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Jonah Lehrer's "Imagine"

by Justin Sanders | May 02, 2012

In recent weeks there has been a better-than-average chance of coming across Jonah Lehrer on TV, radio or in print. The "Wired" contributor and scheduled speaker at PromaxBDA: The Conference 2012 has been making the rounds to promote his new book, "Imagine," a collection of essays devoted to the human brain's unique ability to, as the title suggests, "imagine what has never existed."

Revisiting the story of Bob Dylan's writing of the song "Like A Rolling Stone," Lehrer discovers the great folkster had to hit a creative wall and temporarily leave music behind before he could pump out one of modern pop's most influential singles. Touring the 3M factory, he finds out that one of the world's most innovative product design companies allows its employees to devote 15% of each day to their own personal projects. Analyzing Shakespeare and the amazingly creative era in which he wrote his greatest works, Lehrer finds that some of the Bard's greatest plays were made possible by his unregulated penchant for thievery in a time before rampant copyright laws.

The common thread of inspiration connects these disparate stories, from the myriad ways it can come about to how we can achieve more of it, to why it exists at all.

"The human imagination has no clear precursors," Lehrer writes. "There is no ingenuity module that got enlarged in the human cortex, or even a proto-creative impulse evident in other primates. Monkeys don't paint; chimps don't write poems; and it's the rare animal (like the New Caledonian crow) that exhibits rudimentary signs of problem solving. The birth of creativity, in other words, arrived like any insight: out of nowhere."

As Lehrer skillfully mixing fascinating anecdotes with hard data from some of the world's finest scientists, we learn important problem-solving techniques like relaxation – rather than beating on a problem for hours, trying to eke the solution out with coffee and fierce concentration, oftentimes the better approach is to relax the brain via a warm shower, or even a vacation. 

To prove that outsiders new to a field can sometimes have the best ideas, Lehrer tells us about individuals like Don Lee, a dazzlingly innovative mixologist (read: bartender) who came to his craft untrained and therefore had the audacity to try drink elements like bacon fat, and in so doing, got himself in the pages of "Gourmet" magazine. The point is, even if one isn't new to their field, a fresh perspective is crucial, and there are numerous ways to go about attaining one.

PromaxBDA members will be delighted by Lehrer's profile of Milton Glaser, the branding visionary whose career has proven that the art of refining inspiration is as important as the inspiration itself (maybe more so). And by his tour of superstar ad agency Wieden + Kennedy, where new hires seem to come from almost every conceivable field except advertising and where everything from the company's vast, open design aesthetic to its biannual staff pub crawls illustrates the "importance of incorporating a little weirdness into the creative process."

"Imagine" is, in the end, a call to arms, an urging to take more creative risks in our personal lives, to nurture a more creative culture in society at large, to weaken oppressive intellectual property laws. 

To, as Lehrer concludes, "make it easy to become a genius."