Imagine: How Creativity Works
Jonah Lehrer
March 2012
New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 

To read Jonah Lehrer’s engaging and well-researched Imagine: How Creativity Works is to inadvertently gain a great appreciation for ASTD’s newly formed Learning Technologies Community of Practice, for at the heart of any great community of practice is the sort of creativity, collaboration, and playfulness that flows through Lehrer’s book. 

The structure of the book itself—a long section under the title “Alone” and a second section under the title “Together”—places those of us in learning technologies on a fruitful path toward thinking about how differently we work alone than we are able to work together in this sort of community of practice. Furthermore, his continual reinforcement of one of his key points—the idea that creativity is a seamless mixture of unexpected moments of insights combined with lots of hard work—mirrors the combination of extensive work and unexpected flashes of creative insight that are the staple of successful communities of practice. 

“When the right mixture of people come together and when they collaborate in the right way, what happens can often feel like magic. But it’s not magic. There is a reason why some groups are more than the sum of their parts,” Lehrer suggests. 

Lehrer simultaneously keeps us in several arenas that are part of our workplace learning and performance toolkits. He draws upon an incredibly wide range of research projects to show what is happening in the brain when creative activity is underway, just as we draw from a wide range of research to understand what is happening in the brain when learners absorb what we are trying to facilitate.  

Imagine: How Creativity Works explores the strikingly positive impact that collaboration has on creativity just as we, more and more frequently, are incorporating collaboration into our work through the use of social learning face-to-face, as well as in our online endeavors. And Lehrer keeps his complex material engaging and understandable by taking us into the creative processes of subjects ranging from neuroscientists to artists including cellist Yo-Yo Ma. 

We’re only a few pages into the book before we begin seeing parallels between Lehrer’s approach and the one we use in our own work as learning and performance practitioners: “Every creative journey begins with a problem,” he writes, echoing our own foundational belief that every learning experience begins with a learner’s acknowledgement that there is a knowledge gap to be addressed. “It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. We have worked hard, but we’ve hit the wall. We have no idea what to do next.” 

Lehrer then leads us through an exploration of what is happening in the brain at moments of creative bursts. His explanation of how alpha waves appear to be a critically important prerequisite in the creative process (they help us to relax) resonates with what we know about the physiological necessity of reducing stress among learners if we want to provide an environment conducive to learning. The way Lehrer describes it, the lack of that relaxed state that is associated with the presence of alpha waves in the brain prevents subjects in research projects from being able to use problem-solving hints provided by researches, which parallels what we see in other research showing how stress shuts down the neocortex and makes learning impossible. 

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Lehrer observes that the answers to the problems we are seeking “have been there all along—we just weren’t listening” if we weren’t relaxed. This easily translates into our own experience that the potential for learning has been there all along, but we often aren’t capable of learning because we’re too stressed out to learn. 

Story after story in Imagine supports one of his oft-repeated assertions: “people sharing knowledge across fields…is an extremely important part of the insight process…. Insights, after all, come from the overlap between seemingly unrelated thoughts.” And in the same way, colleagues sharing knowledge through communities of practice help produce the insights that make us better in our onsite and our online opportunities to provide successful learning sessions. 

 Which leads us to a very rewarding and encouraging conclusion as we read what Lehrer writes: If we’re looking for a road map to make the ASTD Learning Technologies Community of Practice successful, we’re on the right path by using his work as a foundational element. Leaving ourselves time to reflect upon and absorb what he is offering. And remembering to have fun with it along the way.

About Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist. He graduated from Columbia University and studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. He's written for The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. He's also a contributing editor at Scientific American Mind and National Public Radio's Radio Lab.