Pablo Picasso

An excerpt from Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works

The search for emotion shapes the way the virtuoso classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma approaches every concert. He doesn’t begin by analysing his part or by glancing at what the violins are supposed to play. Instead, he reviews the complete score, searching for the larger story. “I always look at a piece of music like a detective novel,” Ma says. “Maybe the novel is about a murder. Well, who committed the murder? Why did he do it? My job is to retrace the story so that the audience feels the suspense. So that when the climax comes, they’re right there with me. It’s all about making people care about what happens next.”

Ma’s unusual musical approach – one that has made him as famous for his recordings of Bach’s cello suites as the swing of American bluegrass – is apparent as I watch him rehearsing a new score in a dimly lit theatre in New York. I see it first in his body, which begins to subtly sway. The movement then spreads to his right arm, so that the bow starts to trace wider and wider arcs in the air. Ma’s slight shifts of interpretation – hushing a pianissimo even more, speeding up a melodic riff, exaggerating a crescendo – turn a work of intricate tonal patterns into a passionate narrative. These shifts are not in the score, and yet they reveal what the score is trying to say. Most of the time, Ma can’t explain what inspired these changes. But that doesn’t matter: he has learnt to trust himself, to follow his instincts. To let himself go.

There is something scary about letting ourselves go. It means that we will screw up, that we will relinquish the possibility of perfection. It means that we will say things we didn’t mean to say and express feelings that we can’t explain. Yet letting go has inspired some of the most famous works of modern culture, from John Coltrane’s saxophone solos to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. It could even help you solve the crossword puzzle that’s been eluding you all day.

The story begins in the brain. Charles Limb, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University, has investigated the mental process underlying improvisation. Limb, a self-proclaimed music addict, has long been obsessed with the fleshy substrate of creative performance. “How did Coltrane do it?” Limb asks. “How did he get up there onstage and improvise for an hour or more? I wanted to know how that happened.”

Although Limb’s experiment was simple in concept – he was going to watch jazz pianists improvise new tunes while in a brain scanner – it proved difficult to execute. That’s because the giant superconducting magnets in fMRI machines require absolute stillness of the body part being studied, which meant that Limb needed to design a custom keyboard that could be played while the pianists were lying down. (The set-up involved an intricate system of angled mirrors, so the subjects could see their hands.)

Each musician began by playing pieces that required no imagination, such as a simple blues tune memorised in advance. Then came the creativity condition: the subject was told to improvise a new melody as he or she played along with a recorded jazz quartet. While the subject was riffing on the keyboard, the scanner was monitoring minor shifts in brain activity.

The scientists found that jazz improv relied on a carefully choreographed set of mental events. The process started with a surge of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain that is closely associated with self-expression. (Limb refers to it as the “centre of autobiography” in the brain.) But the scientists also observed a dramatic shift in a nearby circuit, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). While the DLPFC has many talents, it’s most closely associated with impulse control. This is the neural matter that keeps each of us from making embarrassing confessions, or grabbing at food, or stealing.

What does self-control have to do with creative improvisation? Before a single note was played in the improv condition, each of the pianists exhibited a “deactivation” of the DLPFC, as the brain instantly silenced the circuit. (In contrast, this area remained active when the pianist played a memorised tune.) The musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions, slipping off those mental handcuffs. This allowed them to create new music without worrying about what they were creating, says Limb. They were letting themselves go.

Clay Marzo has been waiting all morning for waves. The 22-year-old is standing with his surfboard at the edge of a pineapple field, looking down at a remote beach on the north-west shore of Maui. The waiting ends shortly after 1pm and I watch Clay paddling out and scanning the horizon, counting the seconds between the huge, heaving swells. After a few minutes, Clay abruptly turns around and points his board toward the shore. The wave is still invisible but Clay is already searching for the perfect position.

And then it appears: a 6ft wall of blue. The water rises until it starts to collapse, which is when Clay pops up onto the board. He accelerates ahead of the break, his sudden speed makes the wave seem slow and then he snaps upward, launching his board into the air and somehow whipping it around so that he lands backward on the disintegrating lip. For a dramatic moment, Clay seems off balance, but then he reverses the board and calmly rides the whitewash until it can no longer carry him.

I’ve just watched Clay execute the Marzo reverse, a move he pioneered. What makes it so astonishing is that Clay reverses himself in mid-flight, swinging his surfboard in a circle and landing on top of the wave backwards, facing away from the shore. “You have no idea how hard this is,” says Mitch Varnes, Clay’s manager. “He’s surfing the wrong way, which is crazy. Boards were designed to go in one direction. He makes his go in two.”

This ability to improvise in the sea has made Clay one of the most celebrated surfers in the world. What makes this even more impressive is that Clay was born with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. The syndrome is largely defined in terms of social deficits; Clay is easily overwhelmed by other people and often struggles to express himself. But in recent years, scientists have also associated the disease with an absence of imagination; people with the disorder are said to suffer from a severe literal-mindedness.

Clay is proof that autism doesn’t impair every kind of creativity. In fact, his surfing innovations are a defining feature of his disorder, what Hans Asperger, the Viennese paediatrician who identified the syndrome in 1944, described as “an encompassing preoccupation with a narrow subject… which comes to dominate their life”. What makes Clay so unique is that his obsession is a sport and not an abstract intellectual category. When I ask Clay what he would do if he couldn’t surf, he looks confused. “I don’t know,” he says. “I guess then I would just want to surf.”

The narrowness of Clay’s passion — he was boogie boarding at two and standing up a year later – has become a cognitive gift. No one knows why it was water that unleashed Clay’s creativity but the mysterious ability of the ocean to silence his inhibitions is apparent even in conversation. I watched him flail for words during our interviews. Even the simplest questions led to awkward silences or stammers, as if Clay were terrified of saying the wrong thing. And yet, when we talked in the warm Hawaiian water, his sentences were filled with vivid metaphors.

One day, when Clay and I were floating on our boards, I asked him why he loved waves so much. Clay looked away at an incoming swell. I assumed he was going to ignore my question. But then he said: “Waves are like toys from God. And when I’m out here, I’m just playing.”

Sometimes, letting go comes with tragic consequences. When John Carter decided to become a painter, his friends were shocked. John had shown no previous interest in art. (He’d never even been to the local museum.) But the 52-year-old investment broker said he was suddenly “bombarded” by visions. So he moved into a run-down loft, stopped eating red meat and started wearing purple shirts. At first, his paintings consisted of ugly, random streaks of colour. But then they started to take on an ethereal beauty. Bruce Miller, his neurologist, describes the shift: “No one can remember exactly when John’s paintings began to appeal to the eye, but it seemed to happen around the same time that he began to have trouble remembering the meaning of words.” John started winning numerous awards, and his work was displayed in a New York City gallery. Yet his mental health deteriorated. His short-term memory vanished; he was prone to angry outbursts. By the time John died, aged 68, he couldn’t speak or eat. But he still painted.

John suffered from frontotemporal dementia. The disease begins when spindly neurons in the prefrontal cortex start to die; the area becomes riddled with holes. Why does such a devastating illness lead to a flood of creativity? Because the brain area it destroys is the area that holds back our imaginative murmurs. As a result, nothing is repressed: the raw perceptions processed in the right temporal lobe of the cortex – an area devoted to multi-sensory integration – are suddenly unleashed into the stream of consciousness. The art-making is an attempt to channel this new reality.

This might sound like a surreal condition but it’s one each of us experiences every night. Once we fall asleep, the prefrontal cortex shuts itself down; the censor goes eerily quiet. Meanwhile, neurons all across the brain start shooting out squirts of acetylcholine. But this isn’t the usual excitement of reality; this activity is semi-random and unpredictable. It’s as if the mind is entertaining itself with improv, filling night-time narratives with whatever spare details happen to be lying around.

The question, of course, is why we dream. Why does the brain squander so much energy on these nonsensical dramas? While their precise function remains unclear, there’s increasing evidence that dreams enable our creativity. Consider a paper published by Sara Mednick, a neuroscientist at the University of California. She gave subjects a variety of remote-association puzzles. Then she told them to take a nap.

Interestingly, subjects who started to dream during their nap solved 40 per cent more puzzles than they had in the morning. (Subjects who quietly rested without sleeping showed a slight decrease in performance.) According to Mednick, the reason dreams are such an important source of creativity is that, once the uptight prefrontal cortex turns itself off, we are exposed to a surfeit of surprising connections and strange ideas. Instead of deleting our errant thoughts, we embrace the sheer freedom of our associations. Most of these will be the surreal babble of the dreaming brain, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, we’ll find our answers in the middle of the night.

The tragedy for frontotemporal dementia patients is that there is no cure. Nevertheless, this awful affliction comes with an uplifting moral, which is that all of us contain a vast reservoir of untapped creativity. Picasso once summarised the paradox: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” From the perspective of the brain, Picasso is right, as the DLPFC is the last brain area to fully develop. This helps explain why young children are so effortlessly creative: their censors don’t yet exist. But then the brain matures and we become too self-conscious to improvise, too worried about saying the wrong thing, or playing the wrong note, or falling off the surfboard.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we’d be better off without our frontal lobes – we need these neural circuits to function. Nevertheless, every mental talent comes with a trade-off. Once we learn to inhibit our impulses, we also inhibit our ability to improvise. And this is why it’s so important to practise letting ourselves go. Take this clever experiment, led by the psychologist Michael Robinson. He randomly assigned a few hundred undergraduates to two different groups. The first was given the following instructions: “You are seven years old, and school is cancelled. You have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?” The second was given the same instructions, with the first sentence deleted. These students didn’t imagine themselves as seven year-olds.

After writing for 10 minutes, the subjects in both groups were then given various tests of creativity, such as trying to invent alternative uses for an old car tire. The students who imagined themselves as young kids scored far more highly, coming up with twice as many ideas as the other group. It turns out that we can recover the creativity we’ve lost with time. We just have to pretend we’re little kids.

Jonah Lehrer is the latest in a tradition of great pop science writers able to pair a knack for concise explanation and accessibility with quality research and expert analysis. Perhaps the best comparison is Malcolm Gladwell, who said of Imagine that it “confirms what [Lehrer’s] fans have known all along – that he knows more about science than a lot of scientists and more about writing than a lot of writers.” The 31 year-old Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired, a contributor to The New Yorker, WNYC’s Radiolab, and a whole host of other media outlets, and author of 2009’s bestseller How We Decide turned his attention over the last few years to the creative mind, studying in detail the many ways in which we formulate creative output, ideas or solutions, and what exactly happens, neurologically speaking, when these processes happen.

As you might imagine after having read the above excerpt, the breath of Lehrer’s research is pretty astonishing. From Bob Dylan’s songwriting to the invention of household kitchen products, Lehrer shrewdly identifies the connections between seemingly disparate creative processes. More importantly, he attempts to debunk some of our most common myths about creativity– say, the notion that only a select few of us are “creative types”, or that creative, radically new ideas simply arrive inexplicably at our fingertips through some divine inspiration.

All of us, Lehrer posits, have the potential to create, to innovate, to come up with the next big idea. And more often than miraculous flights of inspiration, it’s the synthesis of existing, sometimes obvious ideas that leads us to the most important discoveries. I can’t say I’m an expert on all the science involved, but I will say Lehrer is convincing and writes powerfully about creativity, with a populist, all-inclusive slant that should feel encouraging to anybody who’s ever felt inclined to dream big or think outside the box. For more on the book, check out his interview from earlier this week on The Colbert Report here, or pick up a copy here or at your local bookstore.

  • reed

    My friend steph has been talking about this shit non-stop. Definitely on the list.