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Oliver Burkeman in Conversation with Jonah Lehrer

Oliver Burkeman, author of The Backwards Law (publishing in June), and Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine, out now, discuss creativity, ping pong and positive thinking.


Oliver: I'm fascinated by the idea that we waste a lot of time 'trying too hard' - that an excessive focus on positive thinking is precisely what leads, ironically but inexorably, to the opposite result. Would you say the same applies to creativity - that a focus on 'being creative' actually gets in the way? If so, what is it about our brains that explains this, and how can we escape the trap? If your job is, say, creating new product designs, you can't very well stop trying to come up with new ideas...


Jonah: Great question! I think the problem with 'trying too hard' has to do with our mistaken assumptions about what trying looks like. We live in a time that worships attention, and so when we're given a really hard problem we chug a triple espresso and chain ourselves to the desk - if we just stare at our blinking computer screen, the answer will eventually arrive. But the neuroscience of creativity demonstrates that this approach is exactly backwards. Studies show that the answer is most likely to arrive when we relax and stop looking for it. This is why people report having epiphanies in the shower and why Google installs ping pong tables in every lobby. Sometimes, the most productive thing we can do is leave the office.


Oliver: I suspect where our two topics overlap is on the topic of mental control - how limited our ability is to demand a specific mood or creative product from our minds. There are good reasons for this, at least where happiness is concerned: if positive thinking really worked - and if we were able to shut off negative moods, such as fear, merely by choosing to do so - we'd be poorly equipped to respond to threats in the environment, for a start. But I wanted to ask you about another difficulty that you focus on, which is this long-held notion that the imagination is a single thing - and, moreover, perhaps an inherently mysterious and inexplicable thing. I believe you disagree. Why?


Jonah: There is something mysterious about creativity. How do we imagine what has never existed before? It's a daunting question, which is probably why most ancient theories of creativity revolved around muses and Gods - 'inspiration' literally means 'breathed upon'. The virtue of neuroscience is that it helps explode these myths, revealing the material source of our new ideas. By looking at where these new ideas come from, we can see that creativity is really a catch-all term for a number of distinct thought processes, rooted in different kinds of cortical activity. The brain is the ultimate category buster. I'm curious: How do you think modern science has complicated traditional beliefs about happiness and sadness?


Oliver: One of the most interesting effects - or rather non-effects - of the explosion in the 'science of happiness' in recent years is how little it has done to make people happier. I think a lot of this comes back to the idea of trying too hard: even if you know 'what works', it's not going to work if you're too relentlessly focused on it. That's why I've been drawn to very old approaches to happiness - predating the 19th- and 20th-century focus on positive thinking - that cultivate an appreciation for negative emotions, and even find the path to happiness within them. Stoicism, Buddhism, Taoism: all of these are increasingly supported by modern science, whereas trying to implement a list of tips for feeling upbeat often backfires. That said, the journalist in me can't resist asking you for the most interesting creativity tip you learned as a result of researching Imagine.


Jonah: Save the easy question for the end, huh? I'd probably go with this experiment, led by the psychologist Michael Robinson. He randomly assigned a few hundred undergraduates to two different groups. The first group was given the following instructions: 'You are seven years old, and school is cancelled. You have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see? The second group was given the same instructions, except the first sentence was deleted. As a result, these students didn't image themselves as seven-year-olds. After writing for ten minutes, the subjects were given various tests of creativity, such as trying to invent alternative uses for an old car tyre, or listing all the things you could do with a brick. Interestingly, the students who imagined themselves as kids scored far higher on the creative tasks, coming up with twice as many ideas as the control group. It turns out that one easy way to double our imaginative powers is to pretend we're a little kid.




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