Where Creativity Comes From

Yesterday, I was writing an article about the NHL playoffs but didn’t have a clue about where to start. I was sitting at my desk looking at stats and slamming down cups of coffee but nothing was hitting. Then, I had to run a few errands and was sitting at a red light and the angle to take on the article hit me, it couldn’t have been clearer. Author Jonah Lehrer appeared on a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross to talk about his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. During the interview, Lehrer points out that these flashes of insight everyone has have been thoroughly studied and there are two principles that are generally agreed upon:

1. They come out of the blue. In the mid-‘60s Bob Dylan had just gotten off a grueling tour and was fed up with music. He moved to Woodstock, New York and was determined to become a painter and novelist but it was there that he came up with “Like A Rolling Stone,” which is now such a huge song that it’s talked about in frickin’ history classes.

2. When the answer arrives, we know it’s the answer. Think about when your washing in your hair or sitting on the toilet and the solution to a problem you’re having at work hits you. Do you ever second-guess it? I hope not, because that’d make this point totally irrelevant.

Lehrer points out that people who are more relaxed and those in good moods are more likely to solve problems. Companies are now giving their employees more control over their own attention. When places like Google and Facebook are in the news for letting their employees play Wii or napping during work hours it’s not because they want them to be lazy. They’re taking advantage of basic human psychology and giving the would-be drones some time to come up with their own inspiration.

Another interesting thing Lehrer points out is how beneficial the color blue is. People subliminally think of the sky and waves in the ocean when they see blue, whereas red causes the opposite reaction. Blue soothes us and improves mood, if only by a little bit. Note to self: wear blue to all future job interviews.

By this point in the interview I was thrilled. It turns out that I don’t work hard enough not because of my inherent laziness, but because I wasn’t playing enough ping pong. Not the case. Another mind sharpener is sadness, the tortured artist is a real thing. Lehrer mentions at one point that successful authors are 40% more likely to have bipolar disorder. That seems like a big difference from just being relaxed, but it gets even more complex than that.

Lehrer goes into a visit he once took to Chicago’s improv group The Second City. He said one of the biggest advantages comics in improv troupes have is that their ability to shut off a certain part of their brain. In certain situations, lacking an inhibition is the most important tool an artist, and lots of other peole, can use. Apparently, self-perception really sets in around fourth grade. It’s not a coincidence that students’ artistic and musical skills tend to take a downturn at that age, they’re too concerned with what everyone else thinks. Jeez, I’m glad I got that idea but the brain can really be depressing.


Find the Fresh Air interview at the above link or on iTunes. Imagine is available everywhere.

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