Imagine by Jonah Lehrer: A Book Review

Update, July 31, 2012.

On July 30, author Jonah Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes in Imagine. He resigned his position as staff writer for The New Yorker, and Houghton Mifflin suspended sales of the book. You can read my full post on the topic here, which contains a link to the newspaper story.

It is with much sadness that I’ve decided to remove the text of my review. Some of Lehrer’s observations on creativity remain insightful. At the same time, I think it is vital to stand up for ethics wherever we can find it in public life.

9 thoughts on “Imagine by Jonah Lehrer: A Book Review

    • There were some very interesting comments I saw about writers. For instance, a neuroscientist interviewed participants one year at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and found that 80% of them met formal diagnostic criteria for some sort of depression. One of the few cases where the prevailing myths were found to have some validity.

      I also took special note that in numerous cases, it really was the “outsiders,” those not hemmed in by conventions, who were able to make breakthroughs. A whole lot of interesting points I was not able to include.


  1. I enjoyed Lehrer, too. His NYT piece Groupthink changed my teaching.

    This is related enough (in that “your own brain knows best” way) to mention here, I think: The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt, says that people make intuitive decisions rather than rational ones, that in fact, rational thought is self-justification. Here’s the NYT review:


    • Wow, that is a very interesting article. “To the question many people ask about politics — Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? — Haidt replies: We were never designed to listen to reason.”

      Interesting premise, and if true, a bit of a liability at times. Case in point: The Nobel Prize in Economic a year or two ago, went to a pair of researchers in economic psychology, who demonstrated that “intuition” and emotion drive us to irrational moves – buy high, sell low, for instance, when we intend the opposite.

      My blindspot in political dialog is the whole, “family value” issue. Studying psychology, and all the nasty things that can happen in nuclear families, makes “family values” seem the exact equivalent of Norman Rockwell paintings. Or to put it another way, sure, I wish I had grown up on Walton’s Mountain, but I didn’t, and no one I know did either.

      An interesting suggestion to look at the three-dimensional moral fiber of conservatives, however. My concern is this. To my mind, religious fundamentalism is a very dangerous force, driven by economic hard times and fear. Why is it so virulent now? My parents and grandparents who lived through the depression never described anything like the intolerance we see nowadays. That is one thing I don’t get that the review only mentions in passing.

      Anyway, great link, thanks.


      • My father’s mother used to say, “There is nothing new in the world, just new to you.” Perhaps intolerance is simply more easily and more widely disseminated now. The extensive, instantaneous media coverage virulent opinions receive is frightening.


    • Thanks very much. One way I find interesting books (including this one) is to stop by now and then to check their book recommendations. If you search on “Imagine” on the site, you can hear an eight minute interview with the author.


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