Jonah Lehrer: When Writing, Creativity, and Imagination Go Too Far

August 1, 2012

For those of us who write, the news that a very talented and successful writer has been discredited because of his or her own unethical actions is something that hurts us all—professionally as well as personally. At a painfully obvious level, it fuels the arguments of those who want to see inaccuracies and bias in every piece of nonfiction writing or broadcast reporting they encounter. So the news that Jonah Lehrer’s best-selling book Imagine: How Creativity Works has been withdrawn from the market by its publisher and that Lehrer has had to resign from his position as a writer for The New Yorker is very bad news, indeed.

From what has been reported to date, Lehrer’s first completely inexcusable mistake in Imagine was to fabricate quotes and add a made-up sentence to an actual quote from singer-songwriter Bob Dylan—an amazingly bad lapse of judgment given that much of the material with which Lehrer was working in Imagine appears to have already provided ample support to points he was making about how the creative process works. He then reportedly compounded the error by engaging in an extended game of obfuscation over a three-week period with writer Michael C. Moynihan, who documented the initial fabrications and his exchanges with Lehrer on the subject in an article published in Tablet Magazine this week. Lehrer’s work, furthermore, has been questioned and criticized by others, including a reviewer for The New York Times who raised plenty of questions about Lehrer’s conclusions drawn from research he cited after an earlier reviewer for the newspaper had praised the book.

What made Imagine so appealing to so many of us when it was released earlier this year was that Lehrer’s writing was so clear and crisp; his summaries of numerous research studies seemed well supported through citations in the book’s endnotes; and his conclusions seemed to be consistent with what we had seen from other writers and studies. It inspired us to recommend the book in our own reviews and essays and to connect Lehrer’s work to fields in which we work, as I did in a piece written for the American Society of Training & Development (ASTD) Learning Technology online community of practice.

So the news that this apparently wonderful, engaging, and thought-provoking book has, overnight, almost completely disappeared from bookstores and websites, and will apparently only remain available through libraries or on the shelves of those of us who obtained copies before the publisher’s understandable recall, is extremely dispiriting.

I’ve never before faced the situation where a book has been recalled after I had so favorably written about it and also used it as a jumping off point for the sort of piece I wrote for ASTD; the news that the book had been pulled, therefore, left me wondering how to handle a revelation like that one in an age where we can actually withdraw our online reviews and even ask that an online article be withdrawn. The dilemma sent me back to re-read the brief online review I posted on a few sites and to also reread that ASTD article. And when I was finished, I walked away with extremely mixed feelings: on the one hand, I felt that what I had been inspired to write for the ASTD posting still had value, so I’m not going to ask that it go the way of the book itself and be withdrawn; on the other hand, I have already deleted the online reviews since it seems silly to offer any type of rating or critique for a book that a publisher has pulled back.

Ultimately, because I do still believe the book as published had—and still has—value in making us think creatively about the science of the creative process—even though, by Lehrer’s own admission, he was irresponsibly creative in imagining quotes for attribution—I’m going to keep an earlier blog posting online, along with an acknowledgment that the book has been withdrawn—as a reminder of how a good book could have been a great book if the writer had been faithful to the basic precepts of accuracy in nonfiction writing. As a reminder that the act of writing in an onsite-online world exposes us to greater scrutiny—and more assurance of comeuppance when deserved—than anything we’ve ever before experienced. And as a reminder that when a member of our extended community of writers takes a terribly wrong turn, the rest of us need to Imagine ourselves in that position—and avoid it at all costs.


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.


On the Horizon Report 2012: The Wisdom of the Crowds We Help Perpetuate (Part 3 of 3)

June 8, 2012

One of the most fascinating stories embedded in any New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Report is how the reports themselves are produced: in a highly collaborative, asynchronous fashion using a well-facilitated technology tool—a wikias I’ve noted elsewhere. The process draws together colleagues from a variety of walks of life to produce something that none of them could individually ever hope to achieve. And if that somehow sounds familiar, it’s because the underpinnings of these interactions—so important for trainer-teacher-learners and others—is all around us in a variety of printed and online resources.

There is, for example, Frans Johansson’s The Medici Effect, that wonderful book describing how magic happens when people from different backgrounds briefly come together—a group of merchant marines, for example, who share ideas in a Greek tavern before parting and disseminating the results of their conversations with others all over the world. This is one of the major underpinnings of the Horizon process as nearly 50 of us from all over the world gather via a well-facilitated wiki to contribute to Horizon Higher Education reports. Or 9,000 people gather at an American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) annual conference for several days, then spend bits of pieces of the following weeks continuing to build upon and spread what resulted from the planned and chance encounters.

James Surowiecki’s fascinating The Wisdom of Crowds provides an additional book-length report that reminds us time and time that when we start with a diverse enough group of the right people—no groupthink here, mind you—any of us as trainer-teacher-learners produce more reliable results than any single member of a group consistently produces. The archetypal crowdsourcing story here is the one about Francis Galton going to a county fair in 1906, watching people try to guess the weight of an ox, combining the nearly 800 different guesses submitted, and documenting that the mean of all those guesses was far more accurate than any individual’s guess had been—just one pound away from the actual weight of 1,198 pounds.

If we continue down this exploration of why these broad collaborative gatherings are so effective, we find ourselves in Clay Skirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, which builds upon The Wisdom of Crowds by exploring how collaboration produces magnificent—and highly accurate—resources like Wikipedia. And that, of course, brings us nearly full circle back to the wikis that are an integral part of the Horizon process.

Jonah Lehrer’s recently-released book Imagine: How Creativity Works adds a final dimension to our exploration of the creative process that produces Horizon reports and other worthwhile and inspirational results. Lehrer, among other things, documents how creativity is fostered by online projects such as InnoCentive, where experts apply their expertise to areas in which they don’t normally work and, by bringing an outsider’s point of view, solve problems that don’t come from those well-versed in the field in which the problem is embedded. It’s exactly the same sort of process that supports the work of communities of practice and allows Horizon Report Advisory Board members to come together in an intensively creative way to see elements of the world of training-teaching-learning that few of us would ever notice if we weren’t immersed in this collaborative endeavor.

There’s a deliberate attempt to avoid inbred thinking in the sort of collaboration fostered through the Horizon process: our New Media Consortium colleagues attempt to replace at least a third of the composition of the Horizon Report Advisory Board each year so a new flow of ideas is an integral part of the process. And in providing that model, they leave us with a thought-provoking and effective approach that we can and should easily be incorporating into our workplace learning and performance (staff training) efforts: one that mixes experience with infusions of fresh ideas. Takes advantage of our resources. And engages the wisdom of the crowd to help us better serve as the effective facilitators of learning that so many of us strive to be.


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