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Imagine: how creativity works – Jonah Lehrer ***

Very much of the journalism-based, story telling, popular science style, there is no doubt that this is a very readable book from an enthusiastic writer. As someone who has trained people in business creativity for over 15 years, it was also very interesting seeing a degree of scientific basis for what we’ve known pragmatically for a long time about ways of being creative. As often is the case with brain-based popular science, the scientific backup is primarily through studies of how the brain acts using fMRI and EEG.
So far, so good. But I do have some issues. For me the ‘practical’ creative aspects of the book work much better than the ‘arty’ side. In the end, to an extent, this is inevitable because the arty side is so subjective. Jonah Lehrer (any relation to the very creative Tom? the bio doesn’t say) positively drools over how wonderful and creative Bob Dylan is. I find Dylan boring, pretentious and anything but creative. So that’s a whole chunk of the book that turns me off. You can’t argue about the creativity of a new product or invention – you certainly can about art.
There are, nonetheless, some very interesting observations – and it’s certainly not all as commonplace as ‘it helps to go and have a walk if you’re trying to come up with an idea’. (This may seem trivial, but it’s one of the most powerful aids to creativity.) I was really interested in the aspects of the influence of cities over productivity, and how electronic versions don’t deliver the same effect.
Unfortunately, Lehrer does get one thing totally wrong. He slags off the great Alex Osborn, because his idea ‘brainstorming’ doesn’t really deliver. This is a classic misunderstanding that tends to come if you don’t actually read Osborn’s books. He never intended brainstorming to be used in isolation to generate ideas. It’s an idea collection technique, not a generation technique – it’s supposed to be used alongside a generation technique, which Lehrer doesn’t mention. He also collapses the creative process, usually at its best consisting of at least four stages, into a single event and so totally fails to understand it.
Despite this, though, there a fair amount of useful material in a book that is generally an easy read. It just isn’t the masterpiece that it seems to think it is.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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