No one, not even Shakespeare, became a genius through raw talent alone. Creativity thrives under certain conditions, and we should make sure we replicate them if we want to become the next Steve Jobs or Pablo Picasso. That’s the message delivered by the neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer in his new book Imagine (out on Thursday), and it’s great news for anyone who ever abandoned a creative project, telling themselves that they just don’t have that spark. The human mind, Lehrer writes, “has the creative impulse built into its operating system”. Here’s how he recommends making the most of it:
1. Take long walks
When you’ve hit a wall, sometimes the best thing to do is to stop mainlining coffee and staring at a screen. Taking a stroll in the park or having a warm shower stimulates a certain kind of brain wave in the right hemisphere that aids insight. It’s why people perform better on tests when they are feeling happy. It’s also why Bob Dylan wrote his most groundbreaking album, Highway 61 Revisited, when he decided to quit the music industry and moved to a cabin in Woodstock in 1965. Released from the pressure of trying desperately to come up with a new sound, it suddenly just happened. “I don’t think a song likeRolling Stone could have been done any other way,” he said. “You can’t sit down and write that consciously.”
2. Think in bed
The same year, Keith Richards fell asleep with a tape recorder in his hand and woke up with the first verse of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction recorded in his sleep. Just as our brain can fire in a different way when it is relaxed, it comes up with new connections when dreaming. It’s why one neuroscience researcher suggests setting your alarm clock a few minutes early and thinking about a problem while you’re half asleep. “The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganised, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas,” Lehrer writes.
3. Make up rules
What’s crucial in coming up with a brand-new idea is the feeling of a problem being completely insoluble. Then the “logical” left brain hemisphere gives up and the right hemisphere is forced to come up with strange new concepts. It’s why some of the best poetry is in the form of sonnets or haikus with strict rules about rhythm, rhyme and length. When the most straightforward way of expressing something doesn’t fit, you’re forced to think up something unique. In Lehrer’s words, “You break out of the box by stepping into shackles”.
4. Grit your teeth
Sadly, creativity isn’t all long walks and warm showers. “All great artists and thinkers are great workers,” Nietzsche said, and we need to focus on a project for long, difficult hours before we can have our drowsy moment of insight. Psychologists have found that persistence is one of the most important indicators of success, and a glance at the field – Beethoven experimenting with 70 different versions of a melody before choosing one; WH Auden taking Benzedrine in order to stay up writing all night – shows that even the most gifted artists need grit.
5. Be bold
“All of us contain a vast reservoir of untapped creativity,” Lehrer writes, but “the timid circuits of the prefrontal cortex keep us from risking self-expression”. In other words, we need to be as uninhibited as a child in order to create freely. Take a comedy improv class to learn how to get rid of these inhibitions, or find another way to practise doing things that seem embarrassing at first.
6. Ignore convention
Physicists peak at the age of 30, studies say. For poets, it’s even earlier. The reason for this, according to Lehrer, is that young people rebel against the status quo, and as they age, they get weighed down with orthodox ways of thinking. This doesn’t mean you’re doomed if you’re older; it just means you need to keep your thinking fresh. Leave behind the safety of your expertise and try something new. Forget what you’ve been taught – it’s the only way to innovate.
7. Get on a plane
Travel is a shortcut to cultivating that “outsider perspective” outlined above. It makes our thinking more flexible and creative, and it also helps us to solve problems back home. “Our thoughts are shackled by the familiar,” to summarise using Lehrer’s words. “Problems that feel close get contemplated in a more literal manner. This… inhibits the imagination.” The longer you’re away, and the more exotic the destination, the stronger the effect.
8. Toughen up
Every morning at Pixar Studios, a few dozen animators and computer scientists spend hours analysing each frame produced the day before, and ruthlessly tear it apart. Studies show that brainstorming sessions in which “there is no wrong answer” at the ideas stage are much less effective than honest criticism – especially if it is couched in terms of how the problem can be fixed. Develop a thick skin. The more criticisms you hear, the more new ideas you will generate.
9. Share ideas
Science papers produced by a team are twice as likely to be cited as those written by an individual, and the closer the collaborators live to each other, the better their work is. Lehrer cites this fact to show that (face-to-face) collaboration is key when it comes to solving difficult problems. What’s also important is how well the collaborators know each other. In the world of Broadway musicals, the most successful shows were made by a team that had a mix of innovative newcomers and old hands who had already worked together.
10. Soak up the city
The urban theorist Geoffrey West has spent years crunching data on income levels, education and even the walking speed of pedestrians. He found out that the bigger the city we live in, the more we get done. “Cities are an inexhaustible source of ideas,” he says. “As cities get bigger, everything starts accelerating. Each individual unit becomes more productive and more innovative.” The denser the population, the more “knowledge spillover”: we encounter more people who are different to us, and they stimulate new ideas. So if you’re reading this in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, you already have a head start in coming up with that masterpiece.