A Conversation with Author Jonah Lehrer

An update to this post:
Jonah Lehrer resigned last week from his job at The New Yorker after admitting that he had fabricated quotes by Bob Dylan in “Imagine.” The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has stopped printing the book. This is sad news for Lehrer fans and for those of us who referred to this heralded book frequently in our work. The Project Room’s mission is to present inclusive programming that demonstrates the relevance of creativity in everyday life, and “Imagine” had been an inspiring resource during TPR’s first year as it defined and presented its early programming within this mission. It seems worth pointing out that a book touting the wonders of human creativity from a scientific perspective lost its credibility due to an imbalance between the creative (imaginative) and the scientific (fact-based) elements. We will post any updates about this issue as they develop.- JVN, 8/8/12


Science Writer and author of the new book Imagine, Jonah Lehrer visited The Project Room on April 9, 2012 for a conversation with TPR Founder Jess Van Nostrand and Seattle Magazine’s Arts & Culture Editor Brangien Davis. This is an edited transcription of that meeting. The discussion begins around the 1979 book The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards, which Brangien has brought with her.

BRANGIEN: I suspect my mother— through this and other clues—was always trying to get me to loosen up and get more into creativity. So even though this is totally about brain science and what they had been figuring out in the ‘60s (a little advanced for a ten year-old to be reading)… I started digging into it again as a grownup, and I can actually get it.

JONAH: Drawing is one of those activities—studies have shown—that seems to loosen people up. It teaches you what improv is all about: getting outside your own head and turning off that sensor, that voice that’s always telling you not to do something.

There are these wonderful studies people have done that work with people who have suffered damage to one of their hemispheres. So if you asked a patient to draw—who has damage to the right hemisphere—to draw a house, they will draw all the doors and windows perfectly, but without a frame. If you ask a person to draw a house who has damage to the left hemisphere, they will get the whole right but all the windows will be in the wrong places—the details will be ass-backwards. There is of course the association we get from the hippies: the right hemisphere is the artist inside the head, the left hemisphere the accountant. And that’s definitely an oversimplification. But in general, the two hemispheres do process information differently.

The Freedom of Constraint

JESS: One thing I hear from artists a lot in my work is that they prefer some parameters when they’re making something new; that they don’t like complete freedom. And this comes up again and again, especially because we work thematically here (at The Project Room), which gives us something to go off of. Do you find that that’s the case in all fields, or is this specific to art making?

JONAH: No, you see it again and again in all fields. If you’re designing a gadget, you’ve got the constraints of technology. But [it’s] even in domains of art where you assume it’s better to be completely free, like with poets. Why wouldn’t poets just want to make free verse? It seems so much easier. Why would they want to stump themselves with sonnets and sestinas and haikus and all these forms?

I think it gets back to the value of constraints. You have to force yourself to think in terms of remote associations that make it easier for us to get to that place where we are actually coming up with something original and not just going with our first free association. A study that just came out looked at the value of giving people these kinds of constraints—like a flickering computer screen—and people were better at solving a problem when they were given a constraint to deal with.

JESS: Even though the problem was unrelated?

JONAH: Yes, just something that put them in the mindset of thinking outside of the box. A constraint gets you away from going with your initial idea and forces you to keep on searching.

JESS: There was a section [in your book] where you talk about how creativity comes from a problem, or a challenge of some kind. I find that when I survey different makers about this, I get different kinds of responses. Artists don’t necessarily see themselves as problem solvers—they see themselves as responders. Whereas an entrepreneur, for example, sees him or herself as trying to make something better, and therefore being a problem solver. Have you found that same kind of distinction?

A Problem By Any Other Name

JONAH: It’s definitely a language distinction we have. I’m not sure how meaningful the distinction is. When I’m talking to artists they are solving problems too—they sometimes have technical problems to solve, so sometimes it’s about stepping back because something doesn’t feel right, and asking why it isn’t working; so they are problem-solving and that’s not the language they rely on to describe that process.

Where brain science is helpful is in being a category-buster, so it takes the categories that we naturally cleave ourselves into (so there are artists who have artistic creativity and scientists who have scientific creativity, and all the rest) and from the perspective of the brain, they all seem like pretty much the same thing. We’ve got these muscles we rely on to help us invent new stuff. Problem–solving doesn’t jive with our romantic sense of the artistic process. It seems too mundane and too technical…

JESS: …or too definitive.

JONAH: Yes, because it makes it seem like there is a solution. Some of my favorite writing about the creative process, that I made myself read before writing this book, is Virginia Woolf’s letters and diaries. She often uses the phrase “problem-solving” when she writes that the novel isn’t working and she’s trying to make it work. It can come across as technical, too “insider-baseball” (she is a writer obsessed with writing), but I find that’s true in a lot of journals and diaries; it’s people talking about the nitty gritty, and you see what the everyday life of an artist is, which is a lot about problem-solving.

If you’re working towards an answer, you often have a sense of getting closer, which is totally befuddling to me: how do you know that? But we are able to do that, and my sense is that artists often rely on this feeing of knowing. It’s part of their process as in, “these edits are making it better,” or “I’m getting closer to what I want.”

BRANGIEN: I definitely have experienced that in teaching writing. You can teach writing as much as possible, but for some people you just have to tell them that the edits you made make it “sound better.” Even if what they had was grammatically correct.

JONAH: If we could articulate it, it wouldn’t have taken so long to make it in the first place. We’d all be better at this thing called creativity.


Expertise or Intuition?

JESS: I find that the more I trust my instincts, the sharper they get. And maybe some of this is confidence…

JONAH: …And that’s the payoff of expertise. We think of experts as having explicit facts they can rely upon, but when we have looked at experts in the wild we have found that they are mainly intuitive. There has been a big shift in scientific thinking about intuition. For a while we thought they were just these primal passions that lead us to take out sub prime mortgages and eat too much chocolate cake and do stupid shit. But it turns out they are actually where our experience gets vetted…and the reason experts log all those hours of experience is not so they can have more facts to quote; it’s so that you can have these instincts that have been honed by your past failures, your mistakes and all those years of training, so that you can think without having to explain why it’s so.

Struggle and Grit

JESS: Let’s talk about the idea of “struggle” and how important it is to making art. And how it should be hard, and it should be painful. In yesterday’s [April 8, 2012] New York Times Magazine, Jack White is interviewed as saying, “It’s sort of like I can’t be proud of it unless I know we overcame some kind of struggle,” in reference to using only analog methods for recording. He also calls using computer programs to record and edit music, “Cheating.” It’s like he is saying that technology has robbed people of the ability to struggle. Can we say that? There are certainly lots of people who use technology during their struggle because it’s part of their craft.

JONAH: Technology comes with its own constraints and struggles. Even if you’re using nifty tools, it’s still going to involve a struggle and plenty of frustration.

I’m writing an article now for The New Yorker about this new character trait being called “grit.” Levels of grit are the biggest predictors of success…the way people work up their grit is by failing.

My younger sister is a modern dancer. And I remember saying to her early on, “Just so you know, this is like the hardest possible career you could have chosen. You’ll make no money, you’ll have to work SO hard.” And she never thought about the opportunity cost—she was aware that she was spending her twenties doing this—she was like “Just because of what I need to do, because I have this single-minded goal.” I was always fascinated by that. That’s just the way she thinks.

Ignorance is Bliss

JESS: The idea that ignorance is really important when you’re about to take a big risk comes up a lot. We had a roundtable discussion here with a group of entrepreneurs from different fields, talking about what would be the most important qualities that you would need before you start something new and take a big risk, and everybody agreed on ignorance and persistence as the two biggest things.

JONAH: That’s grit, especially the persistence part. The ignorance part is especially important in risk taking, in part because you’re not thinking about what else you could be doing, about the possibility of failure. But it’s also because if we were rational creatures, who would ever start a business? Who would ever start a restaurant? Because 80% of them fail within five years. We would just have McDonalds. But thank God people are risk seeking.

JESS: So, what was the challenge, or the problem, that made you set out to write this book?

Here is a Pleasure That Won’t Get Old

JONAH: I’m just drawn to mysteries, to things I can’t begin to understand. So for me it began with moments of insight. We all have them all the time and they are so befuddling. And I knew I wanted to write a book on creativity because it seemed like a vague enough subject where I could tell lots of good stories, which is the other kind of subject I’m drawn to. But I kept bumping into creative people and asking them questions, and they couldn’t explain their epiphanies any better than anyone else. It’s just as mysterious to them. And that’s why I thought the science could be interesting. But the book I want to write about next, which comes from this same vague questioning, is about love. It’s about love of ideas, love of a pursuit, love of a talent, love of God, love of friends. I think what we mean when we say we love something, is “here is a pleasure that won’t get old.” I was talking with this animator at Pixar who spent twenty years just figuring out how to draw a character’s hair.

JESS: That‘s passion for you.

JONAH: It turned out to be an incredibly difficult problem, and it gave his work tremendous meaning over these twenty years. So when you find people who are really good at what they do, it’s because they’re in love with the idea—they’re in love with the questions. It’s why they keep on putting in the work when other people look at them and think they’re crazy.

JESS: I think it’s important to de-glamorize the part when you’re just working on your thing. So after you have your big idea, that’s plan A. But usually what you end up with is Plan C or D because there are all these changes that typically occur along the way. But there is still this romantic idea of this artist who in their studio in this beautiful place making things happen…

JONAH: …smoking weed all day long…

The UP Side of Depression

JESS: Our friend Dan Webb—a sculptor here in Seattle who carves wood—calls his process a “constant butt-clenching experience,” because he can’t necessarily go back and edit. He’s basically thinking, while he carves, “I hope I don’t F-up this piece of wood.”

JONAH: And it’s even worse than most people think. Because not only is it not romantic, but all the evidence suggest that it will make you sad. Extended bouts of focus make people depressed, and that’s actually a good thing, because when you’re mildly depressed, you’re more attentive to those details you’re honing in on.

But the editing phase is horrible; it is a “butt-clenching experience.” It’s amazing what creative people put up with. One of the lessons I took away from my book was, “Wow, they just really must want to do this ‘cause it sucks.”

BRANGIEN: I think it speaks to how powerful that epiphany moment really is. When you have the “eureka” then it feels so important and unusual that you are motivated, as in, “I gotta get back to that feeling.”

JONAH: You’re like an addicted rat. I was talking to my wife about this because I was complaining about book tours and how I hate getting reviews, and I hate Googling myself, and she says. “So wait—you’re miserable now and the book is done, and you’re miserable during the writing—why do you do this? Which part do you enjoy?” I think it is the euphoria of when it just clicks. What no one tells you is that it’s like thirty seconds of the process, but it’s such a high.

JESS: And you decide that it’s worth it.

JONAH: It’s not a conscious calculation and it makes no sense. If you added up all the pain and weigh it against the pleasure…but if it were rational, it would be easier to explain to other people.

Why Do We Make Things?

JESS: So I have to throw out the question that I ask everybody since this is The Project Room: Could you answer the question: Why Do We Make Things?

JONAH: I think we make things because we need to. It’s such a profound question…this, to me, gets at the core mystery of creativity that science has only begun to touch, which is what the human brain can do is that we look around the world, and sometimes we see something that makes us so inspired that we want to replicate it in a painting, or we want to write a poem about it. Sometimes we see a problem, like a flaw, and both those observations hurl us into this state of creativity where we want to fix it, where we want to respond, to make something, to apply. It’s a deep part of human nature. You can’t study it in a brain scanner. The closest we get is by talking about curiosity.

Curiosity is something I’m fascinated by, and there is no scientific research on it. How do you study it? The process starts with us saying, “I want to learn more about that. I’m curious about that.” I think we make stuff because we can’t help but be any other way. I don’t think science has even begun to understand this. But I think it remains the deepest, most wonderful, most mysterious part of ourselves.


Jess and Jonah in front of The Klavihorn