Does it live up to that hyperbole? Of course not. 'Imagine' has relatively little to add to our appreciation of specific creative works (which, arguably, is a good thing: great works of art remain relatively self-contained). Lehrer does not collapse the layers between the synapse and the sonnet and I'm quite relieved he doesn't. Throughout 'Imagine' Lehrer does, however, establish creativity as a multi-faceted process and he develops some compelling arguments about how some of these facets are related to brain function. Being the eloquent polymath he is, he does so with panache. 'Imagine' is an accessible and thought-provoking read, for all its back cover is a little OTT.
Lehrer is clear that he's not trying to pinpoint some kind of special 'creative neuron' or reduce creativity to a formula: "although people have long assumed that the imagination is a single thing, it's actually a talent that takes multiple forms. Sometimes we need to relax in the shower and sometimes we need to chug caffeine. Sometimes we need to let ourselves go, and sometimes we need to escape from what we know. There is a time for every kind of thinking." If this sounds a bit hippy (I almost started singing The Byrds when I read the last line), fear not: Lehrer's taxonomy of creativity is much more exacting than some of his prose implies. In the first part of the book, he focuses on two kinds of creativity: divergent and convergent thinking. In the process, he makes an interesting and important contribution to Kay Redfield Jamison's ideas about the connection between bipolar disorder and creative writing, which I wrote about last week.
divergent thinking, via an interesting anecdote about Bob Dylan and writers' block (you can read an abridged version of the chapter here). He's interested in moments of insight, moments where, having abandoned our usual systematic approach to solving a problem, we make an unusual connection that offers the answer. In an argument familiar to fans of Iain McGilchrist's 'The Master and his Emissary', Lehrer points to the right hemisphere as the home of remote associations (if you want to be really specific about it, the anterior superior temporal gyrus is the closest we have to a 'neural correlate of insight') and suggests that this kind of creative thinking is most likely to come from open attention, an inability to focus even, a kind of daydreaming. This is unsurprising if we accept the notion (again, familiar from McGilchrist) that "...while the left hemisphere handles denotation....the right hemisphere deals with connotation."
elsewhere. The bad news, however, is that a few shandies can inspire the wrong kind of daydreaming: it's important to be aware that your mind has wandered if you're to harness any useful creative insights and alcohol lowers this awareness.
W.H. Auden and Benzedrine, Lehrer sets this kind of divergent thinking against a second kind of creative thought: a heightened state of attention in which ideas converge, something akin to what Heidegger called an 'unconcealing process'. This clear-sighted, dopemine-fuelled style of thinking is moderated by the pre-frontal cortex: rewarding connections are processed by dopemine neurons and enter working memory. Auden's amphetamine addiction would have reinforced this recursive loop, creating a sense of clarity. If divergent thinking is like building something up, convergent thinking is more like whittling it down. And whereas divergent thinking and moments of insight are correlated with positive, almost euphoric states, convergent thinking is associated with melancholy, which serves to sharpen the spotlight of attention.
It's here that we begin to see the connection with Redfield Jamison's work on manic depression: "the necessary interplay of these different creative modes - the elation of the insight and the melancholy of the unconcealing - begins to explain why bipolar disorder, an illness in which people oscillate between intense sadness and extreme euphoria, is so closely associated with creativity." To put it far too crudely, "the exuberant ideas of the manic period are refined during the depression." As Lehrer is careful to point out, this doesn't mean that people only create when they're manic or sad, but it does explain the significant correlation between these illnesses and artistic achievement.
In 'Imagine', Lehrer goes on to examine (amongst other things): how groups of people generate creative ideas, why cities are important and the power of being 'an outsider' in your chosen field. But for me, this contrast between divergent and convergent thinking was the most interesting part of the book. He succeeds in illuminating the difference between different kinds of creative thought.
Lehrer's conclusion seems in part that creativity requires intense effort as well as inspiration - something any poet could have told him in an instant. If you want to pervert his argument entirely, though, you could just get drunk when you want a flash of insight, and take amphetamines when you need to work on your drafts. I won't be held responsible for the bad artistic results.
On that note, I'd better finish with a translated instruction from Baudelaire:
You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.
But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: "It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish."