Imagine: How Creativity Works

Imagine: How Creativity Works

The book Imagine: How Creativity Works is Jonah Lehrer’s newest exploration of how creativity and innovation happen in our brains, in our interactions with others, in how we structure learning and productivity in the arts, in the classroom, in business.

The most creative place in every office is not the boardroom or the lab or the library; it’s the coffee machine where people can share ideas informally;
Focusing on the color blue – the color of the vast spaces of the sky and ocean – can relax your brain and double your creative output;
Constructive criticism consistently generates more new ideas than brainstorming.

Lehrer posits that creativity comes from a variety of distinctive thought processes that can be learned:
productive daydreaming
adopting an outsider’s perspective
interacting and collaborating rather than holing up in a cubicle.

Lehrer makes the compelling case that creativity is not the special gift of a lucky few. We all can expand our creative potential by learning how to synergize the different ways of thinking and imagining in our left and right brains and learn how to collaborate productively with others.

The book Imagine presents the neuroscience of creativity through fascinating case studies and brilliant humor. May the reflections below on how to generate new ideas and evoke epiphanies be useful to you and yours.

REFLECTIONS on Imagine: How Creativity Works

Creativity is more than one specific process and it requires the optimal functioning of more than one particular part of the brain. Here I’m exploring epiphanies, the sudden bursts of new insight or aha!’s that appear suddenly, “out of the blue,” carrying with them a powerful intuitive “truth sense,” yes, that’s it! That’s it exactly! As when Isaac Newton’s bonk on the head by an apple led to his “sudden” understanding of the force of gravity. These epiphanies lead to brilliantly innovative changes in our lives, in our societies.

To increase the likelihood of new insights or “aha!s” popping up “out of the blue”, Lehrer suggests several things:

1) the necessity of a constraint, a block, an impasse, to force the brain to give up old strategies and begin to look for new ones. A simple example: the constraint of the form of a sonnet or haiku that forces the brain to search for new metaphors to express something, new connections between images and associations.

Lehrer says, “Before there can be a breakthrough, there has to be a block.” He re-frames hitting the wall, being stumped, as the impasse essential to insight. When we’re trying to solve a problem, we have to see the dimensions of the box we’re in before we can begin to think creatively “outside the box.”

2) the importance of daydreaming and reverie to relax the old pre-conceived notions of a problem and to allow the brain to create new associations, to connect the dots in a new way. Whenever we de-focus our attention on a problem – when we daydream, when we first wake up in the morning, when we take a warm shower, when we stroll slowly through the neighborhood – we relax our brain into an alpha wave frequency; we can feel calm and tranquil. That frequency tips us into what neuroscientist Marcus Raichle calls the “default network” of the brain. What our brains do when they’re not “doing” anything, when they are not focused on the outside world. And what they do, focused on the inner world, is “play.” The brain plays with ideas, with concepts, with associations, linking them and blending them in new ways. This playing may not always come to conscious awareness, but it is creating the conditions for the brain to become suddenly conscious of a new idea “out of the blue.”

(P.S. A happy mood can relax our brains into this alpha state as well. Cultivating positive emotions could contribute to generating new ideas, new possibilities in general. And Lehrer reports, companies that allow their researchers to spend at least 15% of their time in unbridled daydreaming are phenomenally more successful at inventing new products than companies that don’t “believe in” the power of reverie.)

3) the right hemisphere specializes in “playing” with the dots

While the left hemisphere of the brain has evolved to search for answers through analysis – de-constructing a whole (problem) into its parts, the right hemisphere specializes in creating original and overlapping associations among distant and unrelated parts. (The left hemisphere can examine the chlorophyll in a leaf on a tree; the right hemisphere sees the entire forest. The right hemisphere connects disparate parts (the eye, ear, nose, mouth) to perceive the face as a whole.

Metaphor is an example of the right hemisphere using its capacities to create meaning from previously unassociated, unconnected dots, as when Romeo declares, “Juliet is the sun.” We intuitively comprehend the poetic meaning of that metaphor, even thought it doesn’t square with scientific fact. It’s this capacity of the right hemisphere to link previously unassociated dots in new ways – Juliet and sun – that creates the conditions for a “new” insight to to suddenly emerge in our consciousness.

4) a proposed neural correlate of epiphany: Neuroscientist Max Beeman and psychologist John Kounios used both fMRS’s and EEG’s to discover measurable bursts of activity in the brain immediately preceding a sudden revelation or insight. Gamma wave frequency is the highest brain wave frequency in the brain; it occurs when many parts of the brain are firing rapidly and in synchrony; new complex neural networks are being created (as the right hemisphere does when it creates new associations among old ideas.) Beeman and Kouinos discovered a measurable spike in gamma wave frequencies 30 milliseconds before an insight breaks through into consciousness. They also discovered a small fold of tissue located on the surface of the right hemisphere just above the ear – the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG) that is unusually active (“lights up” in the scanners measuring brain activity in real time) just seconds before an epiphany. The aSTG is located in the same part of the right hemisphere that connects unrelated dots in terms of the “epiphany” of metaphors and comprehending jokes, or in the case of this research, in solving puzzles.

These neural correlates give us new insight into where insight comes from in the brain, rather than “out of the blue.” The more comfortable we become at allowing our brains to “free associate,” the more likely we are to create more new insights and epiphanies.

5) adopting the perspective of an outsider. We create the conditions for new insights and epiphanies anytime we look at the old and the unsolvable from the perspective of the outsider. (Zen mind, beginner’s mind.) One of the ways Lehrer recommends to put on the lens of the outsider is to travel. For real. If we need a good excuse to break away from our familiar routine and take a long vacation, the benefit to our brains in terms of creativity might just tip the scales.

We can “travel” anytime we try a new restaurant or trade the car for the bus or a bike on our commute. We “shake up” and “wake up” the brain any time we present it with something unusual or strange to play with, as much as if we were in a foreign country exposed to new foods, values, and customs. The point is to cultivate an open-minded receptivity and comfort with the new so that we not only generate epiphanies but recognize them when they occur.

In Imagine, Lehrer presents up to date research and examples from many other angles on creativity: conceptual blending among folks from radically different paradigms; letting go of inhibiting impulses, blending experienced hands with absolute newbies. In Resources below is a link to an hour-long interview with Lehrer by NPR’s Michael Krazny. Treat yourself to a fresh new look at your own creativity…and enjoy.


Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.
– Albert Einstein

* * * * *

Play, in short, prepares the brain to handle the unexpected.
– Lee Alan Dugatkin.

* * * * *

I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an eggplant.
– Ursula K. LeGuin

* * * * *

Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naivete, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.
– Steve Martin

* * * * *

Perhaps imagination is only intelligence having fun.
– George Scialabba

* * * * *

Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.
– George Lois

* * * * *

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
– Albert Einstein

* * * * *

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And reverie.
The reverie alone will do,
If bees are few.
– Emily Dickinson


Imagine is full of stories about the role of creativity in a broad range of human endeavors, from Bob Dylan’s “Like a RollingStone” or West Side Story” to the invention of masking tape and post-it notes. One of my favorites, from Pixar animation studios:

When Steve Jobs took over the direction of Pixar, he wanted to encourage employees – make it impossible not to – to interact many, many times a day, all throughout the day. To create a “collision of cultures and clashes” among the artists and the techies that would spark mutual learning and innovation. Jobs created a spacious atrium in the center of the main building, and then moved the mailboxes there. And the cafeteria. All the meeting rooms. And the coffee bar. Eventually, he moved all of the bathrooms for the entire facility into that central atrium.

People would chat at the bathroom sink or waiting in line for lattes. They made eye contact; they shared ideas. (A quote from Albert Einstein that Lehrer used in the book: “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.) These casual encounters and random conversations became a constant source of good ideas. (A separate study at MIT verified – highest performing employees – those with the most useful new ideas – consistently engage in more interactions with colleagues – 4-9 each compared to low performing employees 1-2 each.)

Small wonder the motto of Pixar University, which offers employees more than one hundred classes on creativity, is “Alone No Longer.”

EXERCISES to Practice How Creativity Works

1. Re-framing blocks and impasses

We’ve all had occasion to rise to the occasion when confronted with an AFGO – another fricking growth opportunity. Choosing to frame a block or an impasse as an opportunity (Lehrer says a necessity) lets us not only look for new answers to old problems but to look for new ways to look for the answers. (Then take a walk around the neighborhood to give your brain a chance to do that.

2. Daydreaming and reverie

Lehrer distinguishes between daydreaming that drifts and daydreaming that discerns. We begin by de-focusing our attention on a particular problem in the outside world; we let the mind relax and drop into the default network of “non-doing” or reverie and play. But we still pay attention to the flow in our mind so that when a new idea “pops up.” We catch it. We note it down, maybe not apply it immediately, but we capture it in our conscious awareness for use later.

3) encouraging the right hemisphere to play with the dots

We honor the gift of the creative, intuitive mind any time we venture into poetry, music, the arts. Anytime we venture into interactions, connections, relationships with our fellow human beings. Any time we privilege creativity over productivity. (Lehrer certainly honors the necessity of the disciplined, focused, step-by-step stability of the left hemisphere to bring out creative endeavors to fruition.) Find one creative experience that calls to your heart the most and let yourself have a play date once a week. No product needed, just a love of the process that creates conditions in your brain to create new associations and to handle – even celebrate – the unexpected.

4) adopting the perspective of an outsider:

Experiment with “traveling” to a new bookstore or website, to a Spanish or drama class at the local community college, to a museum or eco-festival. Take a road trip to a new town or a new park. Put yourself in a venue where you might experience the collision of cultures and classes – simply to require your brain to leave its comfort zone and view things as an outsider, becoming comfortable with coping with the unusual, the foreign; stretching the capacities to imagine and create new connections between the old dots.


Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2012.

This page-turning exploration of the science of creativity “collapses the layers between neurons and a finished symphony,’ and illuminates the pathways in the brain, the dynamics in relationships, and the (de-)structuring of our institutions that would allow each and all of us to be more creative.

(NPR interview with Michael Krazny; a great hour long introduction to the book)

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. Mariner Books, 2009

A New York Times best-seller, and a well-researched exploration of the neuroscience of decision making, written in a breezy, accessible style. Full of dramatic stories and useful factoids.

Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2007.

Trained in both neuroscience and the fine arts, Lehrer offers fresh, original thinking in bridging the two very different cultures of science and art as synergistic paths to knowledge.