Tag Archives: Intelligence

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.00, 279 pages)

Ever wonder if those fabulous songs, novels and paintings that make life so much more enjoyable can only be created by a few brilliant and troubled people?   Maybe you aspire to be more creative, or you wish it for your children.   Jonah Lehrer, the thirty-something scientific writer, has done an in-depth study of the creative process.   He begins his latest work, Imagine, by focusing the first half on the individual and the way the parts of his brain interact.   The second half of the book explores what happens when groups of people work together in the attempt to be creative.

Because Lehrer is an engaging story-teller, the reader gladly accompanies him as he learns about what led to some of the most memorable individual creativity of recent time.   For example, Bob Dylan is the subject of the first chapter.   Later in the second part the reader hears the back story about some of the most amazing corporate breakthroughs that produced winning products like the Swiffer Sweeper.

This is no magazine quick-read or glossy book with simple highlights to quote at the next family gathering.   Rather, Lehrer blends his discussion on neurology with diagrams and clearly written text that is fascinating, rather than academic or – heaven forbid – boring.   He concentrates on what makes us who we are and our unique humanness.   As progress is being made in the exploration of the human brain, new findings and concepts have come to light.   Our brains can be seen in action through the use of equipment such as the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.   The results of these studies and experiments that were conducted while scientists were peering into active brains are fascinating.   Lehrer uses the “You Are There” technique to draw the reader into appreciating the scientists and researchers he showcases along with their contributions to understanding creativity.

There are some requirements for achieving notable creativity.   It’s not a matter of being zapped by a great idea.   As Lehrer states, “It’s impossible to overstate the importance of working memory.   For one thing, there is a strong correlation between working memory and general intelligence, with variations in the size of working memory accounting for approximately 60 percent of the variation in IQ scores.”   Moreover, the poems, plays and novels we have enjoyed from writers like W. H. Auden or William Shakespeare, were not produced in brilliant flashes of insight.   The authors dedicated time and energy to writing and rewriting their works until the result was perfection.

Lastly, Lehrer makes a great case for nurturing the youth among us by fostering in them what he calls “the outsider view.”   It’s not memorization or rote school work that will foster creativity; rather, it’s taking a step back, detaching from the obvious and fostering an alternative view.

“According to the researchers, the advantage of play is that it’s often deeply serious – kids are most focused when they are having fun.”

Imagine is a well-paced learning experience that keeps the reader’s attention and is never overwhelming.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Jonah Lehrer earlier wrote How We Decide, which is reviewed here along with The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/the-art-of-choosing/ .

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer (author of How We Decide).

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Sunshine Superman

The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Ever Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ is Wrong by David Shenk (Anchor, $15.00, 400 pages)

“Greatness was not a thing to Ted Williams.   It was a process.”

Are some people born with more talent and ability than others?   For as long as most of us can recall, the premise of nature vs. nurture has been used to describe the two major components that influence a person’s life.   Best-selling author David Shenk makes it his task to showcase a different, somewhat overlooked alternative concept in The Genius in All of Us.   He believes that hard work and practice are critical to success, not something you either have or not.   As he states, “Talent is not a thing; it’s a process.”

This book is more than what it appears at first glance.   It is not one man’s attempt at coining a new phrase or repackaging old ideas in a new survey-book format.   Rather, Shenk has spent time gathering information and gives credit where credit is due.   He thoughtfully presents the reader with a manageable amount of information geared at unseating the status quo regarding genius, or the lack thereof.   He is direct in his take on what has been fed to the public over the last 100-plus years – personal concepts that have not stood the test of rigorous scientific study, sensationalism and, lastly, letting slackers off easily by claiming that genius is a genetic gift that is passed on to a person.

If you choose to read the book in the original Doubleday hardcover edition, which was this reviewer’s experience, it is worth taking a few moments to examine the book without the dust jacket.   In doing so, please observe the care and deliberate effort that went into the creation of the volume.

The physical proportions, type font, graphics and paper stock (even its slight buff color) lend an air of timelessness.   What better way to present a concept that is meant to be taken seriously?   The text is divided into two main parts followed by “The Evidence” – an equal number of pages devoted to elaboration on the sources and points made in parts one and two, along with comments by the author.   Clearly, Shenk and the team he brought together to produce the book devoted their best efforts to showcasing an alternative to what he calls a wrong-headed approach to genius and success that has been imbedded in the minds of the general populace.

There is one new term, “interactionism,” that is used to characterize the concept of genetics interacting with environment.   An easy-to-remember shorthand for this is G x E.   The reader is advised that plasticity in humans, even as early as during gestation, guarantees that no ability is set or fixed.   Just as Shenk advises that practice and hard work are required to bring about the best results, the reader needs to know that attention and open-minded commitment is required on his or her part to fully realize the value within The Genius in All of Us.

David Shenk is a master at writing and sets a pace that allows the reader to consider the concept of G x E.   His clear voice is consistently authoritative; however, he never casts the reader as a lesser person.   Shenk carefully sets out the premise of G x E using incremental steps to coax the reader’s acceptance of how thought has unfolded over time within the academic community.   Helpful citations referencing prior chapters reinforce the learning process.

There are no great leaps in thinking or pushy theories, just well-documented scientific thought and exploration.   Shenk does his due diligence examining findings from dissenters; he demonstrates where they miss the mark.   The Genius in All of Us is filled with hope and is a call to action that fosters flexibility in thinking and a commitment to growth and success.   This is a book worthy of a reader’s time, attention and contemplation.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Judgement of the Moon and Stars

The Impression

Recently, I was communicating with an author when he happened to reference the “judgment” contained in book reviews.   And that’s when it dawned on me that I don’t see reviews as necessarily being judgmental; instead, I see them as impressions.   A review reflects the way in which a reader-reviewer perceives the book at a particular point in time in his/her life.   As with everything in life, this is subject to change.   It may be, for example, that a novel that a reviewer could not get into while battling an illness would be highly enjoyable at another time.   Many of us have had the experience of reading a particular book years ago and labeling it as a favorite, only to be surprised when we return to that book and find it flat and dull.   Did the book change in any way in the interim?   No, our life – the reader’s life – changed in such a way as to change our perspective of the book.

Let’s think about this in terms of a physical landmark.   Let’s say that I view the Golden Gate Bridge on four occasions – firstly in the middle of the afternoon on a warm and sunny day, next during a rainstorm, then while the bridge is bathed in fog, and lastly on a moonlit night.   Each time the bridge will appear to be different, and I would likely describe the bridge in different terms if I were writing about it.   The bridge itself never changes, but my view of it – my impression – will change based on external factors.

So, one thing to keep in mind while reading a review is that it’s a point-in-time statement.   It’s also something that’s subject to revision.   The reviewer who slammed a book with a negative review might find, to his surprise, that he enjoys it when he looks at it months later.   And the reviewer who loved a book and added it to her personal collection might wonder a year or two later why she loved it – something she’ll ponder while putting it on the giveaway stack.

What does this mean for an author?   Simply that both positive and negative reviews can be discounted.   The book that one reviewer perceived as a flop may be a hit later, and vice versa.   Life changes and so do impressions.

The Choice

The author of a recent survey book noted something interesting about how film and book reviewers are perceived.   According to a study referenced in the book, the authors of generally negative reviews are viewed as more intelligent than reviewers who almost always draft positive reviews.   This is due to the perception that “anyone can say nice things,” while the negative reviewer is seen as a person who must have an extensive in-depth background – otherwise, how would he/she know what to nitpick and criticize?   This does not mean, however, that the average person prefers to read the reviews of a generally negative reviewer.

When given a choice between reading mostly negative or positive reviews, the typical person will more often select the positive ones.   And when asked about the people who write the reviews, most people will select the positive one as the nicer person – the nicer person is, therefore, the one whose reviews are read more.   So this leads to a choice among limited options for the book reviewer.   Do you want to be perceived as smart and well-read, or as the less smart writer whose reviews are more often read?

The appropriate response may be to write a mix of positive and not so positive reviews, so that one is viewed as both smart and nice, if not both at the same time.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured – The Other Life: A Novel by Ellen Meister ($24.95, 320 pages) which will be released by Putnam Adult Books on February 17, 2011.

Note:  After writing this article, I happened to come across the following statement from Robert Christgau, music critic for the Village Voice:  “I don’t usually fluctuate wildly with what I initially thought about an album because I wait to write the review until I know what I think…  My first judgment is solid and secure.   But records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.”

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Secret Agent Woman

Intelligence: A Novel of the CIA by Susan Hasler (Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99, 308 pages)

“I can’t decide which is worse:  the lucid dreams or the muddled reality.   I have no one to blame but myself…  I hate, hate, hate going to sleep at night.”

Former CIA analyst Susan Hasler’s debut novel could easily be classified as an autobiography.   Hasler’s psychological exploration of the major, read that sympathetic, characters moves this tale into novel status.   The plotline is so believable that readers will buy into it quickly.   Lead character Maddie James uses her years of experience as an analyst at the Mines (the CIA) and her chilling dreams of impending doom to identify what she believes to be a genuine imminent threat to safety within the U.S. 

The game of cat and mouse between the analysts and the terror threat is afoot once Maddie wheedles her boss into allowing an ad hoc group of specialists in the Mines to work together to address Maddie’s concerns.   There is no need for a spoiler alert in this review as the novel is not a mystery.   What is a mystery is the way that legions of upper management in state and federal government choose to disregard the findings of capable, well-informed line staff in favor of the politician-pleasing actions that all too often lead to disaster.

“The President doesn’t want to hear this.”

The story is peppered with government acronyms and filled with revelations of how far off public perceptions are from actual intelligence work.   It’s no small wonder that more blunders and misses are not made given the pressure to please the folks up the chain of command that’s brought to bear on analytical staff.   The analysts are badgered into following the party line rather than reporting on what is revealed.

As a former government research analyst, this reviewer felt vindicated by the thoughts and actions of the Mines ad hoc group of anti-terrorists mustered by Maddie as they race against an imagined deadline to thwart an attack on a civilian target of significant size.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press).

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