Jonah Lehrer: Creatively Imagining Solutions

June 19, 2012

Imagine a book with an approach so creative and so playfully appealing that we run out and buy it, devour it, look for interviews with the author, and then dive into the promotional video as well as other videos because we discover depths in the work that we suspect we’ll never grow tired of exploring. Then realize you don’t have to imagine it, because Jonah Lehrer has written it.

Reading Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works pulls us onto familiar turf—the study of creativity, how the brain works, how we resolve the numerous challenges life tosses our way, and how we as trainer-teacher-learners can more effectively fulfill our potential. It also takes us down some intriguing paths by creatively using storytelling to help us understand how much effort is required to produce what so often appears to be an unearned flash of brilliant insight.

As Malcolm Gladwell so effectively does in Outliers: The Story of Success, Lehrer continually shows us that it’s practice that often can be found at the base of those divine moments of creativity we so admire.

“Creativity shouldn’t be seen as something otherworldly,” he writes near the beginning of his book. “It shouldn’t be thought of as a process reserved for artists and inventors and other ‘creative types.’ The human mind, after all, has the creative impulse built into its operating system, hard-wired into its most essential programming code. At any given moment, the brain is automatically forming new associations, continually connecting an everyday x to an unexpected y.

Drawing from research into the way the brain works, he helps us understand what we can do to nurture our own creative impulses.

“When our minds are at ease…we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere”—a practice we can foster in our students through the learning opportunities we provide. “In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve….It’s not until we’re being massaged by warm water, unable to check our e-mail, that we’re finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along—we just weren’t listening” (pp. 31-32).

There’s plenty here for those steeped in adult learning theory as proposed by Malcolm Knowles in The Adult Learner and Robert Gagné in The Conditions of Learning.  In the same way that Knowles and Gagné encouraged us to recognize that learners progress by building upon what they already know, Lehrer looks into the way our brain functions and he reports that a newly created thought is “transmitted back to its source—those pleasure-hungry dopamine cells in the midbrain—so the neurons learn from the new idea. ‘We call that a recursive loop,’ [Earl] Miller says. ‘It allows the system to feed on itself, so that one idea leads naturally to the next. We can then build on these connections, so that they lead to other, richer connections’” (pp. 67-68).

Those steeped in the theory and reality of the way we approach change—ranging  from Everett Rogers and his seminal work Diffusion of Innovations to Dan Ariely and his Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions—will be equally intrigued by the insights Lehrer provides through his summaries of brain-based research. Taking something as simple as the transformations we undergo as a result of traveling to new places, he observes that “[w]hen we get home, home is still the same. But something in our minds has been changed, and that changes everything” (p. 130)—an observation that presciently captures what happens to us in the course of traveling with Lehrer through Imagine.

By the time we finish reading the book, we recognize that something in our minds has changed. Reading and trying to solve the brain teasers he provides early in the text makes us more aware of how we approach problem-solving. Reading about how Yo-Yo Ma, Bob Dylan, Milton Glaser, and many others diligently approach their craft helps change the way we approach our own. And reading how creative teams that aren’t completely inbred and, at the same time, are not completely composed of individuals who have never worked together before makes us more aware of the successful learning teams we have been lucky enough to join.

Yet even as he works to show us the magic behind what so often appears to be creative legerdemain, Lehrer is smart enough to know that even though we are making great strides in understanding the science behind our creative processes, there is still something innately human about retaining a sense of awe when we explore this subject: “Creativity is like that magic trick. For the first time, we can see the source of imagination, that massive network of electrical cells that lets us constantly form new connections between old ideas….There will always be something slightly miraculous about the imagination.” (p. 251).

N.B.: For a look at how Lehrer’s book can guide us in developing effective communities of practice, please see “Imagine, Creativity, and Communities of Practice” in ASTD’s Learning Circuits online publication. And for information about the publisher’s withdrawal of Imagine, please see this updated posting.

Advertisements

On the Horizon Report: Training-Teaching-Learning Innovations (Part 2 of 2)

February 9, 2010

We will, if the authors (Laurence Johnson, Alan Levine, Rachel Smith, and Sonja Stone) of the 2010 Horizon Report are as accurate as they have been in the past, soon be as proficient in and comfortable with simple augmented reality, gesture-based computing, and visual data analysis as we currently are with other more familiar educational tools and trends.

The report itself suggests that simple augmented reality, “the concept of blending (augmenting) virtual data—information, rich media, and even live action—with what we see in the real world, for the purpose of enhancing the information we can perceive with our senses,” will reach maturity as an educational tool within two or three years. Simple augmented reality, the writers note, “is older than the term itself,” having first been used more than 40 years ago. As is often the case, however, diffusion of innovation has occurred gradually and appears to be working its way into educational settings for “discovery-based learning.” Current applications already include augmented reality in showing learners how to repair cars, interact with books and other physical objects, and work in collaborative learning environments.

Right behind augmented reality is gesture-based computing, according to our Horizon Report colleagues: “In schools where the Microsoft Surface has been installed in study areas, staff report that students naturally gravitate to the devices when they want to work together to study collaboratively.”  Those familiar with TED talks have already seen the MIT Media Lab demonstration of the Sixth Sense gesture-based system which shows where we might be headed with this technology, and Georgia Tech University researchers “have developed gesture-based games designed to help deaf children learn sign language,” the Horizon Report writers note.

We come full circle in our exploration of overwhelming amounts of information when we reach the final of the six trends explored: visual data analysis, a way to “make it possible for almost anyone with an analytical bent to easily interpret all sorts of data.” Tools including Many Eyes, Wordle, Flowing Data, and Gapminder are already available to trainer-teacher-learners, and they are helping us spot patterns which might otherwise remain hidden.

“The promise for teaching and learning is further afield,” the Horizon Report authors tell us, “but because of the intuitive ways in which it can expose intricate relationships to even the unitiated, there is tremendous opportunity to integrate visual data analysis into undergraduate research, even in survey courses.”

What this suggests, of course, is that those of us involved in workplace learning and performance need to see the simple augmented reality writing on the virtual wall: if students—future employees in the workplaces that we serve—are already using these resources in their educational endeavors, we are going to have to be equally adept at and comfortable with these tools if we’re going to be prepared to meet their workplace learning needs.


Small Groups, Big Results: Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Points, and Learning

February 3, 2010

In a world in which people face far more information than they can possibly absorb, the spread of innovation depends on simple, memorable, and trusted means of information, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point a decade ago.

The fact that the book remains frequently discussed and extremely popular among users of libraries—there were 194 reserves on the 37 copies of the book owned by the Seattle Public Library, 84 reserves on the 27 copies of the book owned by the San Francisco Public Library, and several other libraries reporting all copies checked out yesterday—tells us that trainer-teacher-learners need to be paying attention as we attempt to support change within the organizations we support—which is, after all the point of training-teaching-learning.

What is tremendously encouraging from Gladwell is the confirmation that change doesn’t necessarily require large numbers of people in its initial stages. Nor does change and innovation require huge groups of people to be efficacious. The power of smaller rather than larger groups in the change process receives ample attention in his chapter “The Power of Context (Part Two).” Citing the work of British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, Gladwell shows how groups ranging from baboons to hunter-gather tribes to religious groups including the Hutterites (pp. 177-181) work most effectively in smaller rather than larger conglomerations, with groups comprised of approximately 150 members being about the largest effective unit: “The Rule of 150 suggests that the size of a group is another one of those subtle contextual factors that can make a big difference” (p. 182). One repercussion of this proposal is explicitly addressed in an afterward to the 2002 edition of the book.

“We are about to enter the age of word of mouth,” Gladwell wrote shortly before Web 2.0 tools boosted the pervasiveness of word of mouth diffusion of ideas through the use of Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon.com book recommendations, and many other resources key players—what Gladwell calls “connectors,” “mavens,” and “salesmen”—use to expand their reach beyond the social and professional groups in which they are most intimately and personally involved.

LinkedIn itself demonstrates how easy it has become to build these ever-expanding groups of connections. As Gladwell notes, “Connectors…are people whom all of us can reach in only a few steps because, for one reason or another, they manage to occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches” (p. 48). As LinkedIn makes the process easier, previously separated connectors become connected; ideas which would otherwise have been known to small numbers of people leap from person to person and social network to social network in a viral way.

The conclusion of Gladwell’s work returns readers to its beginning: “When people are overwhelmed with information and develop immunity to traditional forms of communication, they turn instead for advice and information to the people in their lives whom they respect, admire, and trust…Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen” (p. 275). And there’s every reason in the world for trainer-teacher-learners to recognize their role in that process—and use it to the advantage of those with whom they interact.


%d bloggers like this: