Author Interviews
2:17 pm
Mon March 19, 2012

'How Creativity Works': It's All In Your Imagination

Originally published on Wed March 21, 2012 8:22 am

What makes people creative? What gives some of us the ability to create work that captivates the eyes, minds and hearts of others? Jonah Lehrer, a writer specializing in neuroscience, addresses that question in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Lehrer defines creativity broadly, considering everything from the invention of masking tape to breakthroughs in mathematics; from memorable ad campaigns to Shakespearean tragedies. He finds that the conditions that favor creativity — our brains, our times, our buildings, our cities — are equally broad.

Lehrer joins NPR's Robert Siegel to talk about the creative process — where great ideas come from, how to foster them, and what to do when you inevitably get stuck.


Interview Highlights

On comparing Shakespeare with the inventor of masking tape

"I think we absolutely can lump them all together. I think one of the mistakes we've made in talking about creativity is we've assumed it's a single verb — that when people are creative they're just doing one particular kind of thinking. But looking at creativity from the perspective of the brain, we can see that creativity is actually a bundle of distinct mental processes.

"... Whether you're writing a Shakespearean tragedy, or trying to come up with a new graphic design or writing a piece of software, how we think about the problem should depend on the problem itself. Creativity is really a catch-all term for a variety of very different kinds of thinking."

On how Steve Jobs redesigned Pixar studios to maximize collaboration and creativity

"The original design for the Pixar studios consisted of three separate buildings, where they'd put the computer scientists in one building, and the animators in a second building and the third building would contain everybody else: the directors, the editors and so on. Steve realized that that was a terrible idea; that the real challenge of Pixar was getting people from these different cultures — these computer scientists and these cartoonists — to work together, to really collaborate. And so he insisted that Pixar studios just be one vast, cavernous space."

On forcing people to meet and mingle ... even if it's in the bathroom

"[Jobs] insisted there be only two bathrooms in the entire Pixar studios, and that these would be in the central space. And of course this is very inconvenient. No one wants to have to walk 15 minutes to go to the bathroom. And yet Steve insisted that this is the one place everyone has to go every day. And now you can talk to people at Pixar and they all have their 'bathroom story.' They all talk about the great conversation they had while washing their hands.

" ... He wanted there to be mixing. He knew that the human friction makes the sparks, and that when you're talking about a creative endeavor that requires people from different cultures to come together, you have to force them to mix; that our natural tendency is to stay isolated, to talk to people who are just like us, who speak our private languages, who understand our problems. But that's a big mistake. And so his design was to force people to come together even if it was just going to be in the bathroom."

On why you should stop trying to harness your brain, and instead help your brain get out of its harness

"The question becomes, what happens if you hit the wall? Because we've all got experience with this. You're working on a creative problem, and then all of a sudden that feeling of progress disappears ... What you should do then — when you hit the wall — is get away from your desk. Step away from the office. Take a long walk. Daydream. Find some way to relax. Get those alpha waves. Alpha waves are a signal in the brain that's closely correlated with states of relaxation. And what scientists have found is that when people are relaxed, they're much more likely to have those big 'A ha!' moments, those moments of insight where these seemingly impossible problems get solved. So when you hit the wall, the best thing you can do is probably take a very long, warm shower. The answer will only arrive once you stop looking for it."

On the relationship between creativity and originality — and being triggered by other people's ideas

"The brain is just an endless knot of connections. And a creative thought is simply ... a network that's connecting itself in a new way. Sometimes it's triggered by a misreading of an old novel. Sometimes it's triggered by a random thought walking down the street, or bumping into someone in the bathroom of the studio. There are all sorts of ways seemingly old ideas can get reassembled in a new way."

On the creative processes that resulted in Nike's "Just Do It" campaign

"This is a great story from Dan Wieden at Wieden+Kennedy, the very honored Portland ad firm. ... He'd come up with seven videos for the new Nike ad campaign. ... He knew these different videos which featured different sports needed a shared slogan. But he just couldn't think of the slogan. ... At some point during the day, somebody must've mentioned Norman Mailer to him. And so Norman Mailer was in the back of his head somewhere.

"It's near midnight. His deadline's approaching. He's really, really frustrated at this point because he can't come up with this damn slogan. And then suddenly he thinks of Norman Mailer. He remembers Norman Mailer wrote this book called The Executioner's Song about Gary Gilmore. And he remembers Gary Gilmore's last words right before he's executed by a firing squad in Utah. His last words were, 'Let's do it.'

"And Dan Wieden thinks to himself, Geez, that's pretty brave. That's a pretty brave sentiment to have right before you die — to just get it over with. But he realizes 'Let's Do It' isn't quite right, so he tweaks one word. And there you get 'Just Do It.' ... But that's a perfect example of how, in a sense, that's an old idea. It was a line in a Norman Mailer book, and he tweaked it ever so slightly. He substituted one word and came up with one of the most influential advertising slogans of the second half of the 20th century."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. What makes people creative? How is it that some people can make things that make the rest of us applaud or marvel at, sometimes for centuries?

The writer Jonah Lehrer, whose specialty is neuroscience, addresses that question in his new book, "Imagine." Lehrer defines creativity broadly. The creations he considers range from masking tape to Broadway musicals and breakthroughs in mathematics; from memorable ad campaigns to Shakespearean tragedies. And he finds that the conditions that favor creativity are equally broad - our brains, our times, our buildings, our cities.

Jonah Lehrer, welcome to the program.

JONAH LEHRER: Thank you so much for having me.

SIEGEL: And first, can we really find common explanations for the success of the inventor of masking tape and Shakespeare? Or are we lumping together apples, oranges, kiwi fruit and much else?

LEHRER: Well, I think we actually can lump them all together. I think creativity - I think one of the mistakes we've made in talking about creativity is, we've assumed it's a single verb; that when people are creative, they're just doing one particular kind of thinking.

By looking at creativity from the perspective of the brain, we can see that creativity is actually a bundle of distinct mental processes. And so how we think - whether you're writing a Shakespearean tragedy, or trying to come up with a new graphic design, or writing a piece of software - that how we think about the problem should depend on the problem itself; that creativity's really - catch-all term for a variety of very different kinds of thinking.

SIEGEL: I mentioned our buildings in the introduction. When Steve Jobs was at Pixar, you write, he was convinced that the layout of the building could either foster or impede creativity; the way the restrooms were.

LEHRER: Yeah. And the original design for the Pixar studios consisted of three separate buildings, where they put the computer scientists in one building and the animators in a second building; and the third building would contain everybody else, the directors, the editors and so on.

And Steve realized that that was a terrible idea; that the real challenge of Pixar was getting people from these different cultures - these computer scientists and these cartoonists - to work together, to really collaborate. And so he insisted that Pixar Studios just be one vast, cavernous space. And then he started moving everything to the atrium. So he started moving the mailboxes there and the cafe and the restaurant.

And finally - and this was his last big idea - he insisted there be only two bathrooms in the entire Pixar Studios, and that these would be in the central space. And of course, this is very inconvenient; no one wants to have to walk 15 minutes to go to the bathroom. And yet Steve insisted that this is the one place everyone has to go, every day.

And now, you can talk to people at Pixar - and they all have their bathroom story. They all talk about the great conversation they had while washing their hands.

SIEGEL: Because ....

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...he wanted there to be places where people who were trying to be creative would encounter other people who were trying to be creative.

LEHRER: Exactly. He wanted there to be mixing. He knew that the human friction makes the sparks and that when you're talking about a creative endeavor that requires people from different cultures to come together, you have to force them to mix; that our natural tendency is to stay isolated, to talk to people who are just like us, who speak our private languages, who understand our problems. But that's a big mistake.

And so his design was to force people to come together, even if it was just going to be in the bathroom.

SIEGEL: I'd like you to talk a little bit about the prefrontal cortex and the notion that being creative, sometimes, is not so much a matter of harnessing of the brain as in getting the brain out of its harness.

LEHRER: Well, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain just behind the forehead. And it's often referred to as the uniquely human part of the brain. It's the part of the brain that got greatly enlarged during human evolution. And it's essential for something called working memory, which is when you're focused on a task. When you're, you know, trying to go through edits on a poem or perfect a design or go over draft after draft of the symphony, this is the part of the brain you're engaging.

SIEGEL: But when our prefrontal cortex goes off the job, and it just lets our brains run free - well, we all do that every night, you add. This is what happens when we're dreaming, for example.

LEHRER: Yes. So then the question becomes - well, what happens if you hit the wall? Because we've all got experience with this, right? You're working on a creative problem and then all of a sudden, that feeling of progress disappears. And here is where I think the science was somewhat surprising to me. What you should do then, when you hit the wall, is get away from your desk. Step away from the office, take a long walk, daydream, find some way to relax.

Get those alpha waves. Alpha waves are a signal in the brain that's closely correlated with states of relaxation. And what scientists have found is that when people are relaxed, they're much more likely to have those big, aha moments; those moments of insight where the seemingly impossible problems get solved. So when you hit the wall, the best thing you can do is, probably, take a very long, warm shower. The answer will only arrive once you stop looking for it.

SIEGEL: OK. We are raised on the idea that creativity means being original. But time and again in your book, you return to the idea that creativity entails - at its most polite - horizontal patterns of sharing ideas, to more commonly just stealing ideas from other people. Is a central element of creativity noticing other stuff that other people have done, and using it?

LEHRER: Yeah. I think it's a way the brain can actually help illuminate the essence of creativity. The brain is just an endless knot of connections, and a creative thought is simply two cells, a network that's connecting itself in a new way. Sometimes, that's triggered by a misreading of an old novel. Sometimes, it's triggered by a random thought walking down the street - or bumping into someone in the bathroom of the studio.

There are all sorts of ways, you know, seemingly old ideas can get reassembled in a new way.

SIEGEL: One of the strangest patterns of a creative process that you relayed in the book, I thought, was the story of the ad man who came up with the big Nike "just do it" campaign and the phrase, "just do it." And he explains how that phrase - how that phrase - came to mind. And no one would have expected it.

LEHRER: Yeah, this is a great story from Dan Wieden at Wieden and Kennedy, the very honored Portland ad firm, and he tells this great story. He'd come up with seven videos for the new Nike ad campaign - and this is in the mid-'80s. But he knew these different videos, which featured different sports, needed a shared slogan. But he just couldn't think of the slogan. And so he'd held all these group meetings with people all throughout the day. They had all these conversations.

At some point during the day, somebody must have mentioned Normal Mailer to him. And so Norman Mailer was in the back of his head somewhere. And so it's near midnight; his deadline's approaching. He's really, really frustrated at this point because he can't come up with this damn slogan and then suddenly, he thinks of Norman Mailer. And he remembers Norman Mailer wrote this book called "The Executioner's Song," about Gary Gilmore. And he remembers Gary Gilmore's last words right before he's executed by a firing squad in Utah. His last words were: Let's do it.

And Dan Wieden thinks to himself geez, that's pretty brave. That's a pretty brave sentiment to have right before you die - just get it over with. But he realizes, "let's do it" isn't quite right, so he tweaks one word and there you get "just do it." That's where "just do it" came from.

But that's a perfect example of how, you know, in a sense, that's an old idea. It was a line in a Norman Mailer book, and he tweaked it ever so slightly. He substituted one word, and came up with one of the most influential advertising slogans of the second half of the 20th century.

SIEGEL: Jonah Lehrer, thank you very much for talking with us.

LEHRER: Thank you so much for having me.

SIEGEL: Jonah Lehrer's new book is called "Imagine: How Creativity Works." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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