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BW Businessworld

So Says Frontal Cortex

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Why did Steve Jobs have the only set of bathrooms in the heart of the Pixar Studios office? Do we solve puzzles by insight or analysis? How did an autistic surfer invent a new killer surfing move? What led Bob Dylan to write ‘Like a Rolling Stone'? What was so special about Elizabethan England that it led to a literary explosion? And how do some companies and cities become innovation hubs? Explore these and many other interesting anecdotes in Imagine: How Creativity Works by popular science writer Jonah Lehrer.

Lehrer is a staff writer with The New Yorker, and has been in news this month for a reason that, ironically, his works can explain well — self plagiarism. A controversy broke out when media critic Jim Romenesko found out that Lehrer, who moved his popular pop-science blog ‘Frontal Cortex' to The New Yorker from Wired, rehashed parts of his earlier pieces in his posts on Lehrer later apologised. Despite the row, Lehrer is among the best science writers of the day. He is young (32) and effervescent, and is touted to be Malcolm Gladwell 2.0. His earlier works include Proust Was A Neuroscientist (2007) and How We Decide (2009).  
The book has two parts. The first one focuses on the thought processes in an individual and the next one discusses the (social) dynamics in a group or a city. For Lehrer, creativity is a discovery process; it is like taking two already existing things and connecting them in an entirely new way. This, in some ways, reflects views of Greek philosophers such as Plato, who viewed creativity as a form of imitation. Lehrer says an idea has a promise when it looks obvious in retrospect. Creativity, he says, is more a state of mind than a phase of mind and different aspects such as colour or travel can drastically influence the flow of thoughts. Lehrer explains how comic artists improvise to let themselves go and not inhibit their impulses.

Without getting too deep into neuroscience, Lehrer succinctly explains the importance of the prefrontal cortex in the creativity process, how certain drugs affect the activity of neurons and how the eureka moment always comes along with the certainty of the success of the idea. The ‘aha' moment can be due to either an insight or analysis and it is easy to differentiate between the two problem-solving abilities. Citing Crockett Johnson's children's novel Harold And The Purple Crayon as an example, Lehrer explains how different ideas coexist in our brain (conceptual blending) — an important aspect of creativity. He corroborates this with the thought processes behind the invention of the airplane, printing machine, velcro, Google search algorithm, etc. Yes, you will find Lehrer digging out anecdotes from almost everything.

Lehrer says cities are indeed engines of innovation and it is where good ideas originate. Dense populations lead to more diversity and interactions which, in turn, generate more ideas — ‘knowledge spillovers'. Stressing the importance of interactions and communication, Lehrer explains how Silicon Valley won over Route 128 (a highway around Boston, which housed a hi-tech industry along its lanes in 1960s and 1980s). Despite the density of talent, Route 128 could not interact courtesy non-compete clauses and non-disclosure pacts, which resulted in stifling of innovation. There was no free flow of information. Lehrer says imagination is a talent that takes multiple forms, while creativity is an emergent property of people coming together.

Lehrer is not trying to prescribe a set of rules for you to be a more creative person, but he tries to touch upon the various internal and external phenomena that trigger creative thought processes in us. He combines aspects of neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, humanities and urban geography to make the book a comprehensive read. He has done his homework well, and refers to works of several scientists and researchers, making the book a must read for all innovators and out-of the-box thinkers.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 09-07-2012)