a shower? Scientists are learning how these creative breakthroughs happen.
Our guest, Jonah Lehrer, writes about this new science of creativity and its practical applications in the new book "Imagine: How Creativity Works." He reports that good ideas are more likely to come out of taking a walk or a nap than a company brainstorming session. Some companies are trying to incorporate this research into their work environments.
Jonah Lehrer is a contributing editor at Wired and a contributor to The New Yorker. He also appears frequently on WNYC's Radio Lab. His previous book, "How We Decide," reported on what scientists are learning about how we make decisions. Lehrer spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Jonah Lehrer, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
JONAH LEHRER: Thanks so much for having me.
DAVIES: You open the book with a story about Bob Dylan at a point early in his career, when he was frustrated, creatively exhausted, ready to bail from the music business. And from this, came lesson about creativity. What was going on in his career?
LEHRER: So it's May 1965, and he's just returned from a grueling tour, six months tour. He's just finished touring the U.K., and he is burnt out. He doesn't know what kind of songs he wants to sing anymore. All he knows is that his old songs, these folks songs like "Times They Are A'Changing," "Blowing in the Wind," he's done with them. He's tired of being the poet of rock 'n' roll.
And so he tells the manager that he's quitting the music business, he's done with the singing, done with songwriting, he's going to move to a cabin in Woodstock, New York, doesn't even bring his guitar. He's going to be a novelist and a painter.
Here's there for a couple days when he is visited by this thing he calls the ghost. He gets a sudden urge to write, gets out his pen, gets out his paper and just begins to scribble. He later describes it as like this uncontrollable rush of vomit. And really what he's trying to capture there is just this feeling that you can't hold this back, it's just this rush of words that needs to be written down.
And so he begins writing and writing and writing, writes dozens of pages, and within these dozens of pages is this chorus, and it's the chorus of "Like A Rolling Stone." Four weeks later, he's in Studio A, Columbia Records, and after just four takes, they cut it on acetate, and that becomes his defining single, this six-minute single which really changes the sound of rock 'n' roll.
DAVIES: And as you've researched the subject, do you find that there are other people that have this experience of being, of being exhausted, of hitting a wall, of being empty and then, in this moment of insight, are suddenly given these new bursts of creativity? What's going on?
LEHRER: Yeah, moments of insight are a very-well studied psychological phenomenon. There really are two defining features. The first defining feature is the answer comes out of the blue. So it comes when we least expect it. It comes when we've quit the music business, and we're trying to paint a canvas in Woodstock, New York. It comes when we've given up, when we feel like we have nothing left to say.
It comes in the shower. It comes in the bathtub. It comes under the apple tree. So it comes in the least expected moments. That's the first defining feature.
The second defining feature is that as soon as the answer arrives, we know this is the answer we've been looking for. We don't have to double-check the math or carefully edit the lyrics: We know this is it. So, you know, the answer comes attached with this feeling of certainty - it feels like a revelation. So these are the two defining features of these moments of insight, and they do seem to play a big role in creativity, especially when people are looking for really radical solutions to very, very hard problems.
DAVIES: And this happens not just with artists like Dylan, it happens with people that are working on, you know, molecular biology, all kinds of fields, right?
LEHRER: Yeah, I mean, it's described by Richard Feynman. He had some moments of insight in his favorite strip club. It's, you know, it's Archimedes in the bathtub. It's Isaac Newton under the apple tree. This is a universal feature of human experience. We all have moments of insight. Even if they're not quite as grandiose as writing the lyrics to "Like a Rolling Stone," we all have these epiphanies, and they come in the shower, they come when we least expect them.
DAVIES: Right, for me, it's working on the Sunday New York Times crossword and having given up, and then literally lying in bed at night, that word that I couldn't get comes to me. Now, is this different from just being exhausted and needing to recharge? Is there something distinctly different about needing to be frustrated, about hitting a wall?
LEHRER: Well, you know, needing to recharge is part of it, giving ourselves a break, and the crucial part of giving ourselves a break is instead of having our attention be focused on the problem itself, instead of being fixated on what we can't solve - and often there's a wrong answer which you just can't look past, we're just stumped by this wrong answer, that is our wall.
So part of it is getting ourselves to stop paying attention to the wrong answer, and all of a sudden, we turn the spotlight of attention inwards. You know, we're shampooing our hair in a relaxed state of mind, we're lying in bed at, you know, 5:30 in the morning and cursing ourselves for not being able to fall back asleep, an so we let our mind wander. We start daydreaming, and we turn that spotlight inwards, and that's when we hear that quiet voice in the back of our head, which is whispering us the insight, and all of a sudden we bolt up out of bed and say aha, I've got it.
So this is a recurring feature of problem-solving, of creativity, and giving ourselves a chance to recharge. Letting ourselves go to Woodstock, even if it's only for a couple days, is a big part of the process.
DAVIES: Do we understand what's happening neurologically when this occurs?
LEHRER: I think scientists have made a lot of interesting progress, and this is primarily the research of Mark Beeman at Northwestern and John Kounios at Drexel. And, you know, at first glance, it's not quite clear how one could scientifically study the neuroscience of insight, because you can't just put undergrads in a brain scanner and say OK, have a revelation, we're ready for you.
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LEHRER: I mean, you know, it would be a very inefficient way to collect data. So instead what they've had to do is come up with a set of word problems called compound remote associate problems. The acronym is a bit unfortunate, C-R-A-P.
DAVIES: What was it again?
LEHRER: Compound remote associate problems. The acronym is C-R-A-P.
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LEHRER: But they consist of three words, and you have to find the fourth word that can form a compound word with those three. So a classic example is pine, crab and sauce. In this case, the answer is apple: pineapple, crabapple, applesauce. And when apple comes to you, it'll often come in one of these flashes of insight. It'll come out of the blue, and as soon as it arrives, you don't have to double-check it with those three words, you know this is the answer.
And so what they do is they give undergraduates, they give their subjects this compound remote associate problems inside these fancy FMRI machines. Then they look to see what happens in the brain, and what they've discovered is a sharp spike in activity in a part of the brain called the superior anterior temporal gyrus. It's a bit of cortex in the right hemisphere, just behind your ear.
And it's a part of the brain, it remains pretty mysterious, like most parts of our brain, but it's closely associated with things like the processing of jokes, when you hear a punchline, and also the interpretation of metaphors. And this makes a little bit of sense.
You know, when Romeo declares that Juliet is the sun, we know he's not saying that Juliet's a big flaming ball of gas. Instead, we know he's using a metaphor. And the way we make sense of that metaphor is by looking past the surface dissimilarities, the fact that Juliet and suns have nothing in common and instead find the remote association, the underlying theme they actually share.
DAVIES: So when we're first focusing on this difficult problem, we use - I think of this crudely as left-brain. We're being analytical, we're trying the different possibilities, we're not getting anywhere. We forget about it, we relax, and then the right brain comes in because it somehow intuits connections in a different way.
LEHRER: Yeah, so there's been this pop cliché about, you know, the left brain being analytical, the left brain being rational and more rigorous and detail-oriented, and the right brain is the flighty imagination, you know, the artist inside us all.
And for a long time, scientists really looked down on it, and it really is an oversimplification. But there's been a recent surge of interest in how our hemispheres process information, and they do process information differently. And to make a long story short, the right hemisphere is a bit more interested in the forest. It sees things from a more holistic perspective.
DAVIES: Than the trees.
LEHRER: Yeah, and the left hemisphere is more interested in the trees. So the left hemisphere is more granular, more detail-oriented, more focused. The right hemisphere is more associative. And these are themes that scientists have discovered, really, by studying patients with serious brain injuries, with brain injuries to one or - you know, to the left or the right hemisphere.
DAVIES: And they've discovered that sometimes people who lose abilities associated with the left hemisphere have different kinds of insights.
LEHRER: Yeah, so if your left hemisphere is damaged, you know, the injury is often very obvious: You have severe language problems; you have difficulty paying attention. Right hemisphere damage, for a long time people didn't think any damage was actually incurred, simply because people seemed fairly normal. They could talk in perfect sentences, their memory was mostly intact.
But then they started to notice these people actually had real subtle disabilities. So they often lost the ability to understand jokes or metaphors. They didn't have these moments of insight. When they would draw pictures, you know, they couldn't find the whole. So if you asked them to draw a picture of a house, they would just draw the details of the house, the window frames and the doorknob, but couldn't get the gestalt.
So this really led scientists to re-evaluate the importance of the right hemisphere. It was no longer just the dumb side of our brain. It seemed to be doing something very, very interesting. It was just a little bit harder to pin down.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Jonah Lehrer. His new book is called "Imagine: How Creativity Works." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Jonah Lehrer, he is a contributing editor of Wired magazine and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. He's written a new book about where original ideas come from, how we invent them. It's called "Imagine: How Creativity Works."
So if you're in the business of innovation, if you run a company where original ideas really matter, you'd want to help people create circumstances under which these moments of insight are more likely to occur. You write about the 3M company, which has a remarkable record, over the years, of invention. What do they do to promote these occurrences?
LEHRER: Well, I think the success of 3M, the best way to understand the success of 3M is actually to talk about some other research which has been done on these moments of insight. And what scientists have found is that it's possible to do a pretty good job of predicting which people will actually have these moments of insight, at least in the lab.
And that's by hooking up to EEG machines, which is like wearing a bulky shower cap that measures the waves of electricity pouring out of your head. And what they find is that people who are more relaxed, people who exhibit lots of alpha wave activity, which is closely associated with states of relaxation, people who are in good moods, that they solve a lot more insight puzzles, that if you show someone a clip of Robin Williams doing stand-up for five minutes, they'll solve 20 percent more of these compound remote associate problems.
If, you know, if someone's in a good mood, you know, they'll solve more problems. If they're in a blue room, which is a relaxing shade of blue, they will solve twice as many of these insight problems. So we've learned to discover the impact of mood and being able to relax yourselves. This also explains, of course, why the shower is such a rich source of epiphanies, because we are very relaxed. We're letting ourselves daydream. We also can't take our smartphones into the shower, at least not yet.
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LEHRER: So we're not always interrupting that, you know, that effective thought process. And so I think what 3M has learned how to do is to - and they've been doing this for decades and decades, and they are a - you know, they've got an incredible track record of innovation. They've got an almost one-to-one employee-to-product ratio, so 50,000 employees, 50,000 products.
They began as a tape company, and now they're in just about every product category you can think of. They still make your tape, but now they probably also make the screen in your phone and your television and your computer. They deliver drugs and all the rest. And I think one of the things they discovered fairly early on was the importance of giving people control of their own attention.
So this began with the bootlegging hour. It began with the 15 percent rule, as they officially call it.
DAVIES: The bootlegging hour, did you say?
DAVIES: Which means what?
LEHRER: So it's the - every engineer, every researcher at 3M, has an hour of their day that they can do whatever they want. They can work on a side project, they can play a hobby. You know, it doesn't have to be directly relevant. They don't have to justify it to their boss. All they have to do is promise to share it with their colleagues.
And, you know, and so this sends an important message, I think, early on that, you know, we've hired you, we think you're smart, we trust you, we trust you to find solutions, you manage your attention in your own way.
And so if being productive means taking a nap on the couch, OK. If, you know, if it means going for a walk on our 500-acre campus, that's OK, too. If it means sitting at your desk and staring at your computer screen, that's OK. So they trust their employees, I think, at a very fundamental level, to manage their own attention. And I think when one looks at the research on individual creativity that's, you know, that's a really good thing because sometimes, you know, the things that generate those moments of insight aren't things that look productive from the outside.
Your boss may think you're wasting time: You're taking a nap in the, you know, couch in the sun. And yet when you look at where insights come from, they often come when we least expect them, you know? In fact, that's one of the defining features of moments of insight, that they only arrive after we stop looking for them.
So if you're an engineer, and you're stumped by your technical problem, chugging caffeine at your desk and chaining yourself to your computer, you're going to be really frustrated. You're going to waste lots of time. You may look productive, but you're actually wasting time. So instead at that moment, you should go for a walk. You should play some ping-pong. You should find a way to relax.
DAVIES: And why do blue rooms make you more likely to have moments of insight?
LEHRER: Well, so this is a well-done experiment where they actually brought in 650 subjects and put some of them in red rooms and exposed them to the color red and some people exposed to the color blue. And what they found is that people exposed to the color red, they performed better on tasks that require attention and vigilance. So, copy-editing, you know, long division, arithmetic, stuff like that.
And that's because red reminds us of stop signs and blood and danger. So we become more attentive and aware. Blue rooms and the color blue, on the other hand, makes us think of the ocean and the sky. So we think in more relaxed associations. We think in more abstract terms. And when you need to solve a difficult creative puzzle, that's a really good thing.
So that seems to explain, that's - at least the scientists argue that's why blue rooms come with this creative perk.
DAVIES: Tell the story about the mops.
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LEHRER: So I begin the book by talking about a frustrating challenge for Procter & Gamble, which was they wanted to invent a new line of soaps for their mops. This seemed like a relatively straightforward chemistry question. So they gave it to a team of chemists who struggled for years to come up with a stronger soap. Because it turns out that you can make a soap stronger, but then you may peel the varnish off wood floors, you may irritate delicate skin. It's actually a very tough chemistry problem.
So after a couple years of struggle and failure, the executives at Procter & Gamble decided OK, you know, enough with these chemists, let's just outsource this problem. So they gave it to a design firm called Continuum, which is based outside Boston. And the guys at Continuum began by spending nine months watching people mop their floor.
The first thing they discovered, and this took several months of careful observation, is that...
DAVIES: So instead of - they got out of the chemistry lab and watched people...
LEHRER: Yeah, yeah, they said we don't know more chemistry than the chemists at Procter & Gamble. At the time, Procter & Gamble had more Ph.D.s on staff than any other company in the world. This was an innovation powerhouse, and the guys at Continuum, you know, they said we're not going to out-chemistry these chemists. You know, maybe we should just watch people mop?
So they watched people mop, and I've seen some of these videotapes, and they are as tedious as they sound. You are watching people mop their floor, splashing around dirty water in the bathtub. And the first thing they discovered is that mopping is a terrible idea, that people spend more time cleaning their cleaning tool, cleaning the mop, than they do cleaning the actual floor.
And that's for the very simple reason that mops over the years had been designed to attract dirt, to pick dirt up off the floor. But that made it very tough to get the dirt out of the mop head. And so you watch these videos of people splashing around dirty, filthy water, struggling in vain to get their mop clean, but the mop can't be cleaned, and so they just end up putting the dirty water back on the floor.
It's - it becomes very clear that mopping is a bad technology. Then we need something better. But they didn't know how to replace it. And so then one day, they're making another field visit. And it's an elderly lady, and they surreptitiously spill some coffee on her floor. Because one of the things you find when you make site visits, and you tell people we're coming to watch you clean your floors, that they clean their floor before you actually get there, you know, because they want the house to be spotless. But then you're not really seeing how people do it.
And so they spilled some intentional - they intentionally spilled some coffee on her floor, and then they watched how she cleaned it up. And although this lady said that she always vacuumed and mopped, that's not what she did. Instead, she got out her paper towels and tore a paper towel and wet them with some water and then wiped it along the floor.
And right there, that is when they had their big idea, and that's where the Swiffer came from.
DAVIES: Which is essentially a disposable cover that goes on an extension like a mop. So you...
LEHRER: Yeah, it's the pole of a mop but with a disposable wipe on the end, and in cleaning tests, it turns out to be very effective. People like it more because they can see how - you know, they can see the dirt they get off. And it solves the basic problem of mops, which is that it's tough to come up with a tool, a mop head, which is both good at getting dirt off the floor and also being able to get the dirt out of the mop head.
DAVIES: So we've been talking about insight, these sort of flashes of knowledge that come to us from we don't know where. You write that there's another way of - there's another kind of brilliance, which is kind of the blue-collar way, pounding away it, focus and persistence. And people use amphetamines.
I mean, like, now, I think of this as the kind of thing that would be helpful for an interstate truck driver, but you write that it is also helpful to poets and artists.
LEHRER: I mean, it would be wonderful if the recipe for all kinds of creativity was just to take showers and play ping-pong and go on vacation and go for walks on the beach. But when you really talk to people in the creative business, you know, they want to tell their romantic stories about the epiphanies, but then if you really push them, they talk about, well, even that epiphany, I had to go through lots of edits on it, you know, and iterations and so lots of red pen on the page.
And so lots of hard work after we have the big idea. That's a big part of the creative process, too, and it is not as fun. In fact, there's interesting evidence that it makes us melancholy and a little bit depressed. But it's a crucial part of creating something, creating something interesting and worthwhile. If creativity were, you know, were always easy or just about these blinding flashes, you know, Pablo Picasso wouldn't be so famous.
So when you also tell the story of creativity, and what's interesting to me about telling the story is about telling it from the perspective of the brain and so you can see that this kind of creativity requires very different circuits, it depends on very different brain areas than those moments of insight coming from the back of the right hemisphere. But it's still a crucial part of the creative process.
DAVIES: Yeah, talk about the neurology of that kind of creativity.
LEHRER: So in the book, I begin by - I begin this chapter on this blue-collar kind of creativity, as you describe - I mean, I love that phrase - by telling the story of W.H. Auden, who in the late 1930s moved to America and is introduced to amphetamines, Benzedrine, by an editor, and at first it was great because it allowed him to write during the day and then go to nightclubs during the evening.
But he quickly discovered that these amphetamines came with this productive perk, which is that they let him focus for hours and hours at a time on a single line of poetry, on a single metaphor. And so he could really drill down and keep on editing until it was crystalline and perfect, until his poems were, you know, were just transparent and so beautiful.
And when you look at the career of Auden, his most anthologized poems often come from his Benzedrine phase, come from this period when he was writing poems which were very, very clear and very, very elegant and poems like "September 1, 1939," which, you know, is in so many anthologies.
And so I was interested in how this pill - and many writers have taken Benzedrine, from Philip K. Dick to Jack Kerouac, to Auden - how this pill influenced his actual output. And I think what it helped him do was stick with the poems until they were perfect, until there wasn't a single flabby line and, you know, an excess metaphor. You know, they were just really, really well-edited.
And that's what, in his case, Benzedrine helped him do. Of course, Benzedrine and other amphetamines come with all sorts of terrible side effects, and they are very, very addictive, which is why they're now illegal, and Auden struggled for years to quit. But they also allowed him to persist with his poetry until it was perfect.
GROSS: Jonah Lehrer will continue his conversation with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Lehrer's new book is called "Imagine: How Creativity Works." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with science writer Jonah Lehrer, author of the new book "Imagine: How Creativity Works." It's about what scientists are learning about the process of creativity.
In the first part of our show, Lehrer talked about how ideas often come out of the blue - in the shower, on a walk, after a nap, or after you think you've hit a wall.
DAVIES: You also find that there's a correlation between negative moods - specifically depression...
DAVIES: ...and creativity, and this, of course, conforms to the stereotype of the tortured artist. Is there evidence that this is the case?
LEHRER: Yes. I think one of the surprising things that's emerged from the study of moods in recent years has been that putting people in a bad mood - making them a little bit sad, a little bit melancholy - actually comes with some cognitive benefits. So you can induce sadness pretty easily in a lab. You can show people a five-minute video about death and cancer, and sure enough, they'll be a little downcast after that. Then you can give them various tests. You can give them tests of attention and memory. You can give them, you can ask them to make a collage and then have an independent panel of judges assess all the collages. And what you find is that people who you've made a little bit sad will make better collages 'cause they'll persist longer. They'll remember more. They'll be more attentive, so they'll score higher on all these metrics. So sadness, you know, although it of course isn't fun, it's not pleasant, it does sharpen the mind a little bit.
And one of the longstanding mysteries in the field of creativity has been this correlation - and this was first identified by Kay Redfield Jamison and others - between people suffering from various kinds of depression - especially bipolar depression - and creative output. And depending on the study you look at, the, you know, the people who are successful creators - especially successful writers, that's the best studied field - are anywhere between eight and 40 times more likely to suffer from bipolar depression than the general public. And really no one's known what to make of this. You know, it's tough to associate creativity with mental illness because obviously if you're very ill, it just gets in the way. It's, you know, we can't think through it. You know, the suffering is too intense. But one of the theories now is that the, you know, the terrible swings of the mental illness - of manic depression, of bipolar depression - you know, you get these manic highs, these euphorias, when the ideas just pour out of you. And you need to write them down. That's followed by this dismal low period when, you know, when maybe you're a better editor, when maybe it's easier for you to focus and refine those epiphanies into, you know, a perfect form and to persist with draft after draft after draft. So the thinking now is that maybe this correlation between bipolar depression and artistic productions exists because the, you know, the awful swings of the mental illness in a sense echo the natural swings of the creative process.
DAVIES: You also write about improvisation. You talk about watching Yo-Yo Ma interpret and perform a piece, and also improvisational comics. There's something in common here. What's going on neurologically in this kind of creativity?
LEHRER: So this is very interesting work done at Johns Hopkins, where what they did was they actually put jazz pianists in an FMRI machine and they had them first play a melody they'd memorize in advance and they had them play an improvised melody. And what they discovered is that before the improv began, these expert jazz pianists turned off a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, it's just behind your forehead. And there's a sharp drop of activity in this brain area. And this is a part of the brain which is closely associated with impulse control. So it keeps us from saying stupid stuff, it keeps us from eating too much chocolate cake, from shoplifting, it allows us to act like mature adults, in other words. And yet what these, you know, improvisational artists, what these spontaneous performers were able to do is when the situation demanded it, they could just silence it. They could inhibit their inhibitions on command, and that allowed them to create without worrying about what they're creating.
And the thing, when you're in the improv business, that's a big part of what the job is all about. It's about learning how to let yourself go, learning how to play like a little kid without worrying about making the, you know, playing the wrong note or drawing outside the box. You're just interested in the process of creation. And when I got to spend some time at Second City, you know, the famous improv club and school, and you watch these performers warm up, you realize that they actually call it getting out of your head. They called their warm-up exercise now we're going to get out of our heads. And they'd do stuff like they walk around in circles making flatulent noises, so farting sounds. And they'll have a five-minute confessional, where they've got to say something really embarrassing without thinking about just how embarrassing it is. And so all their warm-up exercises are really about learning how to turn off that part of the brain, to learning how to let themselves go.
DAVIES: And how does that work with Yo-Yo Ma? What does he do that's distinct and that involves sort of shutting off those inhibitions?
LEHRER: Well, I think for Yo-Yo, it really is about learning how to relax. So he told me this great story about before he goes out on stage, he often thinks about Julia Child. And at first I was, why Julia Child? And he tells this wonderful story about the great thing about Julia Child is, you know, she'd be making a roast chicken and it looked beautiful and then she'd be talking to the camera and the chicken would just fall off the plate, fall onto the floor. And he said, did she make this look of horror? Did she scream? No, no, she - smile never left her face. She picked up the chicken, dusted it off and just went on with the show. And he says that's an inspiring story to think about when you're in the midst of performance, because you're going to make a mistake and your attitude has to be, I welcome that first mistake because now I'm free.
And it's that attitude, that lesson of Julia Child which I think allows him to create and emote and play beautiful sounds, and very complicated sounds, without worrying too much about playing the wrong note, about making a mistake, because if you're too worried about that, you're going to be paralyzed. You won't be able to fully express the emotions you need to express.
DAVIES: So it's a trade-off between, in some sense, concentrating on the technical details and the emotion of it, right?
LEHRER: Exactly. You know, he describes his favorite creative moment as being half conscious and half unconscious - where you are fully absorbed in the frets, in the notes, in the strings, in the sound, in those notes on the page, but part of you also just letting yourself go. Part of you is not worrying at all about what you're doing. You're just in the moment.
DAVIES: So this kind of creativity, which is sort of shutting off your inhibitions, which means kind of, what, deactivating the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex...
DAVIES: If I've got that...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: It would help Yo-Yo Ma, it would help improvisational comics. Does it also help, you know, scientists, you know, biomedical researchers, that kind of thing too?
LEHRER: Yeah. I mean I think so. I mean this is best studied in, you know, the mode of creative performance. These people, when you think about it, it's totally astonishing that a, you know, a jazz performer can just walk out on stage and have no idea what they're going to play and just trust their brain to create something beautiful. But I think it's a kind of thinking which we all can benefit from. It's, you know, it's the kind of thinking that kids engage in naturally, so the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is one of the last brain areas to come online. And one theory is that it helps explain what educators refer to as the fourth grade slump. So it's about in fourth grade when all of a sudden kids lose interest in drawing and painting and art projects in school because all of a sudden they're aware that you can draw the wrong line, you can put the brush in the wrong place, that you can make mistakes, that their works of arts don't quite live up to their expectations and don't quite look like what they're trying to draw. And that kind of self-awareness does get in the way. It does get in the way of our natural innovation.
There's a quote about Picasso, about every child is born an artist. The problem is what happens when we grow up. So, you know, I think we can learn to recover this kind of childish exuberance. We can learn how not to hold ourselves back.
DAVIES: Right. You write that it's outsiders that often come up with the solutions - the people who aren't experts, who aren't immersed in technical details, and the outsiders in our society are young people in a lot of cases.
LEHRER: Yeah. Yeah. So this is nicely demonstrated by Dean Simonton, a psychologistat UC Davis, who - he's been studying for decades what he calls the peak age of creativity. And what he's found is that different fields have different peak ages. So if you are a physicist or a poet, your peak age of creativity is going to be pretty young. Maybe in your late 20s or early 30s. If you're a microbiologist, it's going to be in your late 30s. If you're a historian, it may be in your late 40s. So different fields have different peak ages, depending upon exactly how much information you have to master before you can create some new and noteworthy connections.
But, you know, the original thinking as to why these peak ages existed was that there was something inevitable about the aging process, that after we peak at the age of 35, let's say, depending on the field, that, you know, the imagination starts to fall apart. It's a bit like long-term memory; just as our memory declines with age, maybe the imagination was the same way. This is a kind of depressing idea, that there is nothing you can do to stop this dismal downward trend. But now the thinking is that there's nothing inevitable about this loss, which is why some creative people can, you know, can maintain their imaginative output for their entire career. Instead, the decline of creativity with time is really about what psychologists refer to as enculturation - that as we get older, as we get tenure in a field, we become invested in the status quo. We develop habitual ways of thinking, routines; you know, we develop customs in terms of how we solve problems, and those make our life a little bit easier. They make it easier to apply for grants. They make our days a little bit more efficient. But they also make it harder to think outside the box. They make it harder to really be innovative.
DAVIES: There's a fascinating study that you describe where people, two groups of people are given a set of facts and are asked to come up with some ideas. And the one difference in the set of instructions is one group is told at first pretend you're seven years old.
DAVIES: And then what are the results between the two groups.
LEHRER: The group who pretended they were seven years old solved a lot more problems. This was a divergent thinking task, so it's stuff like come up with more uses for brick, solve various insight puzzles. And the group that pretended they were seven years old, even though they were just pretending for a couple minutes, solved a lot more of them. And that gets us back to the benefits of this childish kind of creativity - the letting-go process - that simply by remembering what it was like to be a little kid, we were able to become more creative.
DAVIES: So you should begin your day by pretending you're a kid.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LEHRER: Begin with a hot shower and pretend you're a seven-year-old.
DAVIES: You write that studies of most company brainstorming sessions show they really don't work.
DAVIES: What's wrong with them?
LEHRER: Well, brainstorming was invented by Alex Osborn, the head of BBDO, back in the late 1940s, and he was kind of the Don Draper of his day. And in a series of best-selling business books he outlined this new way of group collaboration he called brainstorming. The two rules of brainstorming were simple. The first rule was whatever you do, don't criticize the ideas of someone else; it's a criticism-free zone; that's because the imagination is very meek and shy and if it's worried about being criticized, it'll just clam up. Second rule is quantity over quality. Now, this feels nice. I mean it's a feel-good productivity technique, 'cause we can all come into a room, fill a whiteboard with our free associations, no one gets their feelings hurt, we all feel like we contributed. The only problem with brainstorming is that it doesn't seem to work, and we've known this for 50 years. We've been testing brainstorming in the lab for 50 years and study after study shows that people actually seem to do better working by themselves than when they do when they come together and brainstorm on. And the reason brainstorming doesn't work gets us back to the very first rule, which is thou shall not criticize.
Studies done by Charlan Nemeth at UC Berkeley have shown that when people actually engage in acts of debate and dissent, when they are encouraged to constructively criticize each other, that groups come up with anywhere between 20 to 30 percent more new ideas and those ideas are rated as better. There's something about criticism, about debate, the act of debating and dissenting which really draws us out, which forces us to dig a little bit deeper. When we're not worried about criticism, we tend to skim along the superficial surface of the imagination, that the possibility of debate and dissent really draws us in, surprises us, really, you know, we're really fully engaged, we start really listening to other people, and that's when interesting things happen.
DAVIES: Well, Jonah Lehrer, it's been really interesting. Thanks so much.
LEHRER: Thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: Jonah Lehrer spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Lehrer's new book is called "Imagine: How Creativity Works." You can read an excerpt on our website, FRESH AIR.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.