Patt Morrison Asks: Jonah Lehrer, brain teaser

Science writer Jonah Lehrer is seen at the "You and Your Irrational Brain" panel discussion in Long Island City in 2008.
(Thos Robinson/Getty Images )

Zombies in movie theaters, zombies on television — a whole lot of us have brains on the brain. And so, in a substantially different way, does Jonah Lehrer. He’s put himself at the crossroads of neuroscience and the humanities with books like his first, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” and other volumes delving into the neuro-mysteries of the way the brain makes decisions and the way creativity works. Here in his native Los Angeles, the second-largest neural mass in the nation, Lehrer applies himself to sorting out the hard-wiring and the software that make up the stuff between our ears.

We are obsessed about the brain, but the ancients didn’t think much of it. They thought human nature resided in the heart.

It’s not a very impressive piece of meat. It’s pale, mushy, the texture of Jell-O. You look at it and go, is this where we come from? [You] understand why the Greeks thought it was for air conditioning the blood. The heart by contrast is so much more impressive, so much more intricate.

Have you seen a brain up close?

I got to see a fresh human brain, still a little bit warm, two to three hours after [death]. Totally awe-inspiring, totally ghoulish — every adjective you can apply. But there’s that paradox: this is where you come from; every thought you think begins somewhere inside [it].

What made you want to know how the brain works? Did you read a book that made you say “Aha!”

I was really struggling in high school, I mean really struggling by being forced to read [the novel] “Mrs. Dalloway.” I did not get it. I didn’t get it until college, but there were glimmers that here is literature that is getting the mind on the page, something beyond a narrative, beyond a character. It wasn’t until reading [neuroscientist] Oliver Sacks, seeing characters from the perspective of what’s gone wrong with their brains and how he sketches them so beautifully, to realizing that [was] another avenue to get at who we are.

You were an LAUSD kid, right?

Born and bred, K through 12. I’m a booster for public schools. [At] Walter Reed in North Hollywood, a magnet, they had marvelous teachers; [there are] pockets of excellent education within these big urban public schools; you’re exposed to the diversity of this modern metropolis.

So much of your work is about the brain’s paradoxes — normal versus abnormal, solitude versus crowds, focus versus relaxation.

The brain is a great category-buster. We love categories: If you want to be creative, here’s a PowerPoint slide. If you want to make decisions, you should always think like this.

To fully understand [the brain’s] mysteries, you can’t impose some simple model. The brain tends to complicate things. It’s not going to give us neat answers that conform to something we already believe.

So what about creativity, which you say involves both focus and relaxation?

One mistake we made in thinking about creativity is that it’s all or nothing, that you’re Bob Dylan and Picasso or the rest of us; that creativity is defined by a poet taking a walk in the woods, someone in a cafe in Paris, 1920s. Creativity is more universal. The type of creativity depends on the type of problem we’re trying to solve.

Does each brain process creativity differently? Focus may work for you; relaxing may work for me?

I don’t think so. Everyone seems to rely on both. You work and work and make progress but eventually you hit the wall, and that’s when you should go take a shower or a nap and daydream. And you may have a big epiphany, but even the best epiphany still needs to be edited. There are simply two phases of the creative process, and everyone requires both.

I’m imagining a cartoon of a guy in a hammock in his office telling his angry boss, “But Jonah Lehrer says I’ll do my best work this way.”

There’s that great line of Einstein’s that creativity is the residue of time wasted. Google has ping-pong tables in the lobby, but you can’t play ping-pong all day. Even Jack Kerouac wrote “On the Road” in one massive session but spent the next few months editing it. Beethoven would work on a single phrase 70 times. I think that’s the creative process in a nutshell.

There’s nothing more mysterious than when you get an epiphany out of the blue. The cortex is sharing one of its secrets. You have no idea where the answer came from; all you know is that this is the answer. How the brain engineers these moments of insight — that was the first mystery that drew me to the study of creativity.

And then there’s your observation that after a couple of beers we’re better puzzle solvers. Compare it with speaking a foreign language: You can be so uptight about making mistakes you don’t even try?

Scientists who study improvisation put jazz pianists in a brain scanner and say, “Improvise now.” [The scans show] they turn off a part of the brain that normally keeps us from saying and doing things; they turn it off like a switch, so they create without worrying what they’re creating. The analogy scientists use is like learning a second language. It takes years of practice [so] you can do it without thinking about it; it becomes automatic. The sense is that your head gets in the way.

Like improv. Can you do improv?

I had the pleasure of attending some Second City classes in Hollywood. I was actually thinking about doing it, but I saw how good they were, and I was — speaking of fear — so intimidated.

Some religious believers think advances in neuroscience are painting faith into a zero-sum corner.

That stems from the mistaken belief that science will solve everything; that if you worry about God being in the gaps and there will be no gaps, then how can we believe in God? I’m not worried about there being no mysteries left. Some people [say], what business does science have putting a jazz improviser in a scanner? You’re going to unweave the rainbow; you’re going to take this beautiful thing and turn it into acronyms. I don’t think we’re in any danger of that.

Is there a Holy Grail in neuroscience?

Consciousness. These trillion synaptic connections, somehow they give rise to subjective self-experience. We have no idea how that happens, not even glimmers.

Cities generate creativity, but are cities really good for the individual human brain?

There’s some interesting evidence suggesting we obviously weren’t designed to live in a city. It’s stressful; it’s distracting. When you walk two miles in a city versus two miles in a lovely natural setting, you’re going to perform worse on a battery of cognitive tests. The city is going to tire you out.

But cities come with enormous benefits. The best way to get smart, the best way to be smart, is to hang out with other smart people, and that’s what cities are all about. That’s why urban density is good. Urbanization is the great theme of human civilization right now. I think we’re going to do a better job of learning to mitigate the downside. These negative psychological impacts can be quickly remedied by exposure to green space.

What’s your next brain quest?

I’m interested in love, not just as a surge of dopamine or oxytocin. Every other pleasure gets old. The second bite of chocolate cake is not as good as the first — it’s called habituation, and it’s a universal law of pleasure. Yet love doesn’t get old. We don’t adapt to it. Even after 50 years of marriage, you still find someone exciting. That’s a mystery I want to know something about.

Speaking of love, you have a daughter nearly a year old. Do you watch her with both a dad brain and a science brain?

Not to sound all romantic, but it does bring home this three pounds of meat that somehow learns to make sense of the world, speak a language, invent things. This very tiny chunk of matter — to watch it engineer itself is pretty amazing.

I’m [studying] the importance of grit, how grit seems to be a predictive character trait in terms of success. So I’m seeing everything through the lens of grit, and if she starts to whine a little bit, I’m, like, “Oh, build up your grit!”

This interview is edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript.

Interview archive: