Monday, July 23, 2012

firing up the neurons

I just read the recent book Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer. Full disclosure, I listened to it, which at least in this case gives me a different experience of the text. Certain concepts and phrases reverberate in my head, but I can't easily flip back through the pages to reread what I particularly enjoyed, or didn't fully comprehend, or missed while executing a maneuver in traffic, or noisily inverting a wheelbarrow full of wood. For I have begun stacking firewood again. I discovered that listening to a book is a brilliant way to engage my brain while my body is physically exerting itself with the work. I don't know why I never did it before. I spend hours thinking my own thoughts enough as it is, which can be constructive and entertaining, but can play itself out and make me emotionally vulnerable to circular meanderings. I've become increasingly better at redirecting my thoughts in order to maintain equilibrium. This doesn't mean I've reduced my daydreaming, just that I'm more aware of its effects, and its varying degrees of usefulness.
This idea of mindful daydreaming leads me back to describing the book. I have referenced a few reviews (here's one from the Times worth linking to). Lehrer employs diverse and interesting case studies and explains neuroscience in a way that I find accessible; call it pop science, but it's popular because of how fascinating we find the idea of demystifying human creativity: How do insights happen, how does this translate into everyday applications?
"Drawing from a wide array of scientific and sociological research... he makes a convincing case that innovation cannot only be studied and measured, but also nurtured and encouraged, revealing creativity as less a sign of rare genius than a natural human potential."
"The book doesn’t offer a prescription for how we are to become more imaginative, but it does emphasize some key ingredients of a creative culture: taking education seriously, increasing possibilities for human mixing and cultivating a willingness to take risks," to not only seek inspiration but to recognize and welcome it when it comes. Not to mention the power of daydreaming and nonlinear thinking. The many anecdotes relate how others "transform practice, frustration, insight and persistence into artistry and industry."
One of the interviews I especially liked was with Milton Glaser, the legendary graphic designer, whose "Art Is Work" motto (and book) I appreciated years ago at SVA. When I was at the Vermont Studio Center in Feb, happy to be painting but mentally and physically weary due to life upheavals, focused but feeling disconnected, a friend wrote me some simple words I found comforting, among them, "Try and relax and produce. You need not feel like an outsider, you are an artist and have work to do. Keep making stuff." I did.
As I expected of Imagine given the complex subject, I perceived inevitable contradictions, occasional redundancy and a sense of inconclusiveness. How could it be otherwise? Does one mainline stimulants (not that this is encouraged, but is a common device)? Isolate oneself or be among others? Be relaxed or challenged? Energetic or depressed? What of the role of the Internet, its brimming potential for inspiration plus its spectacular ability to numb and distract? The obvious point that there is no singular path, as naturally the workings of creativity and the brain are ever shape-shifting. Considered by many to be smartly researched and very readable, the book provides everyone with something to chew on. Yet a kind of mystery still pervades. I felt that the contents of my mental toolbox had received a good polish; I could see them more clearly as they caught the light.


  1. Thank you for your thoughts. I bought this book from audible a few weeks ago, but still haven't listened to it . . . now I think it's time.
    You describe your inner experience very clearly, it feels very similar to my experience, when I read it. Maybe we really are less "outside" than we often perceive. PS: I like your writing, it reflects that polishing of your mental toolbox.

  2. thanks for reading my post, Carol, and I'm glad if it urged you to read/listen to the book. As for me I think I was better able to focus my attention while listening than if I'd read it on paper, it was that kind of material.