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.