Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer

9 Jun

Bibliographic Information

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, ISBN 978-0-547-38607-2

Plot Summary

New York Times bestselling author, Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, explores the science and art of creative thinking in Imagine: How Creativity Works.  The book is divided into two sections, Alone and Together, and uses artistic profiles and the latest brain research to illustrate various aspects of the creative process.  In Alone, Lehrer focuses on how individuals can enhance their creativity through such strategies as “Breaking the rut”, “Thinking like a Child,” and “Daydreaming productively.” Each strategy is illustrated with anecdotes of famous artists and musicians like Bob Dylan, Jackson Pollack, and the actors in Second City Improv group. In Together, Lehrer describes how institutions, be they businesses, cities or schools, can enhance their creative output through techniques used at Pixar Studios, Wieden and Kennedy Advertising, or Internet startups in Silicon Valley.

Critical Evaluation

Jonah Lehrer is a science writer for those of us who aren’t normally interested in science.  What he has done in his latest book, Imagine: how creativity works, is synthesize and translate the latest brain research so that it can be understood, and more importantly enjoyed, by the average reader.  In describing the significance of the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), for example, Lehrer writes, “When this neural connection is severed-when our OFCs can’t comprehend our own emotions-we lose access to the wealth of opinions that we normally rely on.  All of a sudden, you no longer know what to think about the receiver running a short post pattern or whether it’s a good idea to order the cheeseburger for lunch” (18).  In addition to translating scientific research into readable prose, Lehrer also illustrates his points with engaging anecdotes of famous artists and creative environments.  He takes us behind the scenes of Bob Dylan’s creative breakthrough, Dick Drew’s discovery of masking tape, and Ruth Handler’s invention of the Barbie doll.  The reader also gets an inside look at some highly creative environments, from Pixar Studios to Wieden and Kennedy advertising, inventors of the Nike slogan and logo.  We learn why the spirit of innovation took off in Silicon Valley and stalled in places like Boston and Phoenix.  We also learn how Shakespeare was not the lone genius we may think he is, but rather a product of his time and place.  For anyone interested in reading about creative geniuses or wants to become one themselves, this is a must read.

Reader’s Annotation

For centuries, the imagination has been a challenging topic for scientists to explain.  As a result, we rely on false notions that creativity is the result of a visiting muse or flash of insight.  Jonah Lehrer explores the myth and science of creativity in Imagine: How Creativity Works, to reveal what happens in our brain during the creative process and how we can structure our lives to increase our creative potential.

Information about the author

From the author’s Wikipedia page we learn that “Jonah Lehrer is a Contributing Editor at Wired and the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. He graduated from Columbia University and studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He’s written for The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. He’s also a Contributing Editor at Scientific American Mind and National Public Radio’s Radio Lab.”


Non-Fiction: Art & Design, Psychology / Self Help

Curriculum Ties

Science, Art, Writing, Music, Psychology

Booktalking Ideas

How might we restructure schools to make them more creative environments?

How do we borrow from other artists and keep our work original?

Reading Level / Interest Age

Grade 9 and up

Challenge Issues


Why did I include this title?

I have been reading Jonah Lehrer’s work in Wired Magazine ( and listening to his contributions on the podcast RadioLab for years (  I knew his book on creativity would be informative and interesting.  I also think this is an important subject for young people to better understand.  So much of what happens in schools today is driven by standardized tests; I think young people are hungry to work their creative muscles more.

July 31st Update

In a recent article, Jonah Lehrer has admitted to falsifying some quotes he attributes to Bob Dylan in the first chapter of the book.  This is a sad and disappointing admission from an author I had great respect for.  Read the following article to decide if this book is still worth your time.


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