Book Review: Imagine: How Creativity Works

A few weeks ago my family was having dinner, and somewhere in the conversation my brother suggested that I pick up this book, Imagine, because he was currently reading it and told me that it was really interesting. I immediately reserved it at the library (shocking, I know, but people actually do still go to the library), because Paul has unusually good taste in books. He reads a little bit of everything–poetry, biographies, fiction, graphic novels, and other nonfiction things–and so I generally take his advice if he says it’s good.

So I picked up my reserved copy from the library and was immediately sucked in. This book is incredibly thoroughly researched, and it’s so interesting. Normally books about my brain bore me, but this was positively fascinating. So I’ve decided to write a book review that will show you what I’ve learned and hopefully convince you that you’ll want to read it too…

Jonah Lehrer. Imagine: How Creativity Works.

New York, New York. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. 2012.

279 pages. $26.00


Have you ever wondered why certain people are more creative than others? Have you tried to paint or sculpt, with only lackluster results? Or maybe you’re really creative, but only when you’re in a certain space or surrounded by certain sounds and environments. What can this mean? At first, these all seem to be questions without answers. After all, the brain is a complex instrument with strange inner workings. It’s easy to throw creativity into the corner and say, “Some have it, and some don’t.” But is it really so complex that we could never understand it? In his deeply explorative and thoroughly researched book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, author Jonah Lehrer sets out to explain creativity through scientific study and theory to explain what it  is, how it works, and why it happens.

Though to some this might seem a daunting task, Lehrer makes it seem easy. Through eight chapters and numerous case studies, he quickly gives readers a simple definition of creativity, followed by examples of its chemical workings, physical manifestations in people, and ultimately, their creations. From Bob Dylan to Steve Jobs, Lehrer examines artists, businessmen, writers, scientists, and performers and explores their creative processes. Then he showcases the differences between individual and collaborative creativity.

As Lehrer postulates, creativity is, simply, the ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas. When you view creativity in this light, it no longer seems so difficult to measure someone’s imaginative ability. And from there, he takes off. After a few case studies of creative ability and what it looks like, he moves to the chemical processes that take place in the brain during periods of dramatic insight versus creative focus. Because there are two ways to come up with an idea: intense focus on one subject and daydreaming. Both can give you imaginative results, but you get at that great idea via two different places in the brain.

Personally, my favorite part of the book Lehrer’s discussion of collaborative creativity, because I’m usually spurred by others’ ideas when I’m being creative (or trying to, at least). In this section, Leher focuses on Pixar’s wild success in the movie industry and how they manage to turn out only award-winning, critically acclaimed creative movies. He tours their warehouse-sized studio in which all employees are housed with open floorplans and cubicles. At the center is an atrium that contains a cafe and the only bathrooms in the whole building. Steve Jobs had a hand in designing the building (though I don’t really care for Apple, I found his work at Pixar was immensely helpful in spurring creativity in his Pixar employees), and its unusual design allows different employees from sometimes unrelated departments to run into each other, bring up new ideas, and consequently make things better in animation, storytelling, and script writing. This to me seemed like the “daydreaming” aspect of collaborative creativity–relating seemingly unrelated things in a relaxed way.

In addition, Lehrer interviewed John Lasseter, their head storywriter, along with animators, producers, and production directors, focusing on why their particular studio has been so successful with their scripts and stories. The answer was simple: hard work and focus. Each movie idea goes through intense brainstorming, multiple drafts, critiquing, and finally becomes an entire script. But it doesn’t stop there. Each scene is broken down (24 frames per second) and analyzed in production meetings to ensure everything has the perfect look, motion, and music. It’s the “intense focus” aspect of collaborative creativity–thinking intently on one specific issue to come up with the best version.

Perhaps the only drawback to this book is its incredible amount of insight on every single page. It’s almost exhausting to read (I almost fell asleep at one point; not from boredom but from being tired of thinking so hard) because of the sheer amount of new ideas you’ll learn in every chapter. However, minor fatigue aside, I highly recommend this book for anyone who thinks he’s not creative or doesn’t have any imagination. Lehrer has excellent advice and methods for “non-creative” types that can open the mind to previously unimagined possibilities. And I also highly recommend this book for anyone who does think he’s creative and has lots of imagination. It opens a new door to understanding how the brain works, and readers can learn new ways to manipulate the brain to give even better ideas. Imagine: How Creativity Works will, literally, blow your mind.


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