Friday, September 21, 2012

Reflections: Imagine

Human Imagination and the “spouts” of creativity hidden inside our complicated lobes is an utterly fascinating and endlessly humbling topic. What causes one to create something, to innovate something entirely original? The answers to these questions form the fundamental layer of human progress. I was eagerly waiting for this book to show up at bookstores. And when I spotted it, I grabbed and raced through it with my usual bouts of notes and questions. But then, here’s the disappointing news. The author, Jonah Lehrer, who was riding the wave as a celebrated science writer, has admitted to fabricating quotes of some of the celebrities he mentions in the book (specifically, Bob Dylan). This has resulted in the publisher recalling this book, and an army of self-righteous journalists and professors extensively reviewing all his essays and books.

That explains why I have been unusually silent since reading this book in July. I am just disappointed and baffled. How does one with a rigorous academic training and a journalistic training even think about fabricating quotes concerning someone like Dylan, AND confidently include them in a book that was expected to be a best-seller? It just boggles me. This is science writing 101. I cannot understand the motivation, the reason for shooting oneself in the foot in such a naive manner. I feel sorry that he has ruined his writing career with a needless sloppiness that has now cast a shadow on all his previous work.

His error aside, what bothers me more in the recent times, is how impossibly hypocritical and unforgivingly critical society is. We mindlessly celebrate someone one day, and the very next day the smallest flaw is exaggerated to horrendous proportions, and the celebrated person is mercilessly executed. Everyone feels entitled to comb through every little detail and relishes in nit-picking and speculating about even non-existent errors (“A sentence of his seems similar to mine in this article”). Well, if one rakes through thousands of sentences and compares them against hundreds of thousands of other sentences with beady eyes that want to find fault, I am sure everybody would find a “similar” sentence somewhere. I agree that what Lehrer did is categorically wrong, but what seems shocking is the unbalanced conservative stance on journalistic standards of right and wrong. One flaw makes people blind to the bigger picture of what Journalism represents; missing the forest for the trees. And honestly, I don’t really understand issues on “self-plagiarism” and “recycling of old content”. Countless academics would be guilty of recycling old content and plagiarizing their own work.

Well, that rant aside, I did like his book. I am sorry to say that a part of my mind is biased, though. So many harsh reviews (in the light of his admission) have made me question my initial impressions. A common criticism is that many of the concepts in the book are overly simplified. Yes, Lehrer explains theories in a simple manner, and I liked the fact that he could do so. People, such as my husband, shy away from anything that’s got to do with cognitive theories and “psycho-babble”. But he was riveted when I read out a section of the book that articulates the heavier theories through practical examples and relatable metaphors in the corporate world. However, someone that knows the subtleties of the theory might understandably find this unsatisfactory. And I could relate to that as well. For example, Lehrer’s explanation on some of the theories surrounding Working Memory and Attention made me cringe a little, because I am so used to them, and consequently quite fussy about the technicalities of the terms and the descriptors. But all that academic nit-picking aside, the point is, he conveys the essence, the big picture that one needs to know, remember, and apply. And he succeeds without compromising on the science.

Essentially, Creativity and new thoughts arise when our neurons make divergent associations and connections between seemingly unrelated or far-flung concepts. New neural connections between different ideas result in an innovation, a creative insight. This is vastly an unconscious process. We give our brains enough fodder and information and let it all stew and “incubate”. One fine moment, a “bulb glows” in our head. It is important to give the mind/brain the time and space to work out its connections and to sort out all the ideas. Rather than rigorously and consciously thinking about something, if we took breaks, relaxed ourselves, engaged in completely different activities, and provided the brain the meditative clarity of stillness of thoughts, the neurons are encouraged to form their connections and transmit insight. It makes sense. That’s why quieting one’s thoughts and mind is essential to gain peace and clarity. This outpouring of insight has been studied to arise from a lobe in the right hemisphere of the brain.

Another important element in Creativity is horizontal sharing of ideas - that is exposing oneself to different kinds of ideas in completely unrelated fields helps our brains to make these brand new connections between supposedly unconnected ideas. How were the Post-It notes invented? Lehrer shares wonderful stories behind brilliantly simple innovations that now seem intuitive and indispensable. These inventions were a result of an Engineer learning something from a Microbiologist, or a Chemist learning something from an Artist, and connecting the dots between a bunch of disconnected theories. The more we venture out of our comfort zone and familiar ideas, the more we are bombarded with different ways of thinking and fusing ideas. When Chemists had abandoned their quest to find a floor cleaning liquid that’s better than the current ones, a team of engineers thought of something entirely new. Upon seeing a woman casually clean coffee with a disposable napkin, the Swiffer was born. It helped to step out of the lab and chemical equations. Such products are an amalgamation of existing ideas with newer applications and effective design.

Our social networks, the culture of our cities and schools, the kinds of interactions we have with colleagues and friends, everything helps us nurture newer ideas and thoughts. It’s not a strike of randomness that the Silicon Valley booms with a certain vibration of creativity. Something inherent to its culture is responsible for it. It all comes back to assimilation of different kinds of thoughts, and a culture that would foster a supposedly “unstructured”, out-of-the-box thinking  to form better neural connections - i.e., creativity. Letting go of inhibitions, not afraid to take the perspective of a reckless outsider (sometimes familiarity and expertise breeds rigidity), intermingling with different groups of people, and even being allowed to build on others' work without being restrained by extremely narrow stipulations on Intellectual Property is argued to engender creativity. And sometimes, Lehrer says creativity is just mundane practice and hard work. It’s all about focused attention on a problem until we slowly but steadily arrive at a good solution. I don’t particularly agree with the last part.
That’s just hard work and dedication to excellence and perfectionism towards the problem or task at hand. True, gradual increase in expertise and learning will lead to better understanding and insights, but that's not always Creativity.  The theories on learning, expertise, and problem solving are a little different from the ones on Creativity.

I think different people define “Creativity” in different ways. I am not sure what my definition would be, because it’s hard to verbalize it, but I did not agree with Lehrer’s discussions that treated Creativity and Problem Solving as almost the same thing. Problems can be creatively solved, but finding good solutions to problems is not always “being creative”.
This is just my quibble. Most of the times, problem solving is a heavily analytical activity, and creativity is argued to be a reprieve, an insight that leaps out when the analytical mind is hushed. So, the lines became blurred in some sections of the book.

But this is what I mostly liked. Lehrer explains that creativity is not just a burst of uncontrollable talent that involuntarily pours from the mind of a “gifted” person. He argues that creativity is like a latent bomb that lies hidden in every brain. And it can be ignited or cultivated if we trained our brain and ways of thinking. I really liked this positive approach. It makes us all believe that we can also be painters and inventors, if we worked at it, gave ourselves the opportunities to explore the area, exposed ourselves to different ways of thinking, and allowed ourselves to listen to the whispers of insight in our brain.

I can't rate this book because it is clouded with all the ethical implications. But I found it interesting. And I'm sorry that it is out of the market.


SecondSight said...

Didn't know you'd read this :). I actually quite liked it too, though I do agree with the 'harsh' criticisms, for practical reasons. Self-plagiarism and recycling old content is fine as long as you are not signing contracts worth huge sums promising publishers that you will give them original work, and then recycling what you gave someone else last year. It works for academic papers, etc.- because professors are not getting paid for the originality of their words.

As for the ideas- that is a little more subtle, but I think there is a clear line between simplifying and being inaccurate, and Lehrer tends to cross it in places.

But having said all that, I do agree that it is a good book, worth a read. It reassured me to see that Roy Peter Clark agrees :)-

Anonymous said...

Empathize and agree completely woth the below:

" impossibly hypocritical and unforgivingly critical society is. We mindlessly celebrate someone one day, and the very next day the smallest flaw is exaggerated to horrendous proportions, and the celebrated person is mercilessly executed."

"One flaw makes people blind to the bigger picture... missing the forest for the trees. And honestly, I don’t really understand issues on “self-plagiarism” and “recycling of old content”. Countless academics would be guilty of recycling old content and plagiarizing their own work. "

Neeraja said...

SecondSight - I didn't know you read it either! :).
I agree that publishers have the right to expect original work, regardless of the money involved. But what exactly is original? Nothing is truly original - every idea is inspired and built upon earlier ones. Everyone agrees on it, especially in certain areas of science wherein every finding is a slow, gradual increment over the previous ones.

Is an article (for example, on how to foster creativity in pre-school kids) that is based on parts of this book unoriginal because it is built on something previously published, and because the author took a perfectly well-written paragraph (that he himself wrote at one point) to build the case? The article still conveys information that is not present in the book, and it addresses a specific subject in detail. As far as I could understand, most allegations on self-plagiarism or recycling of old content seem to be based on such nitty-gritty technicalities which hinder the bigger picture of what journalism or science-writing aims to represent. A writer's duty is to communicate, help the reader learn, and instill ways to apply the learning. How does it matter if he reuses parts of his own words/writings to do that? Why try to re-invent the wheel while trying to build something else? :). I find it excruciatingly frustrating to rewrite the same paragraph in different ways just so that I don't plagiarize myself :)

It's probably just my ignorance, but as far as I could tell, I don't think Lehrer was inaccurate on theories I am familiar with. He does simplify them quite a bit, but what the reader takes from it is not tainted.

Anonymous - thanks for your comment! :)

SecondSight said...

Nee, it is a long discussion, but the simplest answer I'd have is that it is a question of honesty. The (slightly) shorter version of my point is here-

Writing is just as much about the words used to convey ideas as it is about ideas, and that is where he falls through the cracks. His ideas are good, the words he uses to convey them are dishonest.

Why this is so important? Why does it matter if he fabricated a quote or ten? Because he owes it to his reader to be completely honest.
Science journalism is particularly tricky compared to other kinds. For example- when you read something a politician might/ might not have said, most people take it with a pinch of salt. Same goes for entertainment etc.

But scientists do science and come up with these ideas for reasons bigger than politics and celebrity gossip, and reporting this information with 'spin' can do very real damage. Look at stories on autism, vaccines, climate change- all examples of just how much damage incorrect science communication can do.

Being a scientist, it is easier for you to see through hype and evaluate ideas critically, but this isn't the case for the large majority of the 'interested, intelligent, but unaware' readers of science news.

Personally, I find it betraying if I can't trust a non-fiction book/writer to tell me the truth. If he's lying about one thing, all his facts are automatically drawn into question. And if it's a subject I know little about, this is disturbing to me.

Interestingly enough, JL is now making up facts about how many journalists tried to reach him- yet another tall tale.. Sigh.

Neeraja said...

SS, Let me clarify that I'm in no way defending Lehrer for fabricating quotes and being dishonest with his readers and publishers. As I have mentioned in the post, it is categorically wrong.

What frustrates me is - his earlier books and articles were praised to the sky until the day the truth of his fabrication came out. Prosecute him for what he's guilty of, but it sounds a little hypocritical if everything he ever wrote (and was praised for simplicity, accuracy, etc.) is now being inordinately criticized. I do understand that his dishonesty has cast a shadow - for even I found it hard to write about the book. But my confusion, in particular, is about allegations on self-plagiarism and reuse of old material. I don't understand this particular issue, especially in the light of the examples that are being given. It sounds like people are so angry that they just want to accuse and accuse.

Human bias is so strong that all it takes is one bad experience, one fault, to completely trash an entire person/product/place. And I am just frustrated with this bias. Even things that were appreciated in his earlier work have been ripped apart with what I think are, mostly trivial allegations.

Incorrect communication is a serious offense. I would never ever defend it. It's just the numerous other ones that I'm not sure of.

All I am saying is - the critics would benefit from being a little balanced. Their emotional bias and anger of feeling betrayed is overriding even acceptable standards of writing. Everything is now being viewed through a biased lens, is all.

And it really doesn't help if JL keeps fabricating more and more tales! :)

Karthik said...

Very nice post !:-) I guess I missed out commenting on this earlier...
To me, fabricating quotes seems more like a silly prank gone wrong, than say, something really bad like plagiarism..

I myself partly believe in the notion of 'deliberate pratice', though yes, it has more to do with learning and expertise than creativity.