Critical Review of Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer’s best-selling book Imagine just received a fairly critical review in the New York Times.* This follows on a famously critical review by Steven Poole in The Guardian. When I first commented on Lehrer’s book in March 2012, I was generally positive, although my overall sense was that his book didn’t really have anything new that hadn’t already appeared in other good creativity books. Poole’s scathing review was perhaps easy to dismiss, because of its bitingly sarcastic tone and also because he didn’t sufficiently ground his critique with quotations from the book. (Although I agree with his skepticism about the way Lehrer interprets neuroscience studies; see my article “The cognitive neuroscience of creativity”.) This new review by Christopher Chabris is much more sober and better supported, with specific criticisms, for example:

Lehrer makes science errors, like saying that visual information from the left eye goes to the right hemisphere (in fact, visual information from the left visual field of both eyes goes to the right hemisphere); different electrodes in an EEG do not record brain waves of different frequencies (they each record the same waves at a different location on the scalp); the Remote Associates Test is a divergent thinking test (creativity researchers agree it is a convergent thinking test).

Chabris argues that Lehrer often makes the basic undergraduate error of confusing correlation with causation. For example, Lehrer cites one study that shows that highly creative employees are also people who consult more colleagues–a correlation. Lehrer then concludes that if you increase the quantity of your office conversations, it will make you more creative (causation). Of course, it’s just as likely that creative people tend to be more talkative just because they have lots of ideas they want to share.

Chabris concludes, just as I did, that Lehrer’s book is entertaining to read, for its stories and its scientific studies. But if you want a stronger grounding in the science of creativity, you can always try my book Group Genius (one of the many books Lehrer drew his research from). And the bottom line is, I love it that Lehrer’s book is selling so well, and introducing so many people to a field of research I’ve dedicated my life to.

*Christopher Chabris, May 13 2012: “Boggle the Mind”. New York Times Sunday Book Review, page 12.

Sawyer, R. K. 2011. The cognitive neuroscience of creativity. In Creativity Research Journal.

10 thoughts on “Critical Review of Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

  1. So far, Lehrer’s book is bothering me some. His concentration on commercial innovation up front (the invention of the “Swiffer,” “Post-it Notes,” and corporate R&D policies allowing researchers to explore pet projects) conveys a message that this is what creativity is all about. It is entertaining reading. In truth, creativity refers to a wide range of cognitive processes. As one example, young children learning most anything, or playing games, or pretending to be cooks or pirates engage in creative processes fundamental to cognition — processes worth understanding and promoting. And Lehrer’s treatment of the colors Red vs. Blue as environments makes something of a hash of the actual study, which is comparatively tempered, very limited in the sense of “environment” involved. Moreover, Lehrer reports the percentage boost in creativity attributable to blue “surroundings” (actually blue versus red computer screen background color or creating shapes with blue versus red manipulables) of 100 percent, whereas the study reports about a 30 percent increase. The study also implies that a key reason for blue’s “creative association” is that it’s subjects by more than 2 to 1 simply prefer the color blue to the color red.

  2. I haven’t seen Lehrer’s book yet, but I usually like his work. His article on the decline effect and the scientific method is one of the more thought-provoking things I’ve seen in the New Yorker. From some of the criticism I’ve read, it sounds like the book would never have survived peer review. Then again, it doesn’t have to.

    At the end of the day, writers like Lehrer, Gladwell and a few others are not scientists: they are popular authors. They write to entertain and engage non-specialists with general discussion of research findings. Many scientists who are doing fine empirical research can’t do that as well as they do, and the popular interest they generate creates benefits for researchers. That said, it’s lucky that a few scientists – like Keith – are able to make rigorous work accessible to a mass audience as well.

    1. I always like Lehrer’s newspaper columns. His writing strategy is a lot like Malcolm Gladwell’s: skimming over the high points of research, to tell a compelling story with a practical take-home message. A lot of their success lies in having a good instinct to find those obscure research studies that actually have the potential to be interesting to a general reader. I enjoy reading both Lehrer and Gladwell, and so do most of my scientist colleagues. But often, the need to present research as part of a nicely told story ends up over-selling the research, or even misrepresenting it. It’s fun to read, but at the end of the story, I always want to delve deeper and find out what’s really going on. I guess that’s why I’m a scientist!

  3. It turns out there is more to the story. Jonah Lehrer responded by criticizing Chabris’s review and defending his book, and then Chabris stood his ground and responded right back.

    I take a middle position: A book like Lehrer’s is entertaining, in the way that only a good story can entertain. And I love it that my own research topic, creativity, is getting so much attention. But it is exactly this drive toward “storyness” (narrativity?) that leads an author to skim across the tips of the research. It’s usually okay, if you have a really good science writer, but sometimes when you only hit the tips, you end up misleading the reader that the studies mean more than they really do. Lehrer’s broad conclusions are largely aligned with research findings; I don’t think the (many) errors that Chabris pointed out caused Lehrer to get anything radically wrong, as far as recommendations for how to enhance your creativity. I wish Lehrer had gone a bit deeper, though. But then, maybe he wouldn’t be on the best seller list!

  4. The problem with all of this is that it is based on psychological analysis of creativity and innovation. All of this discussion ignores the groundbreaking work associated with “TRIZ” (Inventive Problem Solving”) which, by analyzing the patterns of invention in the patent literature (that’s where we document inventions, isn’t it?), reduces the science of creativity and innovation to an algorithm that cuts across all areas of technology and business.

    1. Thank you Jack! Of course, I am hesitant to say anything critical about TRIZ to someone whose web site is “”! 🙂 Actually though, I think TRIZ is a perfectly fine taxonomy of invention types. With a qualification: In my view, it is most useful with mechanical invention, and its usefulness declines to the extent that your creative domain becomes less mechanical. Given the historical origin of TRIZ (in Altshuller’s analysis of patents in the first half of the 20th century, when patents were almost entirely mechanical devices) this is not surprising. In the decades since TRIZ was created, we now have business process patents (at least in the U.S.; I don’t know about Russia, the patent database that Altshuller used.) Also TRIZ does not address copyright at all, and copyright covers a much broader range of creative domains than the mechanical inventions that dominate early twentieth century patent databases.

      Psychological research is valuable because it shows the underlying common themes behind various types of creativity, across domains, including mechanical devices (i.e. TRIZ) but also artistic creation, “business process” patents, scientific theories, etc. Lehrer’s book addresses a much broader range of creativity than mechanical patents.

      Many of Altshuller’s 40 methods are not that interesting and don’t tell us much about creativity (e.g. #5 “joining”; #32 “using paint”; #38 “using strong acidifiers”). I find more intriguing his underlying theory that invention always involves “eliminating technical contradictions,” and the grounding of his approach in Hegelian and Marxist dialectic is pretty obvious (although he doesn’t elaborate it). To the extent that a creation does not involve “eliminating technical contradictions” then Altshuller himself perhaps would agree that his methods would not be applicable. Or, I suppose he might argue that all creativity necessarily involves “eliminating technical contradictions”…but that’s a debate too big for blog comments! (It would parallel the Marxist debates about whether all societal and historical change involves eliminating contradictions, and that debate went on for over a century…)

  5. I just looked at this book today and find that this whole conversation of views is every interesting. I do plan to read it,but from what I read it looks like a great book and now looking at this thread it is on a must read list.

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