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.


Transformative and Reflective Life-long Learning (Part 1 of 3)

January 25, 2010

Listening to Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training interview with Bamboo Project blogger Michele Martin about learning, Web 2.0 (online social networking), and a variety of other topics, I was struck by a passing reference she makes to the need for reflection in learning: “One of the things that I find from a learning perspective that is often missing is the whole notion of reflection. We’re just not really great with reflection…and social media, to some extent, can support it…”

What’s notable is not that someone is lamenting the lack of reflection in contemporary learning, but that so many of us recognize and comment on it yet somehow don’t seem able to foster it to a large degree in workplace learning and performance programs.

It’s not as if we’re unaware or it or even unsure as to how to proceed. Those of us familiar with Fort Hill Company’s efforts to create comprehensive leadership training opportunities which draw managers/supervisors and learners together before as well as after learning events take place know that there are great models to be followed and adapted. The Fort Hill Company model is also well documented in Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, Andrew Jefferson, and Richard Flanagan’s book The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results; a follow-up manual (Getting Your Money’s Worth from Training & Development) written by Jefferson, Pollock, and Wick is designed to help managers/supervisors and learners better apply what is offered through face-to-face or online learning opportunities.

But the moments of what Jack Mezirow calls “transformative learning” and “critical reflection” seem few and far between in most programs we see and oversee today. Learners often have to fight to obtain release time from work—the very idea that learning is somehow disconnected from or not an integral part of work hints at how deep-rooted a problem we face here—and then often return to worksites where what they learned is not accepted, nourished, or supported. Worse yet, the time to even practice what is learned is seen as a luxury rather than an essential element of the learning process.

As Martin says in different words in her T is for Training interview, one benefit of online learning is that course participants can “engage with and reflect on the course content,” Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt note in Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom (p. 129)—a book which is as fresh and timely as when it was published more than a decade ago. (An updated version was published in 2007.)  The process of making reflection a part of learning, they add, “is a vibrant, dynamic process that is typically not completed when a course ends…the first experience with this process creates a hunger for more and sets the stage for participants to become lifelong, reflective learners” (p. 130).

It all becomes personal—as learning should be—and transformative when we immerse ourselves in a combination of face-to-face and online learning experiences, as I did over the past couple of years. Regardless of whether the courses were online or onsite, the best were the ones that left me hungry for more. Made me continue reading and thinking about books like Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations and Lon Safko and David Brake’s The Social Media Bible: Tactics, Tools, and Strategies for Business Success long after the courses and projects requiring them had ended. And make me appreciative that trainer-teacher-learners like Martin, Palloff, Pratt, and the others mentioned in this article are still among us to remind us what we can accomplish when we are reflective.

Next: Personal Learning Environments and Feral Learning


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