Neuroscience writer explains creative thinking in scientific terms

By Alexander Slavitz

Contributing Writer

Creative thinking has to come organically and people have to let their minds work on their own in order to reach proper answers and compelling ideas, writer and journalist Jonah Lehrer said on Tuesday night.

Lehrer’s discussion was party of “Creativity: Beyond the Box” national speakers series sponsored by the University. His speech, entitled “Imagine: The Science of Creativity”, was held Tuesday Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. in Trout Auditorium.

Lehrer began his discussion by recounting the experience of Wagner Dodge who, along with only two others out of 16, survived the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire thanks to a spontaneous idea generation, which Lehrer called a “moment of insight.”

Scientists at Northwestern University use a word game called Compound Remote Associate (CRA) to study this “moment of insight.” The game presents participants with three words, such as “pine,” “crab” and “sauce,” and asks each participant to come up with a word that can be combined with each. In this case, for the three words given, the motif would be apple (pineapple, crabapple, and applesauce). By using machines that measure both where and when activity in the brain takes place, scientists discovered it is possible to predict whether an individual will have a moment of insight up to eight seconds before it occurs. These scientists also found that if a participant tried to consciously work out the motif, he would be less likely to solve the problem. The participant had to be calm and relaxed, an observation that led Lehrer to joke “the way to solve every creative problem is to take a long shower.”

“When Jonah Lehrer brought up the importance of taking a break when you hit a wall, I was able to easily relate. For example, when writing a paper, I take a break, listen to some music which usually sparks some sort of thought that allows me to continue writing, or start writing.” Sean Dougherty ’15 said.

Lehrer also discussed a phenomenon called “feeling of knowing.” He told the story of a man named Mo who was able to crack the formula for his lottery ticket in 2003 after he heard a persistent voice in his head saying he would be able to. Since that year, he has cracked 13 other lotteries. Lehrer calls this voice a “feeling of knowing.” Many people experience this phenomenon when faced with a difficult problem–it is possible to know right away if a problem is solvable or not, and approximately how long it will take to solve it.

Lehrer acknowledged that students can relate to this. “When you feel like you can’t see the answer in the foreseeable future, you should take a break. Trust these feelings of knowing,” Lehrer said.

Fifty years ago, the most notable scientific achievements were completed by single individuals, Darwin and Einstein as examples. But today the most notable scientific achievements come from group efforts. According to a study at UC Berkley that compared three groups attempting to solve traffic problems on campus, brainstorming within groups has been found to not work. This is because people worry they will be judged based on the poor quality of their ideas, which causes them to hold back.

Many students and organizations were present for Lehrer’s discussion.

“Different student groups, including our group BRAIN [Bucknell Researchers, Advocates, and Investigators in Neuroscience] Club, were present at the event. That definitely speaks to what the intellectual culture really is here at Bucknell,” said AJ Collegio ’13, president of BRAIN.

“He really knew what he was talking about. It was really interesting to learn about how creativity comes about in your mind,” Alexis Mook ’15 said.

Lehrer’s, whose mother attended the University, gave insight to not only the mechanical workings of the brain, but how when we understand these mechanisms, it becomes easier to channel our creative energies.

“For so long imagination has seemed like a magic trick … One day there’s something and the next day there’s not. The imagination is not magic … by finding how [imagination] works we could perhaps imagine a little more,” Lehrer said.

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