A Great Review of Explaining Creativity

Today I was thrilled to read an enthusiastic review* of my book Explaining Creativity, by Professor James Kaufman and Alexander McKay. Explaining Creativity is the second edition of a book I published in 2006, as a textbook overview of the field of creativity research. Since 2006, there’s been a lot of new research, so this new book is totally different; for example, it has seven new chapters and eight new appendices.

Excerpts from the review:

Required reading for anyone interested in the topic. In a just world, Sawyer’s thorough and nuanced volume would be the best seller, not Jonah Lehrer’s pedestrian Imagine.

Sawyer’s book is easily the most thorough creativity text on the market.

We highly recommend this book.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my book and for writing such a strong review!

*Kaufman, J. and McKay, A. (2012). Incisive and balanced: R. Keith Sawyer explains creativity. PsycCRITIQUES: APA Review of Books. August 22, 2012, Vol. 57, Release 33, Article 5

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.

How To Be More Creative

The journalist Jonah Lehrer is getting some incredible advance publicity for his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. A few weeks ago, he had an extended article about group creativity in The New Yorker. And now, in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, his article “How to be creative” took up the entire front page of Section C and another full page inside the section (March 10-11, 2012).

I had a chance to read the pre-publication version of the book last month. Lehrer does a good job of getting the science right, and, he’s an excellent writer. My only mild criticism is that there’s nothing really new in it: much of the research he describes was summarized in my 2007 book Group Genius, or in Peter Sims’ 2011 book Little Bets. But still, I’m glad to see that Lehrer is helping to disseminate what scientists know about creativity.

Let’s take a look at Lehrer’s “10 Quick Creativity Hacks” from the WSJ article.

1. When you’re in a blue room, you’re more creative.

2. You’re more creative when you’re a bit groggy.

3. People who daydream more score higher on creativity tests.

4. If you imagine yourself as a 7-year-old, you have more ideas.

5. Watching a comedy video makes you more creative just afterwards.

6. If you think the creativity puzzles come from another country or state, rather than your own local university, you’re more creative.

7. Use more generic verbs to describe your challenge.

8. If you sit next to a box (but not in it) you’re more creative.

9. Students who’ve lived abroad are more creative.

10. When people move to a bigger city they become more creative.

It’s true that these 10 tips are based in research studies. But it’s good to be a bit skeptical, because most of the studies used paper-and-pencil creativity tests that have only a limited relationship to real-world creativity. It makes me think of a study published a couple of years ago that found that if you stare at the Apple logo, you score higher on a creativity test than people who stare at the IBM logo. Does anyone really believe that simply looking at an Apple will make you more creative in any meaningful way? Not me.

Successful creativity results from hard work over a long period of time, from a systematic and deliberate process that raises the ratio of success to failure. Lehrer knows this too, of course. And his book is a pleasure to read. If you like to read about creativity, you definitely need Imagine on your shelf.