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Jonah Lehrer

Prefrontal cortex stands guard and restrains our wilder impulses. Frontotemporal dementia where pc gets destroyed. Common symptom is sudden urge to paint or draw or sculpt to exclusion of all else (and then die after few years). When we sleep the pc shuts down, and dreams no longer inhibited. The pc is also last area of brain to fully develop, which is why young innocent children so creative and uninhibited - then as they get older, get self-conscious, and lose the creativity.

InnoCentive site originally set up by Eli Lilly because needed breakthroughs in drug research. Now challenges from hundreds of different companies, offering wide range of rewards. The solvers are overwhelmingly outsiders - they know enough about field but draw solutions and approaches from a neighboring field that they have expertise in.

One spectacular success example was a company trying to invent a polymer with very strange qualities. Experts said it was impossible. But five different groups came up with five solutions (and the plastics company paid out on each one). Main point was that company wd never have found tose solvers by conventional means - they wdn't have turned up in a search of relevant literature, they weren't even in same country , and wdn't have been hired if they were, because they weren't qualified in relevant area.

Can use priming to manipulate creativity. Two groups of students set task of listing as many different types transport they cd think of. The group who were told problem set by their local uni came up with significantly shorter list (basically cars, buses, trains and planes) than group who were told it came from Greece (which prompted them to think of horses, triremes, cycles and spacecraft).

Our cultural preconceptions. In China if you leave food on yr plate it's a compliment (Host provided more than enough food). But in America it's an insult (food wasn't tasty enough).

Study of successful Broadway musicals showed importance of collaboration. Any musical is too complex for one person to create - need a team. But if team all strangers who haven't worked together before, difficult to exchange ideas, and shows often flopped. But if collaborators too familiar with each other they tended to turn out cookie cutter versions of previous successes, which also failed. Need a blend of seasoned collaborators, but with enough new people to add novelty.

'Brainstorming' is a popular way to solve problems, but decades of research shows that it doesn't work. Teams think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas. Standard instruction of brainstorming is to stay positive and not criticize any suggestion. But it turns out that criticism works better, because it forces everyone to engage with other ideas, to pull out the best part of them. And very best way is to insist on a 'plus' - every criticism has a new idea built on the flaw uncovered.

Cities multiply citizen's productivity on just abt every scale possible. You wd expect corporations to do the same, given that they are basically organized to do that. But where cities encourage sharing of skills and information, companies try to protect all their data so they prevent idea sharing. Eventually the shortage of new ideas handicaps the company, and then even quite minor disruptions of the market cause major losses because the company is unable to adapt. So cities like New Orleans and Hiroshima can survive massive disruption, but 20 per cent of the companies in the Fortune 500 disappear every decade.

London Times Review

Jonah Lehrer meets me on a narrow street in Manhattan, outside a jewellery shop called Beads of Paradise, ready to dispense the secrets of human ingenuity. We are going to discuss: 'What a piece of work is man?' and how did Shakespeare come up with that line, and how have others responded to the puzzles of the human condition. He has a lot to say on how crowded cities thrust us into the company of strangers from different walks of life and force us to think creatively.

But we need somewhere to sit down. It is a problem that requires a creative solution, particularly given that the nearest coffee shop is full. The answer comes to me as we pick our way beneath scaffolding: there is a cafe upstairs in the giant bookshop farther along the street. The insight had probably formed in that funny little spot in my right hemisphere seconds before announcing itself in my prefrontal cortex.

Yet even on the third floor of Barnes and Noble, in a vast room overlooking Union Square, there are no free chairs. Strangers from different walks of life are hogging all the tables and forcing us to think of the interview from a different perspective, without seating. Eventually we lean against a ledge, between a poster for The Great Gatsby and a shelf bearing several copies of the Kelley Blue Book Used Car Guide, both in their way fruits of human creativity.

Lehrer is a science writer, one of the new cast of calm young men who wear blazers over their jeans and spend their lives reading scientific papers and translating them into English. A glowing quote from Malcolm Gladwell, the dominant male of the pack, adorns his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

"I think what's happened more recently is that people realise that this kind of empiricism has great utility," Lehrer says. "This kind of self-knowledge, the science of human nature, whether it's psychology or sociology or neuroscience, that this self-knowledge is useful knowledge. We've always tried to know ourselves through roughly the same way, through introspection, philosophy. And those are wonderful pursuits. But now we've got this wonderful set of tools that allow us to know ourselves in a new way. And I think there is excitement about that."

He grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a human rights lawyer and a creator of educational software, and the second of four children. "We have these intuitions that sibling rank order is incredibly important. But it's one of those things that the scientific literature can't find consistent effects, life is so messy and noisy that picking up the influence of one variable is really hard."

His was an idyllic childhood, but for a severe stutter that took years of speech therapy to iron out and perhaps still expresses itself in his tendency to repeat the start of sentences. "It made me very interested in words," he says. "Because when you have a stutter you are always taking the weight of words."

His plan, however, was to be a scientist. He studied neuroscience at Columbia in New York and then worked in the laboratory of Eric Kandel, who won a Nobel prize for showing how the human memory could be studied through the twitches of a sea slug. "To make a long story short, you keep on poking them until they adapt or habituate," he says. "They remember that you poked them in the past and so they stop reacting to it. Then you can go into the neurons and see what happened at the most fundamental level, the synapses that allow the memory to exist."

Lehrer poked a few sea slugs but he mostly worked in the fruit fly electrocuting department. He was not terribly successful: "I wasn't good at making that leap between the big metaphysical mystery and the day to day tests and data collection." Most of his experiments failed. "I'd be screaming at the flies: 'Just get smarter, learn this already'." They didn't respond to threats. Realising that he would never be a scientist was "genuinely heartbreaking," he says. So he bid farewell to the fruit flies, won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford to study literature and philosophy, and produced three bestselling books of popular science by the time he was 30.

His first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, showed novelists and poets pre-empting the course of neuroscience. Imagine turns neuroscience back on artists, businessmen and the inventor of Post-it Notes. Bob Dylan's seminal album, Highway 61 Revisited, is cast as a right-brain production, a gusher of barely comprehensible lyrics that spewed out when the musician left the madness of a four-month tour for the quiet of a cabin in Woodstock.

This assumption stems from studies conducted since the 1990s. Doctors once assured patients who suffered brain damage to that hemisphere that theirs was a minor impediment, yet they struggled to understand jokes, metaphors or sarcasm. It now seems that the right side of the brain excels at making remote associations, joining disparate thoughts and solving puzzles. On a monitor, one can see it throbbing with alpha waves up to eight seconds before an insight dawns.

Lehrer tells us that we might aid the ruminations of our right hemisphere via relaxation, hot showers, or by staring at the colour blue. Marijuana has been shown to help people make remote associations. So has good old-fashioned drinking, though the scientist behind that enjoyable study cautioned that drinkers were liable to forget the insights that they gained while half-cut.

The left side of the brain, or at least the pre-frontal cortex, is the realm for logical thinking - taking our inklings and polishing them into fully fledged concepts. At this point in the creative process, there appears to be a good case for taking amphetamines. W. H. Auden drafted and redrafted many of his most celebrated poems in the sleepless months after he began experimenting with Benzedrine. Graham Greene and Philip K. Dick were addicts too, while Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was written during a six-day cocaine binge.

But amphetamines have the opposite effect on the digestion, leaving many a poet constipated, unable to sleep and suffering heart problems. The general point is that stimulants are more useful once the epiphany has been had and fierce, gritty, focus is required.

Lehrer is a little shy of offering strict prescriptions: "It's easy to oversell and try to turn the latest draft of neuroscience into a self-help manual." At least one hostile critic has accused him of doing just that, although he seems to have more modest aims in mind. "God knows, the brain remains a big f***ing mystery," he says. "But there is also a sense of like, wow, you know, we can actually make ourselves a little bit better ... That's an exciting thing."

Less exciting, perhaps, are the studies showing how many successful writers suffer from depression. Happiness helps us to make creative leaps, but sadness helps us focus and depression apparently lends authors the determination to finish their books. Bipolar disorder, in which euphoric highs are followed by long lows, combines both - one study found that successful creative people were 20 times more likely to suffer from it.

You might decide, on balance, that you would like to remain content and forgo the opportunity to compose the great American novel. "Robert Lowell, the American poet, he believed his mental illness made his poetry better," says Lehrer. "He still took valium. Here was a guy who loved his art, profoundly, but he didn't want the pain."

Perhaps the most terrifying examples of creativity unleashed come from those who suffer frontotemporal dementia. The prefrontal cortex decays, the alert, focused consciousness falls away, and the random, dreamlike ruminations of the right hemisphere surge into the breach. A cell biologist in her forties was transformed into an award-winning artist, a stockbroker became a celebrated painter. "After a few years of ecstatic productivity," Lehrer writes, "the disease that inspired their art destroyed their brains."

The horrors of brain disease do at least show that our creativity does not ebb away as we age but remains latent, somewhere in the three pounds of flesh inside our skulls. The problem - the reason poets and physicists go off the boil - is that we become habituated, like one of Professor Kendal's sea slugs, to the prods of experience. We stop twitching. Travel helps to refresh our perspective. So does living in a crowded city. All these tips seem useful, but quite hard to turn into a design for life.

But perhaps the creative life is too messy and noisy to discern the influence of one variable. Perhaps the works of Shakespeare cannot be fitted within a neat formula. When I ask Lehrer if his one-year-old daughter will benefit from his research, he talks about the marshmallow experiment - Walter Mischel's psychological test, in which four-year-olds are offered one marshmallow immediately, or two if they wait 15 minutes.

"Whether or not kids can wait, delayed gratification predicts success in school 12 years later above and beyond the IQ score," he says. "Having written about this and talked to Walter and having thought about how to teach my kid to wait for the marshmallow ... now she's getting to the age where she sees something she wants, whether it's a bite of a cookie or a sip of a milkshake or a toy. And you're like: 'OK! Here! Shhhh! Don't cry.' It's very easy to write about your research. Life is messier."

Here's a detailed critique of Lehrer's ideas (Personally, given how new this field is, I see books like this a suggestions, rather than dogmatic assertions. Academics might spend their days arguing over right and wrong, but I like the ideas themselves, and whether they lead to new ways of looking at how our minds work.)

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