The Thinking Machine

By Curtis White

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The Thinking Machine:

President Obama announced in April that hundreds of millions of dollars would be spent over the coming decade to map the brain’s neurons. According to the White House, this research could lead to treatment for disorders including Alzheimer’s disease. Obama’s initiative is likely to have broad popular support in large part because of the work of science writers such as Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer has been banished from media circles for his lapses in journalistic ethics, but his ideas about neuroscience and creativity remain unchallenged.

Most research in neuroscience proceeds from the assumption that if the maladies of the brain can be cured, or creativity understood, it is because the brain is a machine. Unfortunately, assuming that the brain is a machine has disturbing consequences. Most neuroscientists believe consciousness, will, creativity and even personality are the mechanical result of brain structure, neurons and chemistry. Lehrer even claims the source of imagination is the “massive network of electrical cells that allow individuals to form new connections between old ideas.” In other words, creativity is rewiring.

And that assumption—a common one among neuroscientists—has profound social consequences. If creativity is a mechanical property of the brain, then it isn’t the privileged preserve of art. Corporations value creativity too. Lehrer cites the process that led to the creation of the Swiffer mop at Procter & Gamble. P&G came up with its mop by using creativity specialists, the “envisioneers” at Continuum, a design firm in Boston and Los Angeles. Continuum chief executive Harry West said of the Swiffer project, “They told us to think crazy.” They did and came up with “one of the most effective floor cleaners ever invented.”

This may sound like a Monty Python skit, but it’s not. The irony that Lehrer doesn’t get, and that Monty Python would, is that for the past two centuries “creatives” (what we used to call artists) have hated mop inventors.

Strangely, many of these companies fancy themselves to be creative dissidents. At hip Silicon Valley ventures, the employees have pierced tongues and tats and skateboards for lunch breaks. This fake bohemian culture acknowledges the essentially dissident character of art even while betraying it. But the corporate types, the suits, are under no illusions about the bohemian substance of their creatives. Lehrer approvingly quotes Dan Wieden, co-founder of the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy: “You need those weird fucks. You need people who won’t make the same boring, predictable mistakes as the rest of us. And then, when those weirdos learn how things work and become a little less weird, then you need a new class of weird fucks.”

Of course, creativity is not all about weirdos in the workplace. Lehrer writes about music. He is particularly interested in the moment when Bob Dylan reinvented himself as the rock-and-roll Dylan. The moment in question is the creation of the song “Like a Rolling Stone.” According to Lehrer’s version of the story, Dylan was bored with what he’d been doing, trapped between his own public image as a writer of protest songs and the lame platitudes of Top 40 music. So he retreated to Woodstock and began to let his neurons do the work, from which emerged “Like a Rolling Stone.” Lehrer writes, “The story of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is a story of creative insight. The song was invented in the moment, then hurled into the world.” The song would “revolutionize rock and roll.”

Why is it good to revolutionize rock and roll? For Lehrer, the song, like the Swiffer mop, isn’t really about revolution. It’s about success. The song leads to the creation of more songs by other artists. Money is made. People become famous!

Anyone who has been influenced by Dylan’s music will know the song isn’t about contributing to gross domestic productivity or economic innovation. It was written against that world. Instead, the song is “about” its formal freedom. Dylan proposes, “Hey, this is what freedom feels like to me. This is what being alive feels like to me. What do you think?” In other words, Dylan’s music asks, Can you return to being in the world in the way you were in the world before you heard this song?

But for Lehrer, Dylan is just another example of a “creative problem solver” no different from Milton Glaser, creator of the insipid I♥NY logo. Lehrer throws out the social, ethical and aesthetic dimension of art for a few full-color brain scans and the instruction “Go to work.”

Curtis White is author of The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers.


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