Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Brief review of J Lehrer's "Imagination..."

Imagining how creativity works?

Ken Gilhooly

A Review of “Imagination: How creativity works”, by Jonah Lehrer. Canongate. 2012.

ISBN 978 1 84767 786 0.

(Note: Review was scheduled to appear in The Psychologist but as book was withdrawn, review was pulled).


Popular science writer Jonah Lehrer has added to the ever growing creativity book mountain, and offers the following take-home messages:

• “Creativity” is not a single process or ability but results from many different processes. These processes are conscious and attentionally focussed at some points and attentionally unfocussed and unconscious when progress stalls and new insights are needed.

• Applying knowledge from one field to a different field is often helpful.

• Creativity is enhanced by working in groups and in environments where different specialists can easily interact.

These take-home messages are not new, despite Lehrer’s claim that they are based on brand new science which overturns what everyone previously thought. This claim is contradicted by his 1771 quote (p.29) from David Hume, which endorses a modern style multiple processes view of creativity. Further, the idea of conscious and unconscious processing in creative work was set out at least as early as 1913 by Poincaré, and again in 1926 by Wallas, in the well-known proposal of Preparation, Incubation, Insight, and Verification stages. These two pioneers feature in most treatments of the psychology of creativity but are curiously absent from Lehrer’s text.

Although the conclusions are not controversial, the way in which they are backed up is rather unconvincing. There is a standard template for chapters in popular science books, i.e., story-study-lesson, which Lehrer follows . Chapter 3, for example is full of anecdotes about inventions such as masking tape. However, the stories don’t always seem to match the “relax, let the unconscious do the work” lesson of this Chapter. The inventor of masking tape engaged in months of (conscious) trial and error testing of materials with the idea of making masking sheets (not tapes). Eventually, he had the solution idea of the paper being in a long strip, rolled up like a spool of ribbon, rather than in sheets. However, we don’t really know if this insight occurred during a diffuse attentional state; it is simply asserted that it was.

Stories about mental processes, given long after the events, even if from “the horse’s mouth”, in view of all the frailties of memory and attention, are, sadly, worthless as scientific evidence.

The use of stories as evidence reaches an early peak in Chapter 1, “Bob Dylan’s Brain”. On the basis of two brain imaging studies of the Remote Associates Task and a Right v Left Visual Field priming study of insight problem solving (misreported as Right v Left Eye priming), together with one interview by Dylan (a famously unreliable witness), we are told that, “once upon a time”, Dylan’s brain’s right hemisphere generated the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone”, complete and entire in one continuous process. This chapter introduces a new level of unreliable anecdotage (the “neuro-tale”?) in which the writer imagines brain processes underlying real behavioural events and then presents the imaginings without qualifications as facts. In addition, the neuroimaging studies cited as justifying the right hemisphere story are not of lyric composition tasks and so linking those studies to the writing of a complex lyric is a considerable stretch.

The “study” parts of the chapters tend to report only a very few, highly selected, experiments which gave eyecatching results supporting the current story line; careful meta-analyses of conflicting results are not to be found here.

Overall, Lehrer’s conclusions are fairly uncontroversial, and the book is written in an engaging style, but the arguments are more suggestive rhetoric than solid scientific argumentation with clearly defined concepts and a solid evidence base.

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