Friday, June 1, 2012

Highlights from Imagine

Sharing some personal highlights from Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works.

The invention of the Swiffer is a tale of creativity. It’s the story of a few engineers coming up with an entirely new cleaning tool while watching someone sweep up some coffee grounds. In that flash of thought, Harry West and his team managed to think differently about something we all do every day. They were able to see the world as it was—a frustrating place filled with tedious chores—and then envision the world as it might be if only there were a better mop. That insight changed floor cleaning forever

It’s often only at this point, after we’ve stopped searching for the answer, that the answer arrives. (The imagination has a wicked sense of irony.) And when a solution does appear, it doesn’t come in dribs and drabs; the puzzle isn’t solved one piece at a time. Rather, the solution is shocking in its completeness.

Surprisingly, those students diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) got significantly higher scores. White then measured levels of creative achievement in the real world, asking the students if they’d ever won prizes at juried art shows or been honored at science fairs. In every single domain, from drama to engineering, the students with ADHD had achieved more. Their attention deficit turned out to be a creative blessing.

Insights, after all, come from the overlap between seemingly unrelated thoughts. They emerge when concepts are transposed, when the rules of one place are shifted 

The benefit of such circulation is that it increases conceptual blending, allowing people to look at their most frustrating problems from a fresh perspective. Instead of trying to invent a new tack, imagine a roll of sticky paper; instead of trying to improve the battery performance of a laptop, think about the refractory properties of its light bulbs.

People need to be reminded that creativity is a verb, a very time-consuming verb. It’s about taking an idea in your head, and transforming that idea into something real. And that’s always going to be a long and difficult process. If you’re doing it right, it’s going to feel like work  

This helps explain why young children are so effortlessly creative: their censors don’t yet exist. But then the brain matures and we become too self-conscious to improvise, too worried about saying the wrong thing, or playing the wrong note, or falling off the surfboard. It’s at this point that the infamous “fourth-grade slump” in creativity sets in, as students suddenly stop wanting to make art in the classroom   

But sometimes that’s not enough: we need to leave behind everything. One of the most surprising (and pleasurable) ways of cultivating an outsider perspective is through travel, getting away from the places we spend most of our time. The reason travel is so useful for creativity involves a quirk of cognition in which problems that feel close get contemplated in a more literal manner. This means that when we are physically near the source of the problem, our thoughts are automatically constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful—it allows us to focus on the facts at hand—it also inhibits the imagination.

Furthermore, there’s evidence that group creativity is becoming more necessary. Because we live in a world of very hard problems—all the low-hanging fruit is gone—many of the most important challenges exceed the capabilities of the individual imagination. As a result, we can find solutions only by working with other people.  

When children are allowed to create, they’re able to develop the sophisticated talents that are required for success in the real world. Instead of learning how to pass a standardized test, they learn how to cope with complexity and connect ideas, how to bridge disciplines and improve their first drafts