In a recent NPR interview, Jonah Lehrer tells us the in’s and out’s of how humans are creative.
In his new book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” he explores how some companies are creating environments to foster creativity in the work place, based on those Ah-Ha moments we so rarely (but so awesomely) have.
It’s worth the full listen, for sure. But here are a few insights from Lehrer about the science of creativity and our favorite rebel folkster at High Trails, Bobby Dylan:
DAVIES: You open the book with a story about Bob Dylan at a point early in his career, when he was frustrated, creatively exhausted, ready to bail from the music business. And from this, came lesson about creativity. What was going on in his career?
LEHRER: So it’s May 1965, and he’s just returned from a grueling tour, six months tour. He’s just finished touring the U.K., and he is burnt out. He doesn’t know what kind of songs he wants to sing anymore. All he knows is that his old songs, these folks songs like “Times They Are A’Changing,” “Blowing in the Wind,” he’s done with them. He’s tired of being the poet of rock ‘n’ roll.
And so he tells the manager that he’s quitting the music business, he’s done with the singing, done with songwriting, he’s going to move to a cabin in Woodstock, New York, doesn’t even bring his guitar. He’s going to be a novelist and a painter.
Here’s there for a couple days when he is visited by this thing he calls the ghost. He gets a sudden urge to write, gets out his pen, gets out his paper and just begins to scribble. He later describes it as like this uncontrollable rush of vomit. And really what he’s trying to capture there is just this feeling that you can’t hold this back, it’s just this rush of words that needs to be written down.
And so he begins writing and writing and writing, writes dozens of pages, and within these dozens of pages is this chorus, and it’s the chorus of “Like A Rolling Stone.” Four weeks later, he’s in Studio A, Columbia Records, and after just four takes, they cut it on acetate, and that becomes his defining single, this six-minute single which really changes the sound of rock ‘n’ roll.
DAVIES: And as you’ve researched the subject, do you find that there are other people that have this experience of being, of being exhausted, of hitting a wall, of being empty and then, in this moment of insight, are suddenly given these new bursts of creativity? What’s going on?
LEHRER: Yeah, moments of insight are a very-well studied psychological phenomenon. There really are two defining features. The first defining feature is the answer comes out of the blue. So it comes when we least expect it. It comes when we’ve quit the music business, and we’re trying to paint a canvas in Woodstock, New York. It comes when we’ve given up, when we feel like we have nothing left to say.
It comes in the shower. It comes in the bathtub. It comes under the apple tree. So it comes in the least expected moments. That’s the first defining feature.
The second defining feature is that as soon as the answer arrives, we know this is the answer we’ve been looking for. We don’t have to double-check the math or carefully edit the lyrics: We know this is it. So, you know, the answer comes attached with this feeling of certainty – it feels like a revelation. So these are the two defining features of these moments of insight, and they do seem to play a big role in creativity, especially when people are looking for really radical solutions to very, very hard problems.
DAVIES: And this happens not just with artists like Dylan, it happens with people that are working on, you know, molecular biology, all kinds of fields, right?
LEHRER: Yeah, I mean, it’s described by Richard Feynman. He had some moments of insight in his favorite strip club. It’s, you know, it’s Archimedes in the bathtub. It’s Isaac Newton under the apple tree. This is a universal feature of human experience. We all have moments of insight. Even if they’re not quite as grandiose as writing the lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone,” we all have these epiphanies, and they come in the shower, they come when we least expect them.
Jonah Lehrer is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist.