What neuroscience tells us about creativity

A preview of Jonah Lehrer’s new book on creativity, Imagine:

What do you think? I haven’t yet read it, but Lehrer is always an engaging writer; I’m sure it’s both entertaining and literate.

My only concern is a general one: there is by no means a consensus yet on the neural mechanics of “creativity.” While we certainly know more about neural networks than we did years ago, we do not yet have this mystery unpacked. And while I’m sure Lehrer realizes this, I fear that a surge in catchily-titled popular brain science books has perhaps implied to the public at large that we have a better handle on complex concepts like creativity than we actually do.

Why do I say this? Because I keep encountering an enthusiastic belief (in non-science contexts) that neuroscience is somehow newly actionable in contexts like law or policy: that we have somehow passed a cognitive science tipping point where we can confidently ascribe functions like creativity to well-defined physical processes, and use that information to reform nonmedical aspects of our lives. I seriously doubt that time has come. Neuroscience has much to contribute to nonscientific fields, to be sure. For example, as more people have come to appreciate that the brain continues developing and maturing into young adulthood – an appreciation that neuroimaging helped to spread – we as a society have changed our attitudes toward teenage decisionmaking and risktaking in important ways. We understand that teenagers do not think the way adults do. But our understanding of how any of our brains fundamentally work, in most cases, is a nascent, unsettled understanding. We have a great deal to learn. So while I am fully behind public neuroscience literacy, and popular science books are an important part of that, I hope that engaging writing and well-crafted narratives don’t make it seem as if we have all the loose ends tied up neatly in a bow!

More: Read an excerpt in the New Yorker; find Imagine: How Creativity Works on Amazon.. Also, a lovely post by Maria Popova of Brain Pickings on creativity.

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