Friday, 10 August 2012

Extended review of Lehrer's "Imagination.." (Incomplete)

(Incomplete) Comments on Jonah Lehrer’s (2012) ”Imagination: How creativity works”. Edinburgh: Canongate. ISBN 978 1 84767 786 0.  (Withdrawn from publication, 31 July, 2012)

The topic of creativity intrigues a wide range of scientists, educationalists, business and lay-people. It is a constant source of new books every year, from the purely scholarly, to practical manuals, to popularising attempts for the general reader. Jonah Lehrer aims to increase the public’s understanding of what advances scientists may have been making in this area and to draw some practical implications. Popularising books are strongly biased towards providing definite and clear conclusions – which are often not actually available given current disputes and contradictory evidence. The lay audience is presumed not to be interested in ambiguities and questions that require future research. Single eye catching results are highlighted and treated as if they are definitive as long as they make a nice story. Readers do not want to be troubled by tedious attempts at defining terms or providing historical context. Lehrer’s book shows all these characteristics of the genre.

Although in the Introduction it is stated that “...the standard definition of creativity is completely wrong.” (author’s italics, p. xvii) no clear definition, standard or otherwise of creativity, is explicitly given. Normally, creativity is defined as the ability to produce novel and valuable products and nothing here really contradicts that neutral definition. Controversy starts when we attempt to say how novel and valuable products might be generated. Lehrer states that, since the Ancient Greeks, people have assumed that imagination/creativity is separate from other kinds of cognition but that the latest scientific news is that “...creativity is a catch all term for a variety of distinct thought processes.” (authors italics, p.xvii). So, he implies that previous to c. 2012 creativity was seen as an ability underlain by a single unitary process. This is somewhat undermined by the quotation on p.39, from Hume’s An Enquiry into Human Understanding of 1771 expressing a multiple processes view of creativity as “...compounding, transposing, augmenting or diminishing materials afforded by the senses...” . Around a century ago, Poincare and Wallas in the 1910s and 1920s divided creativity into a number of distinct, if rather broad, processes of Preparation (conscious work), Incubation (problem set aside, after impasse, possible unconscious work), Insight (awareness of promising idea) and Verification (conscious work to develop idea). So a multiple processes view predates, “the latest science” by a wide margin. Although, strangely, Lehrer does not mention either Poincare or Wallas (who nearly always feature in accounts of creativity), the initial chapters 1-2 largely address unconscious work (Incubation) and Insight while chapter 3 focusses on conscious work in creativity, as in Preparation and Verification. Later chapters discuss improvisation, expertise and its possible positive and negative effects, and socio-cultural factors.

Chapter 1, “Bob Dylan’s Brain”, highlights a difficulty that many cognitive psychologists will have with the treatment of neuroimaging and neuropsychological data and speculation in this book. To put my cards on the table, I am of the view that the cognitive level (information processing strategies, use of different types of memory, types of representation and so on) is key and needs to be specified in some detail before neuro-data can be interpreted as showing how the cognitive level functions are implemented in the brain. If we are told, as we are, that people who solve an insight problem show more activation in the aTSG brain region this doesn’t tell us how the problem was solved in information processing terms. As Fodor (1999) put it, “If the mind happens in space at all, it happens somewhere north of the neck. What exactly turns on knowing how far north?” Lehrer presents a simple localisation view and assumes that brain imaging data can be taken at face value, despite the well known problems of interpreting fMRI results (for instance, difficulties with subtraction method, low temporal resolution, statistical issues, reverse inferences, and replicability.) He contends that Dylan’s production of “Like a Rolling Stone” is a mystery that can only be understood by “breaking into the 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 of Dylan, we are told that once upon a time, Bob Dylan’s right hemisphere generated the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone”, complete and entire in one continuous process. This introduces a new level of unreliable anecdotage (the “neuro-tale”?) in which the writer imagines brain processes underlying real behavioural events (e.g. , Dylan really wrote “Like a Rolling Stone”) and then presents the imaginings as facts. In different interviews, Dylan, never exactly a reliable witness and well known for kidding interviewers, mentions producing a prose piece thematically related to “Like a Rolling Stone” in a manner he likened to vomiting; and he gives the piece so produced as sometimes as 6 and sometimes 20 pages long. It seems much more likely that the prose piece was produced by a freewheeling improvisational method (as favoured by Beat and Surrealist writers whom Dylan admired) and then edited and revised down to its final tight lyrical form of some 96 short lines, rather than being produced in its final form in one pass. The music also needed to be generated; a derivation from “La Bamba” has been suggested but how this came about is not discussed.

At the artistic level, Lehrer also speculates freely. For example, “Miss Lonely” in the song went to the finest school, but “...only used to get juiced in it.” Lehrer says that the listener would have no idea what “juiced in it” would mean. And that it was only there to rhyme with the later “...youre gonna have to get used to it”. However, almost everybody in 1965 would be familiar with the slang use of “juiced” for “drunk”; the line makes perfect sense.

Chapter 2 reviews research on the benefits of diffuse attentional states such as occur when very relaxed or daydreaming, as against very focussed attentional states in solving problems that require unusual combinations of ideas or approaches, interlaced with anecdotes about inventions such as, those of masking tape, sellotape and the oft told story of the post-it note. However, the stories don’t always seem to match the intended lesson. The inventor of masking tape, Dick Drew, engaged in months of trial and error testing of adhesives and backing materials but with the basic idea of masking sheets of material. Eventually, he had the idea of the paper in a long strip, rolled up like a spool of ribbon. This was much more effective than separate squares of paper for the goal. However, we don’t actually know whether this insight occurred during a diffuse attentional state or not; it is simply asserted that it was. Similarly the story about the use of post-it notes for communicating comments, as against as simple bookmarks, seems to have arisen from an insight which quickly proved useful, but whether the inventor, Arthur Fry, was in a diffuse attentional state at the time of the insight is unknown.


........On 31 July, 2012, before my extended review was complete, the US and UK publishers withdrew the print and e-versions of “Imagine”, following Lehrer’s admission of fabricating quotes from Dylan...


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