Jonah Lehrer on creativity

A select assortment of (probably imperfect) notes from the OHSU Brain Awareness series lecture I attended tonight.


“Ideas are non-rival goods.” There is no cost to sharing them.

“Like a Rolling Stone” from Dylan was written in five hours of insight and produced in four cuts.

On moments of insight: “As soon as the answer arrives, it feels like this answer.” Scientists simulate these moments of insight by having people complete word puzzles. When you get undergraduates too drunk to drive, they solve 30% more of these problems.

Researchers using EEG machines could predict the moment of epiphany up to 8 seconds in advance.

Insights come mostly commonly from states of unfocus and relaxation.

“Creativity is residue of wasted time.” – Albert Einstein

What defines successful creativity? Not IQ or something that can be measured with a personality test. “Grit. Persistence, stubbornness, and the unwillingness to quit.”

“We live in a world obsessed with maximal tests.” In study after study, maximal tests have failed to correlate with typical, real-world performance. It’s more reliable to look at the historical data for the subject (e.g scanning frequency on electronic checkouts vs. running the cashier through a test).

“Making something new is really, really hard.” Grit is especially important in the creative domain.

“How do you know that you actually know something if you don’t actually know it?” A hunch is a “feeling of knowing.”

“The era of the line genius is over.” In the 1950’s, the most highly-cited research papers came from scientists working on their own. Now, the papers come from teams.

What are the ideal templates for group creativity? Steve Jobs restricted Pixar (a large-ish company) to two bathrooms in the atrium to force connection and random conversations. Physical location matters a lot. “Our most important new ideas appear in idle conversation from too many people occupying the same space.”

“Attendance at business conferences has almost doubled since the invention of Skype.”

Geoffrey West asks in his research: Why are cities so durable and companies so fragile? As a city gets bigger, everyone in the city becomes more productive. Companies do the exact opposite, and this becomes dangerous in the long term.

Later: here’s a great lecture by West on the topic

“The magic of a city is that it’s a freewheeling, chaotic place.” The walking speed of pedestrians is the single most predictive variable of patents (innovation) per capita.