Since June is the time of The Greatest Creators (as you will see from the supplement to this issue), we’ve been thinking a lot about the creative process. I had been used to thinking of creativity as a bolt of lightning out of the blue: as unexpected and inexplicable as it is powerful.

It turns out, though, that psychologists and neuroscientists have been beavering away behind the scenes for years, and they’re beginning to understand how creativity really works. And what they’ve discovered—as Jonah Lehrer notes in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works*—“is that the standard definition of creativity is completely wrong.” It is, instead, a complex but comprehensible cycle of inspiration and perspiration—of laying oneself open to collecting and connecting disparate inputs until they coalesce into the “Aha!” moment, followed by the focus and sheer hard work necessary to mold the flash into flesh. In other words, the insight reveals something powerfully meaningful to me. And the editing transforms it into something meaningful to you.

As anyone who has worked in a creative field (including PM360’s readers) knows, insights are tricky beasts to hunt: they seem to come only when you stop pursuing them. Did you think that you were the only one whose best ideas arrived in the shower? It turns out that the absence of verbal stimuli, the white noise of the water, the comfortable warmth, and the distraction of a rote physical task all conduce to creativity. If cleanliness is next to godliness, it is also a close neighbor of innovation.

Refining the brainwave, though, requires a diametrically opposite skill set: tireless focus, analysis, and revision. (Combining both the openness to the new and indefatigable focus is a recipe for creativity, though it can be a hard burden to bear. Neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen has found that nearly 40 percent of the successful creative people she investigated had bipolar disorder—twenty times the rate in the general population.)

Lehrer interweaves summaries of the science of creativity with vignettes of the creative process working at its best, along with suggestions for tuning up our own creative engines. Most of these examples come from marketing and product design, rather than fine art: the underlying mechanisms are the same. The analysis is required reading, a sort of maintenance manual for the creative mind.

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