Imagine

note: While the “scandal” over the sources, if any, of its Bob Dylan quotes (if they are quotes) and other authorial no-no’s has tainted both this book and its author, I went to the trouble to read the book — before the hullabaloo — and to write this article — also before the hullabaloo. So I’m leaving it up now, even after the hullabaloo.


Jonah Lehrer
2012

Like a good little neuropsychology blogger, I dutifully acquired a copy of Jonah Lehrer’s bestselling new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. The idea was, of course, to read the book, then write an insightful review.

Imagine my initial annoyance when I read Isaac Chotiner’s The New Republic review, “The Curse of Knowledge,” published online on June 7th, and discovered that Chotiner had ripped off my entire review before I had written even a single word of it!

Chotiner’s usurpation is remarkably thorough. Everything that I was going to write about Imagine, he has written.

Every criticism I was going to make, every objection I was going to propose, Chotiner has made first. And worse, he has raised some points that I probably would have missed if I had, in fact, written a review of the book.

As I say, annoying! If Chotiner’s review weren’t as good as it is, I’d be upset.

So I’m left with little to do to justify the hours I wasted reading Lehrer’s book but to write not a review of the book but a review of the review of the book.

Chotiner allows that “there is some truth to many of Lehrer’s claims, however sloppily or broadly they are expressed.” However, he argues, Lehrer has not broken any new ground in his claim that creativity often arises from spontaneity or intuition rather than from hard thinking. It does, and it doesn’t. It does most of the time, but it doesn’t when it doesn’t. It depends. As Chotiner writes, “Lehrer’s eureka is rather banal.”

Of course, this is popularized science, perhaps better characterized as something a bit more hip, like PopSci, and it’s not meant to be profound. Chotiner is brief and incisive with his assessment of the intellectual level of Imagine: “a collection of stories—all pop-science these days must be translated into stories, as if readers, like children, cannot absorb the material any other way.”

Lehrer is not a scientist of any kind, certainly not a neuroscientist, and perhaps he can be forgiven for writing within his limits. Goodness knows that we all do that. But Chotiner is having none of that kind of forgiving understanding. He dislikes the entire genre of popular writing about neuropsychology, which he dismisses as “self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it.” He places Lehrer alongside Malcolm Gladwell (whose gushing blurb appears at the beginning of Imagine) and David Brooks as writers caught up in the “contemporary fashion of non-knowledgeable thinking, intuitionism, ‘blinking,’ and so on.”

This story is only a slight variation on the previous discussions of horizontal thinking, conceptual blending, and the glories of the right hemisphere. Lehrer concludes the chapter by noting that “knowledge can be a subtle curse.”

Chotiner identifies the core intellectual difficulty of Lehrer’s book — and of all of the other bestsellers of its ilk. These books include Gladwell’s Outliers and Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test (reviewed together on this blog), Brooks’s The Social Animal (also reviewed here), and even the more “scientific” bestsellers of the genre, Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge (reviewed here) and Daniel Kahneman`s Thinking, Fast and Slow (reviewed here).

Chotiner`s assessment: “Imagine is another manual for self-styled entrepreneurs. Lehrer’s definition of creativity is essentially an entrepreneurial one: for him, anything that succeeds is creative.”

Lehrer does not see creativity or imagination as being intricately connected to art, or to science, or to anything that we would generally term “imaginative.” It is all about success. Dylan writes successful song lyrics, and Barbie dolls sell.

Indeed, all of these market-driven manuals are written for the improvement of upper managers who want to know how better to structure their workplaces in order to maximize their profits.

There are writers who write about science, like Lehrer and most of the others on the list above, but there are also scientists who write about science. Some of them are really bad writers. Some of them know so much that they can’t get out of their own way and make what they know sensible to those of us who know a little — or a lot — less. But there are scientists who write science for thinking people, who leave out the mountains of detail that represent much of their work but present their core results and most important conclusions clearly and accurately. No happy stories of Pixar’s creative team making really profitable animated films for writers like Antonio Damasio, Michael Gazzaniga, and Jerry Coyne, to name just a few who appear here with some regularity.

Chotiner has similar criticisms for the second half of Imagine, which deals not with individual creativity but with team efforts. For space reasons, I’m not going to repeat the details of Chotiner’s review, other than to note that he considers the second half of the book “even more perfunctory.”

Of more interest is Chotiner’s assessment of what makes books like Imagine so popular:

The appeal of Lehrer’s stories is obvious. As he said in a recent interview, “Creativity is a universal talent.” You, me, all of us. What good news! Lehrer’s stories are so cool and easy to grasp because they are so uplifting.

And there’s not a whole lot more that needs to be said about it than that.

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