On Tuesday, I posted an interview with neuroscientist and journalist Jonah Lehrer about creativity in Silicon Valley and his new book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works.” Lehrer had so many interesting things to say that I couldn’t include it all in one post, lest your eyes be turned into pixels.
So, here we go: a bonus weekend edition of Mr Lehrer and his Fabulous Brain Science. Here, Lehrer tells me why Steve Jobs could justify “recombining” some ideas from Microsoft, how drugs can make us smarter, and why education’s killing creativity.
Update: Since publishing this interview, it has been revealed that Lehrer fabricated some of the material for “Imagine“. Further Lehrer indiscretions have also been noted, and this appears to be an unfolding story. Read on with that in mind.
You said that Shakespeare stealing lines from Christopher Marlowe contributed to his great plays. People have accused Steve Jobs of stealing from Microsoft. Do you think that “stealing” is the right word, or does it get a bad rap when it comes to creativity?
My favorite lines on that come from Bob Dylan – he always describes his creative process as one of love and theft. You fall in love and then you steal it. Of course, you have to make it your own, or else that’s just straight-up theft – that’s just straight-up copyright violation – but that’s really what the creative process is all about.
We kind of romanticize creativity as inventing ideas out of thin air. When you actually deconstruct even the most radical new ideas, they’re often just a new connection between old ideas. They’re transplanting a solution from one problem space to another. So whether it’s the Gutenberg printing press, which is really just wine-press technology applied to letters and words, or even the Google Search algorithm – the basic logic of that algorithm was the logic that academics had been using for decades to rank their peer-reviewed articles, so more citations meant a bigger influence, meant a higher rank. That’s the logic of Google Page Rank.
You see this again and again. Whether you call it stealing or recombination – that’s just the polite word – the basic premise is the same, which is that the human mind is a connection machine. We are always making connections between old ideas. That’s why you see the most creative people are the ones who seem to have the most ideas in their head, the ones who bump into a wider spectrum of ideas.
You have also said that a relaxed brain is better for generating moments of insight. A lot of the ways we relax are with some kind of substance or alcohol. Is that detrimental to our creativity? Or does it help it?
Certainly there’s a grand history of people in the creative business dabbling with pharmaceuticals and engaging in self-medication. And you see that they basically fall into two different categories – either the uppers or the downers. So, writers tend to focus on the uppers. You have WH Auden and Benzedrine, Kerouac, Philip K. Dick. These amphetamines of course come with horrible side effects. They’re terribly addictive, but they credit them with helping them doing a better job of editing. So when you need to grind it out, you need to do draft after draft, you want a drug that makes it easier to focus.
Then of course there are the drugs that make it easier to have moments of insight, which relax us. A study came out last month showing that getting undergrads legally drunk makes them 30 percent more likely to have a moment of insight. A big boost in their performance. And this is not a little tipsy – this is too drunk to drive. When you’re drunk, you’re more likely to engage in mind-wandering, you’re less stressed, your attention is more diffuse, and that’s all a good thing for having moments of insight.
Marijuana also shows an increase in divergent thinking, and makes it easier for us to find those remote associations. So obviously these aren’t drugs you want to take when you need to drive a car or you need to take a math test. But if you’re really stumped it may actually be useful, which probably explains why creative people have been self-medicating for thousands of years.
Yeah, and Steve Jobs once said that one of the most important things he did in his life was take LSD.
Yeah, the literature on hallucinogens and psychedelics is much more limited, in large part because it’s very difficult to give undergrads acid. Good luck getting that through the internal issue board. So unfortunately we’re mostly stuck with giving them beers. But certainly there are anecdotal reports, like Steve Jobs talking about the importance of LSD.
Does education as it is in the US today do an effective enough job at exploiting our latent creativity?
No, education’s great at killing creativity. Every kid is born an artist, as Picasso said. The problems begin when we grow up. Right now, K – 12 education is doing a really effective job at killing that out of kids.
Partly it’s just the start of brain development. Educators refer to the fourth-grade slump, which is when a lot of kids lose interest in writing and drawing and painting, and it’s not a coincidence that this is also the time of life when the frontal lobes come online and kids can for the first time delay gratification, they can control their impulses, and inhibit their first answer.
That’s good for all sorts of reasons – it allows us to exert self-control and work with our hands and stuff, but it does get in the way of creativity. For the first time they’ve got a voice in their head telling them what not to do, telling them to not make that mark there, reminding them that their drawings don’t live up to their expectations.
So the first thing we have to do, the low-hanging fruit here, is to focus on this window of third, fourth, fifth grade, really focus there and try to find ways to make sure kids know that, “Yeah, your drawing may not look great now. But if you invest in your talent, if you keep on practicing, it will get better.”