UPDATE (August 3, 2012): Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, has admitted to making up quotes in the book. The book has been pulled by his publisher, and Lehrer has stepped down from his job with The New Yorker. I have posted a blog entry on this development. As The Artist’s Road blog is a chronicle of a man’s return to an art-committed life, I don’t feel it is appropriate for me to take down the post below, in which I highlighted a portion of his book a day after its publication. And, to be honest, there’s no reason to believe that what I excerpted here isn’t accurate. But it is another opportunity for us to reflect on the ongoing debate about nonfiction and truth.
Are you a night owl? Try reflecting on that thorny issue with your novel’s plot before your morning coffee. A recent study suggests being groggy will increase your chances of finding a solution by 50%.
In his book released yesterday–Imagine: How Creativity Works–Jonah Lehrer explains that focusing intensely on a problem often makes it more difficult for us to solve it. He outlined some of this counter-intuitive thinking, including the study mentioned above, in a recent Wall Street Journal article. After describing how your creative processing can improve after distracting yourself with a humorous video or–brace yourself for this–an alcoholic beverage, Lehrer writes this:
What explains the creative benefits of relaxation and booze? The answer involves the surprising advantage of not paying attention. Although we live in an age that worships focus—we are always forcing ourselves to concentrate, chugging caffeine—this approach can inhibit the imagination. We might be focused, but we’re probably focused on the wrong answer.
And this is why relaxation helps: It isn’t until we’re soothed in the shower or distracted by the stand-up comic that we’re able to turn the spotlight of attention inward, eavesdropping on all those random associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain’s right hemisphere. When we need an insight, those associations are often the source of the answer.
Of course, as anyone who has studied creativity knows, it’s never this simple. Relaxation and distraction doesn’t help if you haven’t already made progress toward the answer you’re seeking, and that searching requires focus. But I know firsthand what he’s saying works.
I’ve written here about how I allow my subconscious, while I sleep, to work out knotty creative problems. It only works, however, when I’ve already gathered up a nice, messy ball of string. My subconscious then works out the knots.
Lehrer cites several examples of “Eureka” moments that came when the individual struggling with a creative knot was focused on another task. As I wrote in an “MFA Nugget” from my last residency, this is not an uncommon occurrence for creative writers. Vermont College of Fine Arts Instructor Patrick Madden explained that Gabriel Garcia Marquez conceived of the method he would use in writing One Hundred Years of Solitude while trapped behind the wheel on a family vacation. It should be noted that Marquez had been wrestling for some time with that very issue.
So how do we know when to keep focusing on a problem, and when to turn away from it? Lehrer again:
The good news is that the human mind has a surprising natural ability to assess the kind of creativity we need. Researchers call these intuitions “feelings of knowing,” and they occur when we suspect that we can find the answer, if only we keep on thinking. Numerous studies have demonstrated that, when it comes to problems that don’t require insights, the mind is remarkably adept at assessing the likelihood that a problem can be solved—knowing whether we’re getting “warmer” or not, without knowing the solution.
There’s a great deal of focus in creativity research on the importance of less focus, or perhaps redirected focus. I’m thinking now of the “Yoga as Muse” technique taught by author and creativity consultant Jeffrey Davis.
It seems that, even when a writer on creativity posits something that seems counter-intuitive, a brief examination causes numerous supportive examples to spring up. What are some experiences you’ve had with creative insights and the magic of relaxation and/or distraction?