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Jonah Lehrer explains how creativity works

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Updated: April 26, 2012 8:05AM

You’ve been there: In the middle of a hot shower, the solution to a problem that had been particularly vexing suddenly becomes clear, like a light bulb going off overhead.

But what quirk of your subconscious is responsible for that? What happens in our brains during that “ah-ha” moment — that shower-induced epiphany — and how does it differ from the type of creativity involved in writing a poem or inventing a new mathematical equation?

Jonah Lehrer explores those questions in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26). Lehrer, 30, shared a few tips on how to boost creativity, even if you’re no Picasso.

Q. So, start with that ah-ha moment — that epiphany. What happens there?

A. There is a sharp spike in activity in the part of the brain called the anterior superior temporal gyrus, in the right hemisphere right behind the ear. It’s closely associated with things like inventing metaphors, hearing the punchline of the joke. It kind of confirms in an ironic way the cliche of the right hemisphere is central for creativity.

Q. Why does it help to be relaxed?

A. When we’re not relaxed, our attention is focused on the problem. That means we can’t hear the quiet voice in the back of our head trying to tell us what the answer is.

Q. Some of the most creative minds are altered through either drugs or illness. Are they better at unlocking that answer?

A. A study came out last month that people actually solve about 30 percent more insight puzzles when they’re slightly drunk. In terms of mental illness, that’s complicated. No one would prescribe being bipolar in order to become more creative, but longitudinal study after study has found that there seems to be this correlation between some forms of mental illness — especially bipolar depression — and creative production.

Q. You argue that brainstorming, as we typically define it, doesn’t work.

A. That surprised me. Brainstorming has become the most widely implemented creativity technique of all time. But people are much more productive when they work in groups following a very different set of instructions.

Q. By being critical?

A. This is a legacy of Steve Jobs, who advocated the practice of brutal honesty: He was president and CEO of Pixar during their formative years. They have a meeting every morning where they review the most recent footage of the film they’re working on, and then they engage in what they call the “shredding process.” They tear it apart. Over the course of four to five years of shredding, you end up with a really, really good animated movie. Criticism is built into their process at every step.

Gannett News Service

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