lehrerfeatured

How Jonah Lehrer Recycled His Own Material for Imagine

[6/20/12 12:00 PM UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect newly discovered examples of Jonah Lehrer lifting his own material. We have also discovered that Lehrer has plagiarized Malcolm Gladwell (see the example from Page 144). Also of interest to those following the story: Jacob Silverman’s piece for The Daily Beast, two new items from Jim Romenesko (Item 1 and Item 2), and Poynter’s Craig Silverman on how this is part of a Google Game. Additional updates to this story can be found at the end of this report.]

[6/22/12 4:15 PM UPDATE: Reluctant Habits has uncovered two more instances of Jonah Lehrer pilfering from Malcolm Gladwell’s work. Scroll to the bottom for the latest updates.]

It began with a Tuesday morning item from Jim Romenesko, in which the veteran journalist observed that material that Jonah Lehrer used in a Wall Street Journal piece published last October was repurposed by him for a June 12, 2012 New Yorker post.

Hours later, numerous other journalists were on the case, operating under the theory that a man who steals from himself once is likely to do so again. Daily Intel‘s Joe Coscarelli located additional examples, as did Jacob Silverman. By the end of the day, many of Lehrer’s pieces on The New Yorker contained editorial notes and regrets over the reused material. Laura Hazard Owen noted that “Lehrer shouldn’t be excused for cribbing from himself. But it’s not that surprising that it happened.”

What is surprising is that the material recycled in the New Yorker pieces is only the beginning.

On Tuesday night, Reluctant Habits learned that Lehrer’s had reused his own content on a vaster scale. It was all there, hiding in plain sight within his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

By Wednesday morning, more examples were discovered — including Lehrer plagiarizing a 2006 essay written by Malcolm Gladwell.

It’s worth pointing out that the book doesn’t include a notice informing the reader that the material had appeared elsewhere in similar form. (Lehrer did seek permission to reprint W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” but it apparently had not occurred to him that the various outlets he wrote for might require similar permissions. As of early Wednesday morning, it remains unknown if the various outlets who Lehrer reused material from will uphold copyright.)

Lehrer cut and pasted passages from his journalism throughout the first 150 pages of Imagine. In some cases, Lehrer used the same passage three times. In other cases, he would sometimes sandwich a sentence or a paragraph to fit it into the piece, almost assembling these stories like a Frankenstein monster composed of numerous parts.

Our initial search through Imagine‘s first 100 pages revealed about twelve pages of lifted passages. And these are just the examples that we happened to spot. Continued investigations revealed many more in the next 50 pages. What follows is a breakdown of material from previous Lehrer articles that resurfaced in Imagine.

* * *

“The Psychology of Architecture.” Wired: Frontal Cortex (April 14, 2011): “Or consider this 2009 experiment, published in Science. The psychologists, at the University of British Columbia, were interested in looking at how the color of interior walls influence the imagination. They recruited six hundred subjects, most of them undergraduates, and had them perform a variety of basic cognitive tests displayed against red, blue or neutral colored backgrounds.

“The differences were striking. When people took tests in the red condition – they were surrounded by walls the color of a stop sign – they were much better at skills that required accuracy and attention to detail, such as catching spelling mistakes or keeping random numbers in short-term memory. According to the scientists, this is because people automatically associate red with danger, which makes them more alert and aware.

“The color blue, however, carried a completely different set of psychological benefits. While people in the blue group performed worse on short-term memory tasks, they did far better on those requiring some imagination, such as coming up with creative uses for a brick or designing a children’s toy out of simple geometric shapes. In fact, subjects in the blue condition generated twice as many “creative outputs” as subjects in the red condition. That’s right: the color of a wall doubled our imaginative power.”

Imagine, p. 51: “Look at this recent experiment, published in Science. These psychologists, at the University of British Columbia, were interested in looking at how various colors influence the imagination. They recruited six hundred subjects, most of them undergraduates, and had them perform a variety of basic cognitive tests displayed against red, blue, or neutral backgrounds.

“The differences were striking. When people took tests in the red condition, they were much better at skills that required accuracy and attention to detail, such as catching spelling mistakes or keeping random numbers in short-term memory. According to the scientists, this is because people automatically associate red with danger, which makes them more alert and aware.

“The color blue, however, carried a completely different set of psychological benefits. While people in the blue group performed worse on short-term memory tasks, they did far better on those requiring some imagination, such as coming up with creative uses for a brick or designing a children’s toy out of simple geometric shapes. In fact, subjects in the blue condition generated twice as many creative outputs as did subjects in the red condition.”

* * *

“The Rewards of Revenge.” Wired: Frontal Cortex (May 2, 2011): “The answer returns us to the brain, and to the fascinating ways in which those three pounds of meat mirror the ideals of game theory.”

Imagine, p. 57: “The answer returns us to the brain and to the specific ways in which amphetamines alter the activity of neurons.”

* * *

“The Attention-Allocation Defecit.” Wired: Frontal Cortex (September 13, 2011): “While dopamine neurons are relatively rare, they are clustered in very specific areas in the center of the brain, such as the nucleus accumbens and ventral striatum. These cortical parts make up the dopamine reward pathway, the neural system that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions triggered by pleasurable things. It doesn’t matter if we’re having sex or eating sugar or snorting amphetamine: These things fill us with bliss because they tickle these cells.”

Imagine, p. 59-60: “While dopamine neurons are relatively rare, they are clustered in specific areas in the center of the brain, such as the nucleus accumbens and the ventral striatum. These cortical parts make up the dopamine reward pathway, the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions triggered by pleasurable things. It doesn’t matter if it’s having sex or eating ice cream or snorting cocaine: these things fill us with bliss because they tickle these cells. Happiness begins here.”

* * *

“The Eureka Hunt.” The New Yorker (July 28, 2008): “Earl Miller is a neuroscientist at M.I.T. who has devoted his career to understanding the prefontal cortex. He has a shiny shaved head and a silver goatee. His corner office in the gleaming Picower Institute is cantilevered over a railroad track, and every afternoon the quiet hum of the lab is interrupted by the rattle of a freight train. Miller’s favorite word is ‘exactly’ — it’s the adverb that modifies everything, so that a hypothesis is ‘exactly right,’ or an experiment was ‘exactly done’ — and that emphasis on precision has defined his career. His first major scientific advance was a by-product of necessity. It was 1995, and Miller had just started his lab at M.I.T. His research involved recording directly from neurons in the monkey brain, monitoring the flux of voltage within an individual cell as the animals performed various tasks. ‘There were machines that allowed you to record eight or nine at the same time, but they were expensive,’ Miller said. ‘I still had no grants, and there was no way I could afford one.’ So Miller began inventing his own apparatus in his spare time. After a few months of patient tinkering, he constructed a messy tangle of wires, steel screws, and electrodes that could simultaneously record from numerous cells, distributed across the brain. ‘It worked even better than the expensive machine,’ Miller said.

“This methodological advance — it’s known as multiple electrode recording — allowed Miller to ask a completely new kind of scientific question. For the first time, it was possible to see how cells in different brain areas interacted. Miller was most interested in the interactions of the prefrontal cortex. ‘You name the brain area, and the prefrontal cortex is almost certainly linked to it,’ he said. It took more than five years of painstaking probing, as Miller recorded from cells in the monkey brain, but he was eventually able to show that the prefrontal cortex wasn’t simply an aggregator of information. Instead, it was like the conductor of an orchestra, waving its baton and directing the players.”

Imagine, p. 65-66: “Earl Miller has devoted his career to understanding the prefrontal cortex, that warehouse of working memory. He has a shiny shaved head and a silver goatee. His corner office in the gleaming Picower Institute at MIT is cantilevered over an old freight-train track, so every afternoon the quiet hum of the lab is interrupted by the rattle of a locomotive. Miller’s favorite word is exactly — it’s the adverb that modifies everything, so a hypothesis was ‘exactly right’ or an experiment was ‘exactly done’ — and that emphasis on precision has defined his career. His first major scientific advance was a byproduct of necessity. It was 1995 and Miller had just started his lab, which meant that he had no money. His research involved recording the activity of neurons in the monkey brain, monitoring the flux of voltage within an individual cell as the animal performed various tasks. ‘There were machines that allowed you to record from eight or nine [neurons] at the same time, but they were very expansive,’ Miller says. ‘I still had no grants, and there was no way I could afford one.’ So Miller began inventing his own apparatus in his spare time. After a few months of tinkering, he constructed a messy tangle of wires, glass pipettes, and electrodes that could record simultaneously from numerous cells distributed across the monkey cortex. ‘It worked even better than the expansive machine,’ Miller says. ‘And then we just made the units smaller and smaller, which meant we could record more and more neurons.

“This methodological advance — it’s known as multiple-electrode recording — allowed Miller to watch information zip around the brain as the electrical cells interacted with one another. Miller was most interested in studying the prefrontal cortex, though, since this brain area is such an aggregator of information. ‘It’s where everything projects to,’ Miller says. ‘It’s literally where the world comes together.'”

* * *

Jacob Silverman uncovered this example:

“Depression’s Upside.” The New York Times Magaziner (February 26, 2010): “Last year Forgas ventured beyond the lab and began conducting studies in a small stationery store in suburban Sydney, Australia. The experiment itself was simple: Forgas placed a variety of trinkets, like toy soldiers, plastic animals and miniature cars, near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To control for the effect of mood, Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy days — he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ — and on sunny days, using a soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the ‘low mood’ condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more aware and attentive.”

“Does Depression Help Us Think Better?” Wired: Frontal Cortex (May 9, 2011): “In 2009, Forgas ventured beyond the lab and began conducting studies in a small stationery store in suburban Sydney, Australia. The experiment itself was simple: Forgas placed a variety of trinkets, like toy soldiers, plastic animals and miniature cars, near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To control for the effect of mood, Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy days — he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi’s ‘Requiem’ — and on sunny days, using a soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the ‘low mood’ condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more aware and attentive.”

But Reluctant Habits discovered the passage again in Imagine, p. 76-77: “The experiment itself was simple: Forgas placed a variety of trinkets such as toy soldiers, plastic animals, and miniature cars near the checkout counter. As shoppers exited, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. To control the mood of the subgjects, when Forgas conducted the survey on gray, rainy dAays, he accentuated the weather by playing Verdi’s Requiem; on sunny days, he used a chipper soundtrack of Gilbert and Sullivan. The results were clear: shoppers in the ‘low mood’ condition remembered nearly four times as many of the trinkets. The wet weather made them sad, and their sadness made them more attentive.”

* * *

And here’s another three-peat.

“The Creativity of Anger.” Wired: Frontal Cortex (August 29, 2011): “The students were randomly assigned to either a positive or negative feedback condition, in which their speech was greeted with smiles and vertical nods (positive) or frowns and horizontal shakes (negative). After the speech was over, the subjects were given glue, paper and colored felt and told to make a collage using the materials. Professional artists then evaluated each collage according to various metrics of creativity.

“Not surprisingly, the feedback impacted the mood of the subjects: Those who received smiles during their speeches reported feeling better than before, while frowns had the opposite effect. What’s interesting is what happened next: Subjects in the negative feedback condition created much prettier collages. Their angst led to better art. As Akinola notes, this is largely because the sadness improved their focus, and made them more likely to persist with the creative challenge:”

“Feeling Sad Makes Us More Creative.” Wired: Frontal Cortex (October 19, 2010): “The students were randomly assigned to either a positive or negative feedback condition, in which their speech was greeted with smiles and vertical nods (positive) or frowns and horizontal shakes (negative). After the speech was over, the subjects were given glue, paper and colored felt and told to create a collage using the materials. Professional artists then evaluated each collage for creativity.”

Imagine, p. 77-78: “The students were randomly assigned to either a positive- or a negative-feedback condition; in the positive-feedback condition, speeches were greeted with smiles and vertical nods, and in the negative, speeches met frowns and horizontal shakes. After the speech was over, the subject was given glue, paper, and colored felt and told to make a collage using the materials. Professional artists then evaluated each collage according to various metrics of creativity.

“Not surprisingly, the feedback affected the mood of the subjects: those who received smiles during their speeches reported feeling better than before, while frowns had the opposite effect. What’s interesting is what happened next. Subjects in the negative-feedback condition created much prettier collages. Their angst led to better art. As Akinoda notes, this is largely because the sadness improved their focus and made them more likely to persist with the creative challenge. As a result, they kept on rearranging the felt, playing with the colorful designs.”

* * *

“Depression’s Upside.” The New York Times Magaziner (February 26, 2010): “The enhancement of these mental skills might also explain the striking correlation between creative production and depressive disorders. In a survey led by the neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, 30 writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were interviewed about their mental history. Eighty percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some form of depression. A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British writers and artists by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, who found that successful individuals were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illness.

“Why is mental illness so closely associated with creativity? Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a ‘cognitive style’ that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art. In the creative process, Andreasen says, ‘one of the most important qualities is persistence.’ Based on the Iowa sample, Andreasen found that “successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down. They’ll stick with it until it’s right.” While Andreasen acknowledges the burden of mental illness — she quotes Robert Lowell on depression not being a ‘gift of the Muse’ and describes his reliance on lithium to escape the pain — she argues that many forms of creativity benefit from the relentless focus it makes possible. ‘Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,’ she says. ‘If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.'”

Imagine, p. 78-79: “The enhancement of these mental skills during states of sadness might also explain the striking correlation between creativity and depressive disorders. In the early 1980s, Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist at the University of Iowa, interviewed several dozen writers from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop about their mental history. While Andreasen expected the artists to suffer from schizophrenia at a higher rate than normal — ‘There is that lingering cliche about madness and genius going together,’ she says — that hypothesis turned out to be completely wrong. Instead, Andreasen found that 80 percent of the writers met the formal diagnostic criteria for some type of depression. These successful artists weren’t crazy — they were exceedingly sad. A similar theme emerged from biographical studies of British novelists and poets done by Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. According to her data, famous writers were eight times as likely as people in the general population to suffer from major depressive illnesses.

“Why is severe sadness so closely associated with creativity? Andreasen argues that depression is intertwined with a ‘cognitive style’ that makes people more likely to produce successful works of art. Her explanation is straightforward: It’s not easy to write a good novel or compose a piece of music. The process often requires years of careful attention as the artist fixes mistakes and corrects errors. As a result, the ability to stick with the process — to endure the unconcealing — is extremely important. ‘Successful writers are like prizefighters who keep on getting hit but won’t go down,’ Andreasen says. ‘They’ll stick with it until it’s right. And that seems to be what the mood disorders help with.’ While Andreasen acknowledges the terrible burden of mental illness — she quotes Robert Lowell on depression not being a ‘gift of the Muse’ and describes his reliance on lithium to escape the pain — she argues that, at least in its milder forms, the disorder benefits many artists due to the perseverance it makes possible. ‘Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often inseparable from the suffering,’ Andreasen says. ‘If you’re at the cutting edge, then you’re going to bleed.'”

* * *

“Basketball and Jazz.” Wired: Frontal Cortex (June 6, 2011): “As expected, the act of improv led to a surge of activity in a variety of neural areas, including the premotor cortex and the inferior frontal gyrus. The premotor activity is simply an echo of execution, as the new musical patterns are translated into bodily movements. The inferior frontal gyrus, however, has primarily been investigated for its role in language and the production of speech. Why, then, is it so active when people improvise music? Berkowitz argues that expert musicians invent new melodies by relying on the same mental muscles used to create a sentence; every note is like another word.

“Of course, the development of these patterns requires years of practice, which is why Berkowitz compares improvisation to the learning of a second language. At first, it’s all about the vocabulary, as students must memorize a dizzying number of nouns, adjectives and verb conjugations. Likewise, musicians need to immerse themselves in the art, internalizing the intricacies of Miles and Coltrane. After years of study, the process of articulation starts to become automatic – the language student doesn’t need to contemplate her verb charts before speaking, just as the musician can play without worrying about the movement of his fingers. It’s only at this point, after expertise has been achieved, that improvisation can take place. When the new music is needed, the notes are simply there, waiting to be expressed.”

Imagine, p. 92-93: “As expected, the various improv conditions — regardless of the musical genre — led to a surge of activity in a variety of neural areas, including the premotor cortex and the inferior frontal gyrus. The premotor activity is simply an echo of execution, as the new musical patterns are translated into bodily movements. The inferior frontal gyrus, however, is most closely associated with language and the production of speech. Why, then, is it so active when people compose on the spot? The scientists argue that expert musicians invent new melodies by relying on the same mental muscles used to create a sentence; every note is like a word. ‘Those bebop players play what sounds like seventy notes within a few seconds,’ says Aaron Berkowitz, the lead author on the Harvard study. ‘There’s no time to think of each individual note. They have to have some patterns in their toolbox.’

“Of course, the development of these patterns requires years of practice, which is why Berkowitz compares improvisation to the learning of a second language. At first, he says, it’s all about the vocabulary words; students must memorize a dizzying number of nouns, adjectives, and verb conjugations. Likewise, musicians need to immerse themselves in the art, internalizing the intricacies of Shostakovich or Coltrane or Hendrix. After musicians have studied for years, however, the process of articulation starts to become automatic — the language student doesn’t need to contemplate her verb charts before speaking, just as the musician can play without worrying about the movement of his fingers. It’s only at this point, after expertise has been achieved, that improvisation can take place. When the new music is needed, the notes are simply there, waiting to be expressed. It looks easy because they have already worked so hard.”

* * *

The first several paragraphs of “Clay Marzo: Liquid Cure.” Outside (August 26, 2009) are nearly identical (with cut sentences) to Imagine, p. 93-98.

* * *

This example shows Lehrer repurposing in reverse: material from Imagine shifts into material for his new gig at The New Yorker:

Imagine, P. 107: “Take a 2004 paper published in Nature by the neuroscientists Ullrich Wagner and Jan Born. The researchers gave a group of students a tedious task that involved transforming a long list of number strings into a new set of number strings. Wagner and Born designed the task so that there was an elegant shortcut, but it could only be uncovered if the subject had an insight about the problem. When people were left to their own devices, less than 20 percent of them found the shortcut, even when given several hours to mull over the task. The act of dreaming, however, changed everything: after people were allowed to lapse into REM sleep, nearly 60 percent of them were able to discover the secret pattern. Kierkegaard was right. Sleeping is the height of genius.”

“The Virtues of Daydreaming.” The New Yorker: Frontal Cortex (June 5, 2012): “Take a 2004 paper published in Nature by the neuroscientists Ullrich Wagner and Jan Born. The researchers gave a group of students a tedious task that involved transforming a long list of number strings into a new set of number strings. Wagner and Born designed the task so that there was an elegant shortcut, but it could only be uncovered if the subject had an insight about the problem. When people were left to their own devices, less than twenty per cent of them found the shortcut, even when given several hours to mull over the task. The act of dreaming, however, changed everything: after people were allowed to lapse into R.E.M. sleep, nearly sixty per cent of them discovered the secret pattern. Kierkegaard was right: sleeping is the height of genius.”

* * *

“Why We Need to Dream.” The New York Times: Opinionator (March 19, 2010): “Or look at a recent paper published by Sara Mednick, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego. She gave subjects a variety of remote-associate puzzles, which require subjects to find a word that’s associated with three other seemingly unrelated words. ”

Imagine, p. 107: “Or consider a recent paper published by Sara Mednick, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego. She gave subjects a variety of remote-association puzzles.”

* * *

“Fleeting Youth, Fading Creativity.” The Wall Street Journal (February 19, 2010): “The inverted U curve was first documented by Adolphe Quetelet, a 19th-century French mathematician and sociologist. Mr. Quetelet’s study was simple: He plotted the number of plays produced by French and English playwrights over the course of their life spans. He soon discovered that creativity had a sweet spot, which seemed to always occur between the ages of 25 and 50. (The data neatly confirmed Mr. Quetelet’s own life story, as he was 39 when his magnum opus was published.)

“Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, has spent the last several decades expanding on Mr. Quetelet’s approach, sifting through vast amounts of historical data in search of underlying patterns. For instance, Mr. Simonton has shown that physicists tend to make their first important discovery in their late 20s, which is why it’s a common joke within the field that if a physicist hasn’t done Nobel-worthy work before getting married, then he or she might as well quit. According to Mr. Simonton, the only field that peaks before physics is poetry.

“Why are young physicists and poets more creative? Mr. Simonton argues that they benefit, at least in part, from their willingness to embrace novelty and surprise. Because they haven’t become ‘encultured,’ or weighted down with too much conventional wisdom, they’re more willing to rebel against the status quo. After a few years in the academy, however, ‘creators start to repeat themselves, so that it becomes more of the same-old, same-old,’ Mr. Simonton says.”

Imagine, p. 123-4: “The practical advantages of youth were first identified by Adolphe Quetelet, a nineteenth-century French mathematician. Quetelet’s project was simple: he plotted the number of successful plays produced by playwrights over the course of their careers. That’s when he discovered something unexpected: creativity doesn’t increase with experience. The playwrights weren’t getting better at writing plays. Instead, the curve exhibited a steep rise followed by a long, slow decline, a phenomenon of creative output now known as the inverted U curve. According to Quetelet, his curve demonstrated tends to peak after a few years of work — when we know enough, but not too much — before it starts to fall, in middle age.

“Dean Simonton, a psychologist at UC Davis, has spent the last several decades expanding on Quetelet’s approach, sifting through vast amounts of historical data in search of the subtle patterns that influence creative production over time. For instance, Simonton has shown that physicists tend to make their most important discoveries early in their careers, typically before the age of thirty. The only field that peaks before physics is poetry.

“Why are young physicists and poets more creative? One possibility is that time steals ingenuity, that the imagination starts to wither in middle age. But that’s not the case — we are not biologically destined to get less creative. Simonton argues that youth benefit from their outsider status — they’re innocent and ignorant, which makes them more willing to embrace radical new ideas. Because they haven’t become encultured, or weighted down with too much conventional wisdom, they’re more likely to rebel against the status quo. After a few years in the academy, Simonton says, the ‘creators start to repeat themselves, so that it becomes more of the same-old, same-old.’ They have become insiders.”

* * *

Lehrer used the paragraphs below either three or four times, although the initial 2010 Observer article may have been republished in whole by McSweeney’s (the article is not available online).

“Why We Travel.” The Observer (March 13, 2010): “The reason such travels are mentally useful involves a quirk of cognition, in which problems that feel ‘close’ – and the closeness can be physical, temporal or even emotional – get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful – it allows us to focus on the facts at hand – it also inhibits our imagination. Consider a field of corn. When you’re standing in the middle of the field, surrounded by the tall cellulose stalks and fraying husks, the air smelling faintly of fertiliser and popcorn, your mind is automatically drawn to thoughts that revolve around the primary meaning of corn, which is that it’s a plant, a cereal, a staple of farming.

“But now imagine that same field of corn from a different perspective. Instead of standing on a farm, you’re now in the midst of a crowded city street, dense with taxis and pedestrians. (And yet, for some peculiar reason, you’re still thinking about corn.) The plant will no longer just be a plant: instead, your vast neural network will pump out all sorts of associations. You’ll think about glucose-fructose syrup, obesity and Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food; ethanol made from corn stalks, popcorn at the cinema and creamy polenta simmering on a wood stove in Emilia Romagna. The noun is now a web of tangents, a loom of remote connections.

“What does this have to do with travel? When we escape from the place we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities – corn can fuel cars – that never would have occurred to us if we’d stayed back on the farm. Furthermore, this more relaxed sort of cognition comes with practical advantages, especially when we’re trying to solve difficult problems.

“Look, for instance, at a recent experiment led by the psychologist Lile Jia at Indiana University. He randomly divided a few dozen undergrads into two groups, both of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. (This is known as a creative generation task.) One group of students was told that the task was developed by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece (the distant condition), while the other group was told that the task was developed by Indiana students studying in Indiana (the near condition). At first glance, it’s hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant difference would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task was conceived?

“Nevertheless, Jia found a striking difference between the two groups: when students were told that the task was imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. They didn’t just list buses, trains and planes; they cited horses, triremes, spaceships, bicycles and even Segway scooters. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subjects felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn’t just think about getting around in Indiana – they thought about getting around all over the world and even in deep space.

“In a second study, Jia found that people were much better at solving a series of insight puzzles when told that the puzzles came all the way from California and not from down the hall.”

“The Importance of Vacation.” Wired: Frontal Cortex (January 3, 2011): Lehrer excerpts two paragraphs of the “Consider a feel of corn” part of the above passage, pointing out that he “wrote about this last year in McSweeney’s (not online).” He then follows up his blockquote with the “original” section below (which can be found on Imagine, p. 126:

“And this is why vacation is so helpful: When we escape from the places where we spend most of our time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas we’d previously suppressed. We start thinking about obscure possibilities — corn can fuel cars! — that never would have occurred to us if we’d checked in with the office everyday.”

Did the San Francisco Panorama edition of McSweeney’s republish Lehrer’s article in print? I don’t have a copy of it here. But this Susan Perry post suggests that either the entire article was republished or Lehrer recycled much of the text for a piece on “Why do we travel?”

This particular example allows us to observe Lehrer’s tendency to modify a few words in a sentence and pass it off as “original” material. Because by the time the Observer paragraphs have been recycled in Imagine, they haven’t changed much at all, save for what Lehrer added in his Wired post. Note how travel turns from something “mentally useful” to “useful for creativity.” It is as if this is a Mad Libs session.

Imagine, p. 125-127: “The reason travel is so useful for creativity involves a quirk of cognition in which problems that feel close get contemplated in a more literal manner. This means that when we are physically near the source of the problem, our thoughts are automatically constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful — it allows us to focus on the facts at hand — it also inhabits the imagination.

“Consider a field of corn. When you’re standing in the middle of a farm surrounded by the tall cellulose stalks and fraying husks, the air smelling faintly of fertilizer and popcorn, your mind is automatically drawn to thoughts related to he primary definition of corn, which is that it’s a plant, a cereal, a staple of midwestern farming. But imagine that same field of corn from a different perspective. Instead of standing on a farm, you’re now in a crowded city street dense with taxis and pedestrians. The plant will no longer be just a plant; instead, your vast neural network will pump out all sorts of associations. You’ll think about high-fructose corn syrup, obesity, and the Farm Bill: you’ll contemplate ethanol and the Iowa caucuses, those corn mazes for kids at state fairs, and the deliciousness of succotash made with bacon and lima beans. The noun is now a web of tangents: a vast loom of connections.

“And this is why travel is so helpful: When you escape from the place you spend most of your time, the mind is suddenly made aware of all those errant ideas previously suppressed. You start thinking about obscure possibilities — corn can fuel cars! — that never would have occurred to you if you’d stayed back on the farm. Furthermore, this expansive kind of cognition comes with practical advantages, since you can suddenly draw on a whole new set of possible solutions.

“Look, for instance, at a recent experiment led by the psychologist Lile Jia at Indiana University. He randomly divided a few dozen undergraduates into two groups, each of which were asked to list as many different modes of transportation as possible. (This is known as a creative generation task.) One group of students was told that the task was conceived by Indiana University students studying abroad in Greece, while the other group was told that it was conceived by Indiana students studying in Indiana. At first, it’s hard to believe that such a slight and seemingly irrelevant distinction would alter the performance of the subjects. Why would it matter where the task originated?

“Nevertheless, Jia found a striking distance between the two groups: when students were told that the task has imported from Greece, they came up with significantly more transportation possibilities. They didn’t limit their list to cars, buses, trains, and planes; they cited horses, triremes, spaceships, bicycles, and Segway scooters. Because the source of the problem was far away, the subject felt less constrained by their local transport options; they didn’t think about getting around just in Indiana, they thought about getting around all over the world.

“In a second study, Jia found that Indiana University students were much better at solving a series of insight puzzles when told that the puzzles came from California and not from Indiana. Here’s a sample problem:”

* * *

“Sunset of the Solo Scientist.” The Wall Street Journal (February 5, 2011): “By analyzing 19.9 million peer-reviewed papers and 2.1 million patents, Mr. Jones and his colleagues at Northwestern were able to show that teamwork is a defining trend of modern research. Over the last 50 years, more than 99% of scientific subfields, from computer science to biochemistry, have experienced increased levels of teamwork, with the size of the average team increasing by about 20% per decade.

“This shift is even more pronounced among influential papers. While the most cited studies in a field used to be the product of lone geniuses, Mr. Jones has shown that the best research now emerges from groups. It doesn’t matter if the scientists are studying particle physics or human genetics. Papers by multiple authors receive more than twice as many citations as those with one author. This trend is even more apparent when it comes to ‘home run papers’—those publications with at least 1,000 citations—which are more than six times as likely to come from a team.”

Imagine, p. 140: “By analyzing 19.9 million peer-reviewed papers and 2.1 million patents from the last fifty years, Jones was able to show that more than 99 percent of scientific subfields have experienced increased levels of teamwork, with the size of the average team increasing by about 20 percent per decade. While the most cited studies in a field used to be the product of lone geniuses — think Einstein or Darwin — Jones has demonstrated that the best research now emerges from groups. It doesn’t matter if the researchers are studying particle physics or human genetics: science papers produced by multiple authors are cited more than twice as often as those authored by individuals. This trend was even more apparent when it came to ‘home-run papers’ — those publications with at last a thousand citations — which were more than six times as likely to come from a team of scientists.”

* * *

There is also quite a good deal of overlap in “Groupthink.” The New Yorker (January 30, 2012) and the “Power of Q” chapter in Imagine. Lehrer didn’t just use the sample chapter from his book. He rearranged his material and tried to pass off his piece as a brand new article about brainstorming. The first part of the article (starting with the Alex Osborn material) seems to be pilfered from Imagine, p. 158-161. Then, Lehrer incorporates the Brian Uzzi material from Imagine, p. 140-144.

* * *

The biggest surprise was that Jonah Lehrer didn’t confine his theft to his own material. He also plagiarized material from Malcolm Gladwell.

Malcolm Gladwell, “The Formula.” The New Yorker (October 16, 2006): “One of the highest-grossing movies in history, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ was offered to every studio in Hollywood, Goldman writes, and every one of them turned it down except Paramount: ‘Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars? . . . Because nobody, nobody—not now, not ever—knows the least goddamn thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.'”

Jonah Lehrer, Imagine, p. 144: “For instance, one of the highest-grossing movies in history, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was offered to every studio in Hollywood, and every one of them turned it down except Paramount: ‘Why did Paramount say yes?’ Goldman asks. ‘Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars…? Because nobody, nobody — not now, not ever — knows the least goddam thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.'”

* * *

“Steve Jobs: ‘Technology Alone is Not Enough.'” The New Yorker (October 7, 2011): Since 1995, when the first ‘Toy Story’ was released, Pixar has created twelve feature films. Every one of those films has been a commercial success, with an average international gross of more than $550 million per film. Not even Apple has enjoyed that kind of streak.”

Imagine, p. 144: “Since 1995, when the first Toy Story was released, Pixar has created eleven feature films. Every one of those films has been a commercial success, with an average international gross of more than $550 million per film.”

* * *

Here’s another three-peat. Observe in this next Lerher recycling how Lehrer adopts Darla Anderson’s as his own editorial voice.

“The Steve Jobs MBA Unit 103: Connect your people.” Wired UK (June 22, 2011): “The Pixar studios are set in an old canning factory, just north of Oakland, California. The original design called for three buildings, with separate offices for the computer scientists, animators and management. The smaller buildings were cheaper to build, but Jobs scrapped the plan. (‘We used to joke that the building was Steve’s movie,’ says Ed Catmull, the current president of Pixar. ‘He really oversaw everything.’) Jobs completely re-imagined the studio. Instead of three buildings, there was a single vast space, with an airy atrium at its centre. ‘The philosophy behind this design is that it’s good to put the most important function at the heart of the building,’ Catmull says. ‘Our most important function is the interaction of our employees. He wanted to create an open area for people to always be talking to each other.’

“But he needed to force people to go there. He began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the lobby, then moved the meeting rooms to the centre of the building, followed by the cafeteria, coffee bar and gift shop. Jobs eventually decided to locate the bathrooms in the atrium. He believed that the best meetings happened by accident. And he was right. Pixar employees say that many of their best ideas arrive not while sat at their desk, but when they’re having a bowl of cereal with a colleague or having a chat in the bathroom.”

Imagine, p. 149-150: “Pixar Animation Studios is set in an old Del Monte canning factory just north of Oakland. The studio originally planned to build something else, an architectural design that called for three buildings, with separate offices for the computer scientists, animators, and management. While the layout was cost-effective — the smaller, specialized buildings were cheaper to build — Steve Jobs scrapped the plan. (‘We used to joke that the building was Steve’s movie,’ Catmull says. ‘He really oversaw everything.’) Before long, Jobs had completely reimagined the studio. Instead of three buildings, there was going to be a single vast space with an airy atrium at its center. ‘The philosophy behind this design is that it’s good to put the most important function at the heart of the building,’ Catmull says. ‘Well, what’s our most important function? It’s the interaction of our employees. That’s why Steve put a big empty space there. He wanted to create an open area for people to always be talking to each other.

“But Jobs realized that it wasn’t enough simply to create an airy atrium; he needed to force people to go there. Jobs began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the lobby. Then he moved the meeting rooms to the center of the building, followed by the cafeteria and coffee bar and gift shop. But that still wasn’t enough, which is why Jobs eventually decided to locate the only set of bathrooms in the atrium. ‘At first, I thought this was the most ridiculous idea,’ says Darla Anderson, an executive producer on several Pixar films. ‘I have gone to the bathroom every thirty minutes. I didn’t want to have to walk all the way to the atrium every time I needed to go. That’s just a waste of time. But Steve said, ‘Everybody has to run into each other.’ He really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot. And you know what? He was right. I get more done having a bowl of cereal and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk.'”

And Lehrer also recycled this again for a completely different story:

“Groupthink.” The New Yorker (January 30, 2012): “Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Jobs records that when Jobs was planning Pixar’s headquarters, in 1999, he had the building arranged around a central atrium, so that Pixar’s diverse staff of artists, writers, and computer scientists would run into each other more often. ‘We used to joke that the building was Steve’s movie,” Ed Catmull, the president of both Disney Animation and Pixar Animation, says. “He really oversaw everything.’

“Jobs soon realized that it wasn’t enough simply to create an airy atrium; he needed to force people to go there. He began with the mailboxes, which he shifted to the lobby. Then he moved the meeting rooms to the center of the building, followed by the cafeteria, the coffee bar, and the gift shop. Finally, he decided that the atrium should contain the only set of bathrooms in the entire building. (He was later forced to compromise and install a second pair of bathrooms.) ‘At first, I thought this was the most ridiculous idea,’ Darla Anderson, a producer on several Pixar films, told me. ‘I didn’t want to have to walk all the way to the atrium every time I needed to do something. That’s just a waste of time. But Steve said, ‘Everybody has to run into each other.’ He really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot. And you know what? He was right. I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk.'”

(This anecdote appears in different form in Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, p. 430-431. But while Lehrer recycled his own material, it appears in this instance that he did indeed conduct independent interviews, as Imagine‘s endnotes specify.)

[EDITORIAL NOTE: An earlier version of this story misreported Tuesday as “Monday.” Reluctant Habits regrets the error and pledges to look at the calendar more regularly.]

6/20/12 3:00 PM UPDATE: Publishers Marketplace News Editor Sarah Weinman has received an official statement from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of Imagine.

6/20/12 4:00 PM UPDATE: Concerning the Gladwell and Lehrer plagiarism charge, NPR’s David Folkenflik has pointed out that both Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer compressed William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade at the same spot. As Folkenfik rightly notes, the devil is in the ellipses.

6/20/12 4:20 PM UPDATE: Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon has just noted that Lehrer offered quotes from Noam Chomsky as if they’d been told directly to him, dropping key details. (This is actually quite similar to what Lehrer did with Darla Anderson’s quote in the example I cited above, taking her words as his own.) Beaujon has also discovered lifting from 2007 Seed article, repurposed in 2010 New York Times Magazine article. You can check out Beaujon’s findings here.

6/20/12 5:30 PM UPDATE: The New York Times‘s Jennifer Schuessler reports that she reached Jonah Lehrer by telephone. “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong,” said Lehrer.

6/22/12 4:15 PM UPDATE: There have been a number of developments in the last 48 hours. First off, New Yorker editor David Remnick has told Marketwatch that Lehrer will not be fired. “There are all kinds of crimes and misdemeanors in this business,” said Remnick to MarketWatch‘s Jon Friedman on Wednesday afternoon, “and if he were making things up or appropriating other people’s work that’s one level of crime.” Malcolm Gladwell has left a comment on this post and on Jack Shafer’s report: “If Lehrer is plagiarizing me, by quoting the same quote I quoted, then I am plagiarizing the person who used that quote before me, and that person is plagiarizing the person who quoted it before them, and so on and so forth, and we have a daisy chain of “plagiarizing” going back forty years and plagiarism, as a ethical concept, has ceased to mean anything at all.” But as has already been pointed out, Lehrer didn’t just quote the same Goldman quote. He used the exact same introductory phrasing and elided the exact same words as Gladwell did.

Furthermore, Reluctant Habits has discovered that Jonah Lehrer pilfered from Malcolm Gladwell at least two more times. And these examples, featuring closely similar language, don’t involve quotes at all.

* * *

Malcolm Gladwell, “Designs for Working.” The New Yorker (December 11, 2000): “Allen found that the likelihood that any two people will communicate drops off dramatically as the distance between their desks increases: we are four times as likely to communicate with someone who sits six feet away from us as we are with someone who sits sixty feet away. And people seated more than seventy-five feet apart hardly talk at all.”

Jonah Lehrer, Imagine, p. 153: “…he came up with the likelihood that any two people in the same office will communicate. The curve is steep: according to Allen, a person is ten times more likely to communicate with a colleague who sits at a neighboring desk than with someone who sits more than fifty meters away.”

* * *

Malcolm Gladwell, “Designs for Working.” The New Yorker (December 11, 2000): “It had short blocks, and short blocks create the greatest variety in foot traffic. It had lots of old buildings, and old buildings have the low rents that permit individualized and creative uses. And, most of all, it had people, cheek by jowl, from every conceivable walk of life..”

Jonah Lehrer, Imagine, p. 182: “The Village had short city blocks, which were easier for pedestrians to navigate. It had lots of old buildings — Jacob’s street was mostly nineteenth-century tenements and townhouses — with relatively cheap rents, and cheap rents encouraged a diversity of residents.”

* * *

There was also another strange recycling that was uncovered by San Francisco Chronicle Books Editor John McMurtrie (and helpfully passed along to me by the ever vigilant Jack Shafer), where Lehrer took a sentence from his first book and reproduced it as the lede to a book review:

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, p. 185: “The most mysterious thing about the human brain is that the more we know about it, the deeper our own mystery becomes.”

Review of Out of Our Heads, by Alva Noë. The San Francisco Chronicle (March 1, 2009): “The most mysterious thing about the human brain is that the more we know about it, the deeper our own mystery becomes.”

So now we know that Lehrer’s recycling isn’t a recent phenomenon.

Last but not least, I was contacted by Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon for a story on how I put together what Beaujon has called “the Starr Report of the Lehrer affair.” My thanks to Mr. Beaujon for taking the time out to talk with me, to include me in Poynter, and for his many amusing literary references to this piece. Additionally, I got so caught up with this story that I neglected to mention that I interviewed Lehrer back in April for my radio program, The Bat Segundo Show, where I put forth many questions to Lehrer about what critics had then singled out as reductionism.

7/31/12 UPDATE: Tablet‘s Michael Moynihan investigated Lehrer further and learned that Lehrer had fabricated quotes for Imagine. Lehrer has resigned from The New Yorker. The New York Times‘s Julie Bosman has statements from Lehrer and editor David Remnick. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that it would recall print copies of Imagine.

9/1/12 UPDATE: In perhaps the most comprehensive Jonah Lehrer investigation yet, Charles Seife discovers numerous instances of plagiarism, dodgy quotes, and factual inaccuracies. The kicker is that Seife was asked to do this for Wired, but the magazine refused to publish Seife’s findings. Wired has issued a statement.

jonahlehrer

The Bat Segundo Show: Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Leher appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #448. He is most recently the author of Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Brown-bagging his imaginative faculties.

Author: Jonah Lehrer

Subjects Discussed: Continuum’s development of the Swiffer, Shakespeare, whether creativity that originates from theft is acceptable, Bob Dylan, conceptual blending, efforts to defend aerosol cheese spray, bacon cocktails, Dick Crew, Don Lee, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Alex Osborn and brainstorming, Pixar management techniques, Mike Daisey, when storytelling gets in the way of the facts, Milton Glaser and the beginnings of I ♥ NY, the creative possibilities of Benzedrine, WH Auden’s poetry, Angela Duckworth, attempting to make banal chapters, Brian Uzzi and Jarret Spiro’s work involving the Q rating, “Collaboration and Creativity: The Small World Problem,” Y combinator startups and Broadway musicals, not bringing up Stanley Milgram, comparisons between Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell, small world theory and hit plays, Charlan Nemeeth‘s idea of dissent’s relationship to creativity, Lehrer sandwiching dissent and complacency, “Managing Innovation,” Steve Jobs tearing people apart at Pixar, Pixar’s plussing approach, the middle ground between brutal honesty and egalitarianism, Ray Oldenburg and third places, Pixar and Lehrer’s liberties with third places, the Santa Fe Institute, Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt building an equation based on urban variables, why Lehrer placed the Homebrew Community Club into the city-based West/Bettencourt model, Silicon Valley vs. New York, Tom Wolfe, California’s non-compete clause, the Duncker candle problem, functional fixedness, Robert Adamson, leaving the country to solve a problem, William Maddux and Adam Galinsky’s “Cultural Borders and Mental Barriers,” why Lehrer doesn’t use the exact nomenclature to describe science, the origin of Post-Its, Lehrer avoiding the term “functional fixedness,” avoiding terms to attract a larger readership, the problems with mashup methods, responding in depth to Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist at The Millions*, Eric Kandel’s The Age of Insight, the fMRI and the insula lighting up, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and being hamstrung by the popular science medium.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: You put on the glasses. Have you always worn glasses? Because I noticed that was the new cover photo for this. Whereas before you didn’t have glasses.

Lehrer: Oh, I’ve been blind for a long, long time. Maybe — I forget. Maybe the photographer had me take them off.

Correspondent: They asked you to take them off. I was always curious.

Lehrer: No, no, no.

Correspondent: I didn’t know if it was a new mild-mannered Clark Kent look or…

Lehrer: No, no, no. I can assure you that these glasses actually work. They help me see.

Correspondent: Good. I’m more visible for you. That’s reassuring. Let’s go ahead and get right into it. Your book opens with this story of Continuum observing an elderly woman who is wetting a paper towel and wiping the remaining coffee grounds off of the linoleum as she was cleaning. This, of course, leads to the development of the Swiffer. Near the end of the book, you point out Shakespeare. He had a tendency to comb through the many books he read to find stories that he could use for plays and so forth. So it would seem to me — just to establish some terms from the beginning — that much of your notion of creativity involves the theft of ideas. That if you have financial or intellectual resources and you’re able to go ahead and pluck them from somebody else, then hey! You can be creative! So how is profiting off of another person’s idea a form of creation? Or art? Or what not?

Lehrer: I’m not sure I’d call it straight theft. I think Dylan actually has — I talk a lot about Bob Dylan in the book.

Correspondent: Yes, you do.

Lehrer: And he’s got this wonderful phrase where he describes his process as one of love and theft. That first you fall in love. Whether it’s a Woody Guthrie-style. Whether it’s a Robert Johnson riff. Whether it’s, say, old Irish lullaby from Ireland which you turn into “Blowin’ in the Wind.” So you love it and you love it. And you try and understand it and map out the intricate details and connections and then you steal it. And you make it your own. So this isn’t straight theft. This is, in theory, Shakespeare, who, as you point out, was doing pretty well for himself. He came from very humble beginnings. His father was a glover. He signed his name with a mark. But he did his dad proud and made lots of money. So he didn’t just steal Hamlet. He didn’t just steal the plot for Romeo and Juliet. And he didn’t just steal almost all his plots. Shakespeare did not like inventing his own stories, of course. He made them his own. He reinvented them. I think it’s the same thing Bob Dylan did with that Robert Johnson riff. It’s the same thing Continuum did with watching that elderly lady wipe up the coffee grinds that they actually spilled on her floor. That she didn’t invent the Swiffer. They invented the Swiffer. That triggered an insight which then led them to combine the mop, which they spent nine months studying and realizing that mopping’s a terrible idea. Because you spend more time cleaning the mop than you do the actual floor. And in that, her simple act, I mean, they had all done themselves countless times, simply triggered their breakthrough. So in a sense, I mean, I think you’re right to point out that all creativity involves a theft from somewhere. I think creativity is ultimately just a new connection between old ideas. So you are in the most literal sense thieving ideas which already exist. But the connection itself is new. At least it should be new. If it’s not new, then it actually is straight up theft. And that’s not the kind of creativity I’m interested in.

Correspondent: What is the creativity you’re interested in? Because I want to actually distinguish from an elaborate or high-class pickpocket. You know what I mean?

Lehrer: Yeah. You know, I think it’s very easy to get lost in lots of circular discussions about how to define creativity. I think creativity, as far as I’m concerned, is a bit like porn. You kind of know it when you see it.

Correspondent: Oh yeah?

Lehrer: Yeah. Or at least that’s what the Supreme Court says. You know, I think creativity is just the invention of something new. I’m not saying new in some kind of pretend sense. I’m saying something genuinely new which doesn’t exist in the patent office, doesn’t exist in the world, that other people find useful. So that’s as fancy as I get in defining creativity.

Correspondent: Well, let’s get into conceptual blending, which you get into. People exchanging ideas across different disciplines. When you take two concepts and mash them together, which seems applicable to this notion of what is creativity, I mean, it has given us some regrettable and fairly negative ideas. I think that we can both agree that aerosol cheese spray, the car alarm, telemarketing, the Pet Rock.

Lehrer: Yes. Oh come on.

Correspondent: These are things that also come from conceptual blending. So…

Lehrer: Aerosol cheese spray? I’ll go with you on the Pet Rock, but Cheese Whiz? That stuff in the can? That fueled me for much of my childhood.

Correspondent: Yes. “Childhood” being the key.

Lehrer: (laughs)

Correspondent: We’re talking about adulthood.

Lehrer: Okay. Okay.

Correspondent: I mean, we’re talking about ideas that really changed the world. That really have a revolutionary impact. Such as the iPhone or something like that. I mean, you commend Dick Drew as this innovator. And I’m fairly certain that a lot of terrible ideas have also come from 3M. And with the bartender Don Lee, you point out that most of his experiments were utter failures. His attempt to carbonate a cherry didn’t exactly work.

Lehrer: Yeah. And even his Bacon Old Fashioned is very divisive. Like I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Correspondent: Have you tried it?

Lehrer: I have. The first sip is delicious and then it’s kind of unsettling. I think it’s more about my limitations as a consumer than as an eater. And a lot of people don’t like it. So that’s a…

Correspondent: Well, who ultimately determines whether it’s creative or not? I mean, I can just go ahead and spend an evening being completely stoned out of my mind and come up with stupid ideas and that can also be conceptual blending.

Lehrer: Yeah.

Correspondent: I mean, what is the distinguishing quality here?

Lehrer: Well, that’s why I think when defining creativity, one has to invoke the second life of the idea. One has to invoke this notion that it has to be useful to yourself and other people. So you know, one of my favorite stories and moments of insight — I talk about moments of insight in Imagine and the neuroscience of it. And why they happen when we least expect it. But there’s this great story of an insight by Oliver Wendell Holmes when he first took laughing gas for the first time. And he’s stoned out of his mind. High as a kite. While high as a kite, has this big epiphany. He solved the world. This grand solution. Writes it down on a cocktail napkin. And they can’t find the cocktail napkin. And he wakes up the next day. He’s hungover. Searches everywhere. Finally finds a cocktail napkin. So excited to read it. And what it says is: “The world smells like turpentine.”

Correspondent: Yeah. But there are failed economic theories that are also written on cocktail napkins. You know what I mean?

Lehrer: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, no. So that’s why I think one has to separate the phenomenology of the idea. To use a ten dollar word. Like the feeling of the insight. Like “Oh my god, I made this great connection.” And I think we’ve all had the experience — many of us have had the experience of being stoned or high and being “That was such a brilliant epiphany.” Then you wake up in the morning and you realize it’s useless. So I think when talking about creativity, one should talk about the second life and hopefully not just in the brute financial terms. I don’t think we should get in the business of just measuring creativity by how many books you sell or whether or not it can be monetized. Etcetera etcetera. But we should talk about the second life. Cause that I think is the ultimate way our ideas are measured.

Correspondent: Well, to go ahead and get into some of what you write in the book, late, you write that Alex Osborn’s idea of brainstorming was in fact wrong. That’s been pointed out by numerous people. Why then does your book skim over the really terrible ideas? I mean, how do we reconcile Osborn with the Carson/Peterson/Higgins study involving 86 Harvard undergraduates in which those who considered the irrelevant details were seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers”? Now being ranked as an “eminent creative achiever” is a lot different from, oh say, inventing the iPhone or coming up with something that is actually helpful.

Lehrer: Of course. So their ranking of creativity — and what I liked about this study is that it was real world creativity. A lot of limitations of the way scientists study creativity are creativity tests. So it’s tests on divergent thinking, coming up with uses for a brick, finding ways to study traffic in the Bay Area. Stuff like that. But it’s not about the real world. So what I liked about that study was that it was real world achievement. So to get back to your question about why I don’t spend a lot of time on the failed ideas….

Correspondent: Because that would seem to be important, you know.

Lehrer: Well, one of the subplots in the book — at least that I tried to engineer into the book — is this notion that there’s no success without failure, that one of the defining features of successful creators is the way they’ve learned how to fail successfully. One of my favorite lines in the book is Lee Unkrich’s quote — the director of Toy Story 3 — about the secret sauce of Pixar is failing as fast as possible. You know, you go through iteration after iteration. So I’ve got that whole chapter on the importance of revisions and drafting and the conceiving process and going through drafts, looking for your failures, and trying to fix them. So, you know, hopefully I’ve made it clear that all good ideas emerge from the litter of lots of bad ones and that even the best epiphanies, you still have to edit them. You still have to fine tune them and perfect them. So hopefully it’s implicit in the book that part of coming up with a good idea is this entangled relationship with bad ideas. As for why I don’t talk a lot about failed ideas in the book, why I don’t harp on those inventions that never work, I don’t know. I mean, to be honest, I’m sure as a storyteller, it’s easier to tell stories of success. That’s what interests me more. No one wants to buy a book that’s all about…

Correspondent: You’re more of a Mike Daisey type than a New York Times guy?

Lehrer: How’d I go from wanting to tell success stories to being a Mike Daisey type?

Correspondent: Well, because we’re talking about facts vs. storytelling. Which is an ongoing debate especially in 2012. With John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact. With Mike Daisey.

Lehrer: Well, what are facts vs. storytelling?

Correspondent: The point I’m trying to make here is if you are telling a story where everything could be a conceivable success, I mean, there are some things that are inevitably failures. John Carter is probably by every standard a failure. It’s lost more money than any movie.

Lehrer: Yeah, but how does that? To get back to your question about facts and stories, how does that — I’m trying to talk about creativity and where it comes from. I think that one of the defining features of creativity — like I said before — it’s a new idea that people find useful. So there are obviously lots of ideas which people don’t find useful. Lots of failed ideas. In my book, I try to make clear that failure is a part of the creative process. One should learn how to deal with it. But one doesn’t have to write a book about creativity to talk about all the bad ideas that don’t work out. That would be a very, very, very, very long book, and I think fairly incoherent. So that’s why most of the stories I tell in the book are stories where, because that’s part of what creativity is, that’s how I define it. It’s a new idea that works. So I tell the story of new ideas that work.

Correspondent: Okay.

Lehrer: But I don’t quite understand how that means I’m Mike Daisey.

Correspondent: Well, because Mike Daisey took facts to fit his larger narrative. And while from a liberal standpoint, I suppose you could argue that looking at Shenzhen, even if the facts aren’t entirely airtight, might be a good idea, there’s still…

Lehrer: Well, which facts am I eliding to make my larger narrative? I guess that’s my…

Correspondent: Well, when you say you can learn from every failure and there’s a success from there, I don’t know if that’s entirely the truth.

Lehrer: I’m not saying you can — I don’t say that anywhere in the book that all ideas are created equal. In fact, the whole point of why brainstorming doesn’t work — you brought up Alex Osborn’s failed idea — is that it treats all ideas as equal. I mean, the whole point of brainstorming is all ideas are useful. All ideas are good. And as I point out, the reason brainstorming doesn’t work is because groups that engage in criticism and debate and dissent, groups that point out, “That idea is actually a piece of shit,” they do much better. They come up with more ideas and those ideas are better. So hopefully a theme of the book, as I’ve been trying to make clear, is this notion of being honest about which ideas are good and which ideas are bad, identifying failures and fixing them, and out of that process, which is often dismal and unpleasant and insufferable, out of that long process, you will hopefully get a good idea. But there is no shortcut around it.

Correspondent: You talked with Milton Glaser, the graphic designer who came up with the I ♥ NY logo. You mention WH Auden and how he was hopped up on Benzedrine to produce his poems. You say that it was persistence, this determination to solve the problem of how to rehabilitate the image of New York City, which led to Glaser’s solution. But aside from Earl Miller’s recursive loop, his dopamine findings, I’m curious what science you have to back up this idea of the value of persistence to the creative mind. I mean, is it not possible that maybe Glaser’s idea caught on because, well, New York was kind of stuck with it? Because I ♥ NY was everywhere? Know what I mean?

Lehrer: Yeah.

Correspondent: And also there’s this troubling idea of, well, do we have to be hopped up on Benzedrine to be a poet?

Lehrer: No, no, definitely not. As Auden himself would discover, there’s a reason why Benzedrine is now illegal. We no longer prescribe it for asthma. It’s incredibly addictive and, as I point out in the book, comes with all sorts of terrible side effects like horrible constipation, insomnia, and heart arrhythmia, and you definitely don’t want to advocate Benzedrine, no matter how much you need to edit your poetry. In terms of the science on persistence, yeah, there’s a lot of interesting research. A lot of which has nothing to do with the brain, at least not yet. Which I think demonstrates that persistence — the technical term for persistence that psychologists study is grit. This is primarily the work of Angela Duckworth. She’s at Penn. I’m actually writing about her now. Writing an article about her. She’s shown in many domains that grit is the single biggest predictor of success. More than IQ scores. So if you’re trying to figure out which 12-year-old will win the National Spelling Bee, it’s about grit. Who’s going to last at West Point? It’s about grit. Who’s going to last at Teach for America? Which amateur golfers are going to make the PGA tour? She argues that grit also plays a very important role in the creative process. She always quotes the Woody Allen line that 80% of success is showing up. Well, grit is what allows you to show up again and again. The two components of grit — and it’s important to point out, it’s not just about persistence. And I think this is an important caveat. It’s not just about persistence. You also have to have the right goal in the first place. So I may want to play in the NBA. But you’re looking at me. It’s not going to happen. So I have to have someone tell me early on hopefully that all the grit in the world, all the persistence in the world, won’t turn me into Spud Webb. Find a different goal. So I think sometimes one of the problems we have is we’re not willing to help people — you know, dreams will come true if you simply try for it. That kind of talk. It sounds really good, but it’s not entirely honest. And I think we need to be honest about it not being honest.

Correspondent: Now that’s a completely reasonable assessment. Why then would you put WH Auden on Benzedrine then in the book? And is this sort of the worst case scenario? Even though he ended up coming up with a number of great poems. If we’re talking about reasonable applications of what we’re talking about here for people to find their creative roots, why would you go for these more extraordinary examples?

Lehrer: Why I chose that in particular?

Correspondent: Yeah. I’m just curious. Why did you include a Benzedrine addict? Genius as he may very well have been.

Lehrer: Sure. To be honest, the reason I chose Auden is because I’ve long been an Auden fan. I’ve always been fascinated by why you look at his most anthologized poems — and my favorite Auden poetry is actually his late poetry. So absolutely after he weaned himself off Benzedrine, and that was a brutal process, but I actually like “In Praise of Limestone” — his later poetry — which is a little messier, a little more chaotic, a little more personal. But if you look at his most anthologized poems, they really come from this three year window when he was really on Benzedrine, “September 1,” “In Memory of Yeats,” etcetera etcetera. And I was interested in why that is. What allowed him to, in this narrow window, produce poems that were spare and precise and transparent and really, really popular and have resonated with people for decades. And so that’s why I chose Auden. Both because I liked the man and I have this lingering interest in this particular phase of his career. So that’s why I chose him. I wasn’t trying to pick an extreme example. You know, for me, it was the storytelling challenge in this chapter was — in the end, the point I’m trying to give readers is incredibly banal. And I’m sure that — I think most readers will realize that, in the end, the point of that chapter is “Sometimes you have to work really hard.” Not the most exciting idea. And so for me, the reason I chose Auden is cause drugs, Benzedrine, and that struck me as a slightly more interesting way to, in the end, make this point that creativity is also about hard work. And Milton Glaser’s motto says it best. “Art is work.”

Correspondent: But wait a minute. If the underlying point of the chapter is banal, then why stretch out a chapter? I’m not saying that…

Lehrer: Well, because that’s an important part of the creative process. I wish I could write a book in which the whole point was “Take showers when you’re stuck.” Get relaxed. Which is part of the process too. I think there’s good evidence for that. But when you talk with creative people, and I’m trying to tell the story of creativity as I see it from talking to people in the business and from the perspectives of scientists who study it. A big part of creative success is showing up, is putting in the work, is going after the drafts. That’s not the sexy stuff. But that needs to be in there too.

Correspondent: But isn’t it your job to sex it up, Jonah? I mean, you’re a guy — we were cracking up about aerosol cheese spray, right?

Lehrer: Oh, I do my best to sex it up. Which is why I begin the chapter by talking about Benzedrine. That was my attempt to sex up a very banal chapter. Hopefully the chapter itself isn’t banal. The idea in it is — you know, if you’ve ever done anything worthwhile in your life, you know it takes work, right? So my challenge as a storyteller in that chapter was, gosh, I’ve got to put this in here. Because that’s a huge part of the creative process. There’s no getting around it. But how can I make it interesting? I can’t just talk about hard work. That’s a chapter I wouldn’t want to write and people wouldn’t want to read. So the way I begin it is by talking about this poet who is an incredibly talented poet. I’m not saying that if we all take Benzedrine, we’ll pump out “September 1st, 1939.” Having dabbled in amphetamines myself, all I got out of it was several nights of insomnia. But I think it does, within the context of Auden, help show how this drug modulated his poetry a little bit.

* — In The Millions‘s comments, Lehrer responded to a lengthy criticism of Imagine offered by Requarth and Crist (namely, Lehrer criticizing the limitations of fMRI in a Wall Street Journal column, while simultaneously relying on similar data elsewhere):

I honestly can’t cite a popular brain book that either 1) doesn’t cite fMRI localization studies at face value at some point or 2) engage in speculative links between neural mechanisms and complex mental phenomena. For instance, I’m currently in the midst of Eric Kandel’s wonderful new book, which has many chapters on fMRI data combined with musings on aesthetics and beauty. Is this inappropriate?

Fortunately, Our Correspondent also happened to read Kandel’s book. In chapter 30, Kandel does cite fMRIs too. But he doesn’t just cite fMRIs. He is careful to write this in Chapter 30:

The two techniques for measuring brain activity complement each other perfectly: EEGs, which are superior for pinpointing when an event occurred but poor at identifying where it occurred, have good temporal resolution but poor spatial resolution, whereas functional MRIs have the inverse and weaknesses.”

In fairness, Lehrer, at the beginning of Imagine, writes:

By combining both techniques — fMRI and EEG — in the same study, Beeman and Kounios were able to deconstruct the epiphany.”

But inexplicably (and this is also the point of contention with Requarth and Crist), he merely applies the fMRI results in relation to jazz improvisation. Kandel did not make this slip at all in The Age of Insight. The issue here is whether Lehrer, who was good enough to talk out this problem at length during this program, is omitting essential data in an effort to appeal to a popular audience. This conversation begins at the 43:44 mark in the program.

The Bat Segundo Show #448: Jonah Lehrer (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced