To anyone who plans to read Imagine, the new book of pop neuroscience by Jonah Lehrer; to anyone who gets excited by specious comparisons between lab experiments and Bob Dylan anecdotes; to anyone who didn’t catch the cautionary tale known as Malcolm Gladwell; to anyone who actually believes that brain activity is the root cause of human behavior; to anyone who can stifle a condescending snort at the mention of the word “neuroscience”; to anyone who thinks Imagine has any hope of fulfilling its stated purpose, which is to pick apart and illuminate the creative process using popular science and handy proverbs; to you I say good luck, suckers.
Here’s the neuroscience behind my distaste for this topic in science writing. When my optical nerve processes the words that Jonah Lehrer (in this case) writes, it sends a message to the left hemisphere of my brain—where language is processed—that triggers a release of chemicals that makes me want to puke. That’s the science behind it. See how I explained that, using science? Now you know. And you can apply it to your own life!
Yes, I’m testy about this. I’m testy because I take it personally. I take it personally because the notion that a journalist can summarize other people’s lab work and then announce that it finally answers the vexing question of why Arthur Fry invented the Post-it Note (which, I guess, is the Holy Grail of human creativity?) is horrifying to consider. Not that it deserves much consideration, since its approach is evidently simplistic and patronizing.
I want to be romanced! Let me keep believing, however falsely, that Bob Dylan wrote “Like a Rolling Stone” because he was smitten with some girl behind the counter at a savings bank in Baton Rouge, or whatever it was I believed before Lehrer came along and chalked it up to the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG).
If a questionable branch of science is going to wag its pale, feeble index finger in the air and declare that creativity is a problem that has now been solved, then I hereby raise an even paler, even feebler finger to my keyboard in order to reveal that neuroscience is a sham invented by the late, great Jorge Luis Borges.
Here’s the beginning of his story “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”:
Under the notorious influence of Chesteron (inventor and embellisher of elegant mysteries) and the court counselor Leibniz (who invented preestablished harmony), in my spare evenings I have conceived this plot—which I will perhaps commit to paper but which already somehow justifies me. It needs details, rectifications, tinkering—there are many areas of the story that have never been revealed to me. Today, January 3, 1944, I see it in the following way:
The action takes place in an oppressed yet stubborn corner of the ivory tower—alchemy, perhaps, or brain sciences. There, a disconsolate scribbler with no hope of fathoming the depths of mankind in his mortal lifetime, and with a low opinion of the intelligence of his fellow tower-dwellers, seizes upon a doomed, infantile scheme to deceive his colleagues by alleging that the whole of the Library of the universe is revealed in the creases upon any man’s brain.
See that, neuroscience? Your whole endeavor was never anything more than a puckish glint in Borges’ eye.
– Brian Hurley