Jonah Lehrer

The Origins of Creative Insight

Why does the Eureka moment arrive only after we stop looking for it? At Behance's 99% Conference, Jonah Lehrer explains how creative insight works and what drives incredible achievements.

Jonah Lehrer: The Origins of Creative Insight & Why You Need Grit from 99% on Vimeo.

See also: Lehrer, J. (2012). Imagine: How creativity works. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

We Have to Make It Easy to Become a Genius

Excerpt from Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer:

As Paul Romer notes, “We do not know what the next major idea about how to support ideas will be.” And this is why it’s so important to keep searching for the effective meta-ideas of the future, for the next institution or attitude or law that will help us become more creative. We need to innovate innovation.

Because here is the disquieting truth: Our creative problems keep on getting more difficult. Unless we choose the right policies and reforms, unless we create more NOCCAs and fix the patent system, unless we invest in urban density, unless we encourage young inventors with the same fervor that we encourage young football stars, we’ll never be able to find the solutions that we so desperately need. It’s time to create the kind of culture that won’t hold us back.

The virtue of studying ages of excess genius is that they give us a way to measure ourselves. We can learn from the creative secrets of the past, from those outlier societies that produced Shakespeare and Plato and Michelangelo. And then we should look in the mirror. What kind of culture have we created? Is it a world full of ideas that can be connected? Are we willing to invest in risk takers? Do our schools produce students ready to create? Can the son of a glover grow up to write plays for the queen? We have to make it easy to become a genius.

Stumped by the Form

Bert Geyer's visual representation of the form of a sonnet (photo by Bert Geyer)Excerpt from Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer:

"The constant need for insights has shaped the creative process. In fact, these radical breakthroughs are so valuable that we've invented traditions and rituals that increase the probability of an epiphany, making us more likely to hear those remote associations coming from the right hemisphere. Just look at poets, who often rely on literary forms with strict requirements, such as haikus and sonnets. At first glance, this writing method makes little sense, since the creative act then becomes much more difficult. Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints.

But that's precisely the point. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent an original line. They'll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process."


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The Difficulty of the Task Accelerates the Insight Process

Excerpt from Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

The constant need for insights has shaped the creative process. In fact, these radical breakthroughs are so valuable that we've invented traditions and rituals that increase the probability of an epiphany, making us more likely to hear those remote associations coming through the right hemisphere.

Just look at poets, who often rely on literary forms with strict requirements, such as haikus and sonnets. At first glance, this writing method makes little sense, since the creative act then becomes much more difficult. Instead of composing freely, poets frustrate themselves with structural constraints. 

But that's precisely the point. Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they'll never invent and original line. They'll be stuck with clichés and conventions, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this is why poetic forms are so important. When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process. 

See also: "How to Cultivate Eureka Moments," a review of Imagine by Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times, April 2, 2012

We Tell the Happy Ending First

"Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. We have worked hard, but we've hit the wall. We have no idea what to do next.

When we tell stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase. We neglect to mention those days when wanted to quit. When we wanted to believe that our problem was impossible. Instead, we skip straight to the breakthrough. We tell the happy ending first.

The danger of this scenario is that the act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process. Before we can know the answer, before we can even know the question, we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach. We need to have wrestled with the problem and lost. Because it's only after we stop searching that the answer might arrive."

~ Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works

IMAGINE: How Creativity Works from Flash Rosenberg on Vimeo.

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An Adaptive Response to Affliction

Excerpt from “Depression’s Upside,” by Jonah Lehrer, New York Times Sunday Magazine (February 25, 2010):

The mystery of depression is not that it exists — the mind, like the flesh, is prone to malfunction. Instead, the paradox of depression has long been its prevalence. While most mental illnesses are extremely rare — schizophrenia, for example, is seen in less than 1 percent of the population — depression is everywhere, as inescapable as the common cold. Every year, approximately 7 percent of us will be afflicted to some degree by the awful mental state that William Styron described as a “gray drizzle of horror . . . a storm of murk.” Obsessed with our pain, we will retreat from everything. We will stop eating, unless we start eating too much. Sex will lose its appeal; sleep will become a frustrating pursuit. We will always be tired, even though we will do less and less. We will think a lot about death.

The persistence of this affliction — and the fact that it seemed to be heritable — posed a serious challenge to Darwin’s new evolutionary theory. If depression was a disorder, then evolution had made a tragic mistake, allowing an illness that impedes reproduction — it leads people to stop having sex and consider suicide — to spread throughout the population. For some unknown reason, the modern human mind is tilted toward sadness and, as we’ve now come to think, needs drugs to rescue itself.

The alternative, of course, is that depression has a secret purpose and our medical interventions are making a bad situation even worse. Like a fever that helps the immune system fight off infection — increased body temperature sends white blood cells into overdrive — depression might be an unpleasant yet adaptive response to affliction. Maybe Darwin was right. We suffer — we suffer terribly — but we don’t suffer in vain.

Overwhelming the Prefrontal Cortex

Jonah Lehrer discussing his book, How We Decide, which is now out in paperback, “The Paralysis Of Analysis,” Fresh Air (January 22, 2010):

First chapter and New York Times review. One of the studies I talk about in the book concerns a study done by Stanford psychologists. They had two groups of people. One group they had memorize a two-digit number. The other group they had memorize a seven-digit number. Then they marched these two groups down the hall and gave them a choice between two snacks.

One snack was a rich, gooey slice of chocolate cake. The other snack was a responsible fruit salad. The people who memorized a two-digit number were twice as likely to choose the fruit salad as the people who memorized the seven-digit number, who were twice as likely to choose the chocolate cake. And the reason is that those extra five digits — doesn't seem like very much information at all, just five extra numbers — so overwhelmed the prefrontal cortex that there wasn't enough processing power left over to exert self-control.

So that gives us a sense of just how limited in capacity our brain actually is and, I think, points to the fact that we should absolutely be aware of these limitations.

Thinking about Calcium Waves in Astrocytes

Excerpts from Andrew Koob’s discussion of glial cells and his related book, The Root of Thought, with Jonah Lehrer in "The Root of Thought: What Do Glial Cells Do?" Scientific American (October 27, 2009):

The Root of Thought: Unlocking Glia- the Brain Cell That Will Help Us Sharpen Our Wits, Heal Injury, and Treat Brain Disease Until the last 20 years, brain scientists believed neurons communicated to each other, represented our thoughts, and that glia were kind of like stucco and mortar holding the house together.  They were considered simple insulators for neuron communication.  There are a few types of glial cells, but recently scientists have begun to focus on a particular type of glial cell called the 'astrocyte,' as they are abundant in the cortex.

Interestingly, as you go up the evolutionary ladder, astrocytes in the cortex increase in size and number, with humans having the most astrocytes and also the biggest.  Scientists have also discovered that astrocytes communicate to themselves in the cortex and are also capable of sending information to neurons. Finally, astrocytes are also the adult stem cell in the brain and control blood flow to regions of brain activity. Because of all these important properties, and since the cortex is believed responsible for higher thought, scientists have started to realize that astrocytes must contribute to thought. 

In short, calcium waves are how astrocytes communicate to themselves. Astrocytes have hundreds of 'endfeet' spreading out from their body. They look like mini octopi, and they link these endfeet with blood vessels, other astrocytes and neuronal synapses. Calcium is released from internal stores in astrocytes as they are stimulated, then calcium travels through their endfeet to other astrocytes. The term 'calcium waves' describes the calcium release and exchange between astrocytes and between astrocytes and neurons.

Glial Cells Scientists at Yale, most notably Ann H. Cornell-Bell and Steven Finkbeiner, have shown that calcium waves can spread from the point of stimulation of one astrocyte to all other astrocytes in an area hundreds of times the size of the original astrocyte (watch video).

Furthermore, calcium waves can also cause neurons to fire. And calcium waves in the cortex are leading scientists to infer that this style of communication may be conducive to the processing of certain thoughts. If that isn't convincing, it was recently shown that a molecule that stimulates the same receptors as THC can ignite astrocyte calcium release. 

This idea [that glia and their calcium waves might play a role in creativity] stems from dreams, sensory deprivation and day dreaming. Without input from our senses through neurons, how is it that we have such vivid thoughts?  How is it that when we are deep in thought we seemingly shut off everything in the environment around us? 

In this theory, neurons are tied to our muscular action and external senses. We know astrocytes monitor neurons for this information. Similarly, they can induce neurons to fire. Therefore, astrocytes modulate neuron behavior.

This could mean that calcium waves in astrocytes are our thinking mind. Neuronal activity without astrocyte processing is a simple reflex; anything more complicated might require astrocyte processing. The fact that humans have the most abundant and largest astrocytes of any animal and we are capable of creativity and imagination also lends credence to this speculation.

Calcium is also released randomly and without stimulation from astrocytes' internal stores in small bursts called 'puffs.'  These random puffs can lead to waves.  It is possible that the seemingly random thoughts during dreams and sensory deprivation experience could be calcium puffs becoming waves in our astrocytes.

Basically, it is obvious that astrocytes are involved in brain processing in the cortex, but the main questions are, do our thoughts and imagination stem from astrocytes working together with neurons, or are our thoughts and imagination solely the domain of astrocytes?  Maybe the role of neurons is to support astrocytes.

More…

A Pitiless Symphony

From Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer:

Stravinsky’s music is all violation. While the cultured public thought music was just a collection of consonant chords played in neat meter, Stravinsky realized that they were wrong. Pretty noises are boring. Music is only interesting when it confronts us with tension, and the source of tension is conflict. Stravinsky’s insight was that what the audience really wanted was to be denied what it wanted.

The Rite of Spring was the first symphonic work to express this antagonistic philosophy. Stravinsky anticipated the anticipation of his audience and then refused every single one. He took the standard springtime song and made art out of its opposite. Dissonance never submits to consonance. Order does not defeat disorder. There is an obscene amount of tension, but it never gets resolved. Everything only gets worse. And then it ends…

…Although music begins with our predilection for patterns, the feeling of music…begins when the pattern we imagine starts to break down. The Rite, of course, is one long breakdown. Stravinsky didn’t just invent some new musical patterns; he insisted on murdering our old ones. He introduced fragments of folk songs, then destroyed them with a gunshot of chromatic bullets. He took the big sonoric brushstrokes of major chords and put them through a cubist machine. Strauss is punked, Wagner is inverted, Chopin is mocked. Classicism is made cynical.

The sadistic newness of The Rite’s patterns, its stubborn refusal to conform to our learned expectations, is the dirty secret of its discontent. By disobeying the rule we think we know, Stravinsky forces us to confront the fact that we have expectations, that the mind anticipates types of order, followed by certain types of release. But in The Rite, these expectations are rendered useless. We do not know what will come next. And this makes us angry.

The emotions generated y musical tension—a tension taken to grotesque heights by Stravinsky—throb throughout the body. As soon as the orchestra starts to play, the flesh undergoes a ranges of changes. The pupils dilate, pulse and blood pressure rise, the electrical conductance of the skin lowers, and the cerebellum, a brain region associated with bodily movements, becomes unusually active. Blood is even redirected to the leg muscles. (As a result, we begin tapping our feet in time with the beat.") Sounds stir us at our biological roots. As Schopenhauer wrote, “It is we ourselves who are tortured by the strings.”

Stravinsky, of course, knew exactly how to raise our blood pressure. At first glance, this might seem like a dubious achievement. Must modern art really be so cruel? Whatever happened to beauty? But Stravinsky’s malevolence was rooted in a deep understanding of the mind. He realized that the engine of music is conflict, not consonance. The art that makes us feel is the art that makes us hurt. And nothing hurts us like a pitiless symphony.

 

Why is music capable of inflicting such pain? Because it works on our feelings directly. No ideas interfere with its emotion. This is why “all art aspires to the condition of music.” The symphony gives us the thrill of uncertainty—the pleasurable anxiety of searching for a pattern—but without the risks of real life. When we listen to music, we are moved by an abstraction. We feel, but we don’t know why.

…To find the echo of order in The Rite, we have to pay exquisite attention. If we fail to listen carefully, if we tune out its engineered undulations, then the whole orchestra becomes nothing more than a mutiny of noise. The music disappears. This is what Stravinsky wanted. “To listen is an effort,” he once said, “and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.”

The Body Electric

From Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer:

Modern neuroscience is now discovering the anatomy underlying Whitman's poetry. It has taken his poetic hypothesis--the idea that feelings begin in the flesh--and found the exact nerves and brain regions that make it true. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist who has done extensive work on the etiology of feeling, calls this process the body loop. In his view, the mind stalks the flesh; from our muscles we steal our moods.

How does the brain generate our metaphysical feelings from the physical body? According to Damasio, after an "emotive stimulus" (such as a bear) is seen, the brain automatically triggers a wave of changes in the "physical viscera," as the body prepares for action. The heart begins to pound, arteries dilate, the intestines contract, the adrenaline pours into the bloodstream. These bodily changes are then detected by the cortex, which connects them to the scary sensation that caused the changes in the first place. The resulting mental image—an emulsion of thought and flesh, body and soul—is what we feel. It is an idea that has passed through the vessel of the body.

Over the course of his distinguished career, Damasio has chronicled the lives of patients whose brains have been injured and who, as a result, are missing this intricate body-brain connection. Although they maintain full sensory awareness, these patients are unable to translate their sensations into emotions. The pounding of the heart never becomes a feeling of fear. Because the mind is divorced from the flesh, the patient lives in a cocoon of numbness—numb even to his or her own tragedy.

Damasio's research has elaborated on the necessity of our carnal emotions. His conclusions are Whitmanesque. "The body contributes more than life support," Damasio writes. "It contributes a content that is part and parcel of the workings of the normal mind." In fact, even when the body does not literally change, the mind creates a feeling by hallucinating a bodily change. Damasio calls this the as-if body loop, since the brain acts as if the body were experiencing a real physical event. By imagining a specfic bodily state—like a fast heartbeat, or a surge of adrenaline—the mind can indue its own emotions.

One of Damasio's most surprising discoveries is that the feelings generated by the body are an essential element of rational thought. Although we typically assume that our emotions interfere with reason, Damasio's emotionless patients proved incapable of making reasonable decisions. After suffering their brain injuries, all began displaying disturbing changes in behavior. Some made terrible investments and ended up bankrupt; others became dishonest and antisocial; most just spent hours deliberating over irrelevant details. According to Damasio, their frustrating lives are vivid proof that rationality requires feeling, and feeling requires the body. (As Nietzsche put it, "There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom.")

The One Reality Science Cannot Reduce

From Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer:

Proust Was a Neuroscientist Every brilliant experiment, like every great work of art, starts with an act of imagination.

Unfortunately, our current culture subscribes to a very narrow definition of truth. If something can't be quantified or calculated, then it can't be true. Because this strict scientific approach has explained so much, we assume that it can explain everything. But every method, even the experimental method, has limits. Take the human mind. Scientists describe our brain in terms of its physical details; they say we are nothing but a loom of electrical cells and synaptic spaces. What science forgets is that this isn't how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not like the machine.) It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness.

The moral of this book is that we are made of art and science. We are such stuff as dreams are made on, but we are also just stuff. We now know enough about the brain to realize that its mystery will always remain. Like a work of art, we exceed our materials. Science needs art to frame the mystery, but arts needs science so that not everything is a mystery. Neither truth alone is our solution, for our reality exists in plural.