Jonah Leher On The Three Types Of Creativity And How Brainstorming Doesn't Work

Illustration by Elliot Stokes

An exploration both artistic and scientific, Jonah Lehrer's Imagine: How Creativity Works tells us why a walk can lead to a big idea and how brainstorming dulls imagination.

FC: How does creativity work?
Lehrer: The word itself is a misnomer. We use creativity in the singular, as if there's one way the brain generates new connections. But there are probably three neurologically distinct forms of creativity. One is when you have these moments of insight that come out of the blue--when you have epiphanies in the shower. Those seem to come from the part of the brain that's involved in things like the interpretation of metaphors and the processing of jokes. Another form is really working hard at solving a problem--it's not nearly as fun as having an epiphany, but it's just as important. The last form is spontaneous improvisation--what Miles Davis did.

Can a person choose which kind of creativity to use?
The type of mental process we should use really depends on the type of problems we're solving. I think we have to do a better job of diagnosing where we are in the creative process and adjusting our thought process accordingly. When I'm stuck, I realize now I need to let myself relax, because the answer will arrive only when I stop looking for it. The things that are most essential for big ideas aren't going to look productive. It's going to involve taking a nap, finding a way to relax. It may look like goofing off, but it's absolutely essential.

Can a person choose which kind of creativity to use?
The type of mental process we should use really depends on the type of problems we're solving. I think we have to do a better job of diagnosing where we are in the creative process and adjusting our thought process accordingly. When I'm stuck, I realize now I need to let myself relax, because the answer will arrive only when I stop looking for it. The things that are most essential for big ideas aren't going to look productive. It's going to involve taking a nap, finding a way to relax. It may look like goofing off, but it's absolutely essential.

You say brainstorming doesn't work. Why?
When you look at scientific literature, it's very unambiguous that brainstorming doesn't work. The first reason is because of its main rule: Thou shalt not criticize. As long as the criticism is constructive, it forces people to engage on a deeper level. The problem with brainstorming is free associations are really superficial and constricted by language and cliches. Criticism is important to get past that.

Why are we so fascinated by the idea of creativity?
It's one of the defining tricks of human nature. We somehow conjure up new ideas out of thin air--we can't help but find new connections. But you really can't just address it from the perspective of the brain. It's also about the cultures we're embedded in and the people we work with, how we work with them, and which cities we live in.

[Illustration by Elliot Stokes]

A version of this article appears in the March 2012 issue of Fast Company.

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1 Comments

  • Adrian Moses

    The main rule of brainstorming is not "Thou shalt not criticise", it is "Thou shalt not REJECT".  These two principles are quite different.  Acceptance of ideas, regardless of their 'quality' (ie, the rejection of rejection) is the greatest foundation on which to build creativity, and the joining of several minds to build on that foundation breeds a creativity far greater than the individual can generate, no matter how long they spend in the shower.  You have to understand the rules to understand how it works.