Andy's Reviews > Imagine: How Creativity Works

Imagine by Jonah Lehrer
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's review
Jul 31, 12

Read in April, 2012

July 31 update: Lehrer is exposed as a big fat liar and this book is removed from the shelves! (because of fake Dylan quotes). see NY Times article:

What is sad is that no one in the publishing world seems to have a high enough degree of scientific literacy to tell that Lehrer has just been b--sh---ing the whole time. Dylan quotes--someone is an expert on that. But science--we'll just believe whatever the cute dork says.
Original review below.

This is an entertaining book because its ideas are counterintuitive. The problem is that the reason the ideas are counterintuitive is that they are wrong.

Take for example, the chapter on how "brainstorming meetings are a terrible idea." (This is the chapter that was probably most mentioned in reviews.)

The reader would be much better served watching a short Nightline video on the design firm IDEO to see how brainstorming does work in the real world to produce many of the real products that surround us. Lehrer's book does not mention IDEO--let alone explain how he deals with this inconvenient contradiction to his thesis. This is a suspiciously conspicuous hole. The fact that a giant design firm not only uses brainstorming but actively evangelizes for it is sort of a problem for the case that brainstorming is a myth. Lehrer himself acknowledges the success of IDEO in his New Yorker article on this same topic.

Lehrer's evidence for his surprising claim bashing brainstorming is a psychology study with groups of 4 or 5 undergrads, and no facilitator or special tools, working on an assigned topic they probably don't care about. This is a biased, unfair test of brainstorming because: the group is too small, there is a certain skill to managing a brainstorming session so that people follow the rules and kids just being told to do it will not have this expertise, and the point is to share ideas about a problem that people want/need to solve. Despite these monkey-wrenches, the "brainstorming" group still did do better than the controls! A third group did even better by "debating" but this is another straw-man argument because in practice the idea generation of brainstorming is always followed by some kind of winnowing process. Nobody anywhere is proposing that one should implement all of the hundreds of ideas generated by a brainstorming session. Nor would one reject new good ideas that come up during the winnowing.

The value of brainstorming is as a means of sharing ideas in environments where that does not happen spontaneously. If your workplace consists of geniuses casually wandering around and chatting with each other about all their brilliant thoughts, then brainstorming is probably not necessary. But for everyone else, it can be extremely powerful.

To baselessly bash something useful just so one can come up with something surprising to say is irresponsible.

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