It’s All in Your Head: The Problems With Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine

March 21, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 53 11 min read

coverNot too long ago, the idea that “you are your brain” was the revolutionary mantra of a handful of scientists, but today it raises hardly an eyebrow among the general public. The brain has become, for many, synonymous with the biological machinations of the self, and the self-knowledge promised by neuroscience has ignited a hunger to understand how it weighs in on age-old questions: Do we have free will? How do we make decisions? What happens when we fall in love? Why do we make art? Imagine, Jonah Lehrer’s polymathic new book is poised to feed this hunger. Blurring the lines between science writing, self-help, and cultural criticism with virtuosic ease, Imagine explores fields as disparate as neuroscience, sociology, and urban planning with the promise not only to explain how creativity works, but how you, too, can use these secrets to unlock your own creativity, and how we can collectively build a more creative culture.

covercoverThe book ranges across a dizzying array of examples of the creative process, from Bob Dylan to the team at Pixar to the tech boom in Tel Aviv, creating a mash-up of anecdotes, science reporting and associative interjections from the humanities. In the second chapter alone, we get the guy who invented Scotch Tape; a psychologist who uses EEG to study the brain while people solve puzzles; a neuroscientist who studies insight; a passage from David Hume; a neurologist who is studying daydreaming; the invention of Post-Its; the classic children’s book Harold and the Purple Crayon…and the list goes on. To say that the density and diversity of sources marshaled here are impressive would be a massive understatement. As in Proust Was a Neuroscientist and How We Decide, Lehrer has invited an eclectic mix of guests to his dinner party, and getting them all in the same room to see what happens is a rare achievement. But his real talent lies in the way he plays all these sources off each other in order to build a coherent argument, leaping from the story of how Barbie dolls were born when an American housewife saw a pornographic doll in the window of a German cigar shop to how seeing ones’ work with fresh eyes is “one of the central challenges of writing” to the neural pathways involved in reading and writing in order to demonstrate that “the only way to be creative over time — to not be undone by our expertise — is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand.” To cap off this particular moment, Lehrer offers a toast to the poet Samuel Coleridge, who said he attended public chemistry lectures in London to “renew my stock of metaphors.”

Imagine uses the same mash-up method that was so successful in How We Decide, but the science of creativity simply isn’t as developed as the science of decision-making. Because of this, it turns out that Lehrer’s tried-and-true method doesn’t work quite as well. The difficulty with pinning down creativity — scientifically or otherwise — becomes obvious when you consider the diversity of anecdotal examples in the book. Is writing a song comparable to coming up with new uses for glue or solving a puzzle that has only one correct answer? Is the person who writes twenty cookie-cutter novels engaged in the same activity as the person who writes one book so unprecedented that it changes the trajectory of literature? Are any two creative processes really the same? At most, it seems that one could point out patterns, but Lehrer boldly sets his sights on formula.

Imagine argues that “creativity is a catchall term for a variety of distinct thought processes” and that by understanding these processes we can all learn to be more creative. The more people you talk with, and the more diverse those people are, the better. Companies that wish to encourage creativity should have everyone use a bathroom in a centralized place, like Pixar does. If we want to be a more creative society, we should lighten up on copyright laws and share ideas, like they do in Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv. The scope widens until, by the end, Lehrer is advocating policy changes in areas such as education, copyright law, and immigration. He argues, for example, that because immigrants submit a disproportionate number of patent applications in the U.S., it seems that, as measured by the metric of patents, at least, more immigrants could make America a more creative country.

Trumpeted as “something of a popular science prodigy” by The New York Times, Lehrer has become a translator and ambassador, someone readers trust to explain what is going on in all those ivory towers full of beakers and cell cultures and genetically-engineered mice. Besides his two hugely successful books, he is a contributing editor at Wired, a frequent guest on WNYC’s RadioLab, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and a science columnist for The Wall Street Journal. For many readers he is the face of science in popular culture. And for good reason. He has repeatedly proven his skill at wrestling complex scientific ideas into nuanced and accurate discussions accessible to non-scientists. Take, for example, his excellent Wall Street Journal column in which he writes insightfully about the limitations of fMRI, a widely used brain-imaging technology with difficult-to-interpret data that ignites heated disputes both inside and outside scientific circles. Lehrer is also an expert and captivating storyteller, and Imagine aims high in grappling with the extremely difficult task of communicating subtle and complex ideas in an engaging way.

But Lehrer’s role as liaison comes with a degree of responsibility; most readers trust that he is explaining science accurately and drawing reasonable conclusions based on the data at hand. Lehrer’s polished style, affable enthusiasm, and obvious intelligence make it tempting not to question the science as he sees it. All the more troubling, then, that right from the outset of Imagine there are signs that science may be taking a backseat to story:

Most cognitive skills have elaborate biological histories, so their evolution can be traced over time. But not creativity — the human imagination has no clear precursors…The birth of creativity, in other words, arrived like any insight: out of nowhere.

If there are any truths in biology, one is that nothing arrives “out of nowhere.” For almost the whole recorded history of science, people believed that we may be the exception. For years, scientists thought we were different because we use tools. Not so, as it turned out. Chimpanzees have us there. And gorillas and orangutans and some other primates. And birds. And elephants. And a few bottlenose dolphins. Even ants use grain to carry honey. Until very recently, many scientists thought language set us apart, but in the past ten years, researchers have observed precursors to human speech in primate vocalizations and striking similarities between how infants learn to speak and songbirds learn to sing. Even self-awareness, a treasured feature of human consciousness, is no longer considered unique to humans. It’s tempting to think that we are special, but today most researchers agree with Darwin’s eloquent observation that humans are animals, too; we are different in degree rather than kind. There’s no reason to think that creativity will be the exception.

The real problem is that claiming creativity’s exceptional status makes for a better story: if creativity is what sets us apart from the animals, understanding this faculty is tantamount to unlocking the mystery of who and what we are. As Lehrer writes, “Until we understand the set of mental events that give rise to new thoughts, we will never understand what makes us so special.” This claim raises the stakes for the book. The problem is, it’s probably just not true.

These few sentences set off some unexpected alarm bells, so we decided to take a closer look at some of the science upon which Imagine is built, specifically neuroscience, as that’s what Lehrer is best known for and where his greatest expertise lies. In the fourth chapter, for example, Lehrer assembles an impressive array of anecdotes and neuroscience results to explain why “letting go” is “an extremely valuable source of creativity.” “The act of letting go,” he declares, “has inspired some of the most famous works of modern culture, from John Coltrane’s saxophone solos to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.” So how does letting go, Lehrer asks, lead to creativity? “The story begins in the brain,” he claims, and turns to a neuroimaging experiment in which jazz pianists were asked to improvise new tunes while in a brain scanner. During improvisation, the scanner picked up a surge of activity in a brain area previously linked to self-expression. At the same time, the scientists also observed a sharp decrease in brain activity in an area previously linked to impulse control. Lehrer concludes, “This suggests that the musician was engaged in a kind of storytelling, searching for the notes that reflected her personal style…The musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions, slipping off those mental handcuffs.” At first pass, this interpretation sounds pretty convincing: the self-control center of the brain shuts down to clear the path for unfettered self-expression.

Except that it’s impossible to draw that conclusion from the data at hand. This is an example of a common logical fallacy that plagues the interpretation of neuroimaging data. Say you notice a crowd of people at your neighbor’s house one night, and then find out she is throwing a party. You can correctly conclude that whenever your neighbor throws a party, there will be people at her house. On another night, you again notice a crowd of people at her house, and you conclude she is throwing a party — but this time you’re wrong. She is hosting a church group. While you can conclude that a party means there will be people, you cannot conclude that people means a party.

This reasoning fails because brain regions, like houses, have many functions. If you scan the brains of 100 people while they add 2+2, and in every case the same little patch of cortex jumps into action, it’s safe to infer that the cognitive act of adding 2+2 is related to activity in that brain region. So far so good. (What the region might actually be doing — adding, focusing on the number 2, catching errors — is whole separate problem). It’s tempting to say, then, that every time researchers observe that little patch of cortex lighting up, it must mean that the person in the scanner is engaged in adding 2+2. After all, it’s the 2+2 part of the brain, right? That’s where intuition can lead you astray. There is not a measurable one-to-one mapping between any brain region and any particular cognitive process; the same little patch of cortex is likely involved in multiple functions, just as a house can be filled with people for many different reasons. So when you see the patch of cortex light up under the scanner, you can’t say the person is adding 2+2. Likewise, if a brain region previously linked to “self-expression” lights up while improvising music, you can’t say — as Lehrer does — that the musician was “engaged in a kind of storytelling.”

This claim is all the more surprising because Lehrer is clearly familiar with this logical fallacy. In the Wall Street Journal column about fMRI data mentioned earlier, he offers an elegant discussion of this very problem:

Consider an op-ed piece recently published in the New York Times, which used fMRI results to demonstrate, purportedly, that people “literally love their iPhones.” The evidence? When the researchers showed subjects a video of a ringing cellphone, a part of the brain called the insula exhibited a spike in activity. Because previous studies have linked the insula with feelings of love, the authors concluded that the gadget had become a “romantic rival” for husbands and wives.

But here’s the problem: The insula is also activated by feelings of disgust and bodily pain. It plays an important role in coordinating hand movement, maintaining balance and monitoring bodily changes. In fact, activity in the insula has been implicated in nearly a third of all fMRI papers. Because the brain is such a vast knot of connections, it’s often impossible to understand what’s happening based on local patterns of activity. Perhaps we’re disgusted by our iPhones, or maybe the insula is just preparing the fingers to move. The pretty picture can’t reveal the answer.

So what’s going on? It’s baffling, really, that in Imagine Lehrer makes statements so similar to ones he thoroughly discredits in his column.

And the problems continue to arise. Near the end of the same chapter, Lehrer presents what appears to be the most convincing piece of evidence yet that inhibiting self-control enhances creativity. He reports a study in which the researcher used a harmless technique called TMS to disrupt brain activity in regions previously implicated in impulse control while the subjects drew sketches of animals. Before TMS, Lehrer reports that their drawings were “crude stick figures.” But during TMS, they exhibited “strange, new talents.” Their figures were “suddenly filled with artistic flourishes.” The section concludes with the comforting bromide that we all have inner artists, if only the brain’s inhibitory mechanisms wouldn’t “constantly hold back our latent talents.”

We were curious to see these “before” and “after” drawings, so we looked up the study.  Upon viewing the drawings we felt a bit misled by Lehrer’s claim that dampening activity in the brain area he connects to impulse control led to “strange, new talents.” These before and after drawings, for example, seem to be just slightly different versions of a horse:

Savant-like skills exposed in normal people by suppressing the left fronto-temporal lobe. Allan W. Snyder, Elaine Mulcahy, Janey L. Taylor, D. John Mitchell, Perminder Sachdev, and Simon C. Gandevia, Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, Vol 2, No. 2, 149-158, © 2003, World Scientific.

One might even argue that the saddle in the “before” drawing on the left represents an “artistic flourish” absent in the “after” drawings on the right. In the paper, even the researchers themselves did not claim to have observed any great shift in artistic performance. They concluded that the technique “did not lead to a systematic improvement in naturalistic drawing ability,” although the drawings did show a “change of scheme or convention.” These less-than-definitive results, coupled with the fact that the details of how TMS affects brain activity are poorly understood, renders any hypothesis about this brain area and “creativity” speculative. The researchers do argue for such a link elsewhere, and even if this unproven hypothesis turns out to be true, to say that this study supports the chapter’s claims that “the timid circuits of the prefrontal cortex keep us from risking self-expression” is still problematic. The book is representing speculation as fact. While isolated moments like these may or may not be indicative of a larger pattern, they do raise doubts about both how science is represented throughout the book and the way it is used to support Lehrer’s claims.

If dubious interpretations of scientific data appeared only once in Imagine, it might be a worrisome fluke; but they appear multiple times, which is cause for real concern. Lehrer steps over the line again when connecting amphetamine use to creativity. He states that “Because the dopamine neurons in the midbrain are excited…the world is suddenly saturated with intensely interesting ideas.” Such definitive statements imply that neuroscience has already charted a causal course from neurotransmitter chemistry to a complex cognitive process — which simply isn’t true. That it should have come from a writer who so clearly has the ability to write about science critically and intelligently still comes as a bit of a surprise.

All writers who translate neuroscience for the general public today work under a tremendous pressure to provide easy answers. And it’s not just writers who feel this pressure. So do scientists. It’s possible that Imagine is reflecting the sometimes unsavory habits of scientists who are worried about getting the sort of results that will ensure the millions of dollars in funding necessary to continue their research and move forward in their scientific careers. These habits often bleed over into the way scientists relate their work to journalists. The researcher who had subjects draw the “before” and “after” horses was quoted in The New York Times as calling TMS “a creativity-amplifying machine.” This sort of comment implies a causal link that has not yet been scientifically established, and it can tempt journalists into overstatement. Nevertheless, it is the job of the science writer to represent science as it is, to report on the often ambiguous reality of the scientific process — not to suggest certainty where it does not exist, even if it may seem more appealing to readers.

Everyone is looking for answers. By understanding the brain, the thinking goes, we can better understand ourselves and therefore change — our habits, diets, workplaces — in order to be better, happier versions of ourselves. This promise fuels neuroscience’s great popular appeal. However, while today’s neuroscience offers a deeper understanding the brain than ever before, it is still incomplete. It is far from providing the answers, or advice, that readers might find most satisfying. In the introduction, Imagine promises to deliver “what creativity is…how creativity works” and how “we can make it work for us” by revealing different types of creativity at work in different regions of the brain. This promise defies the reality of current brain science: despite the incredible progress of the past century, scientists really know very little about how the organ works, and can only postulate how neural mechanisms might be related to mind and behavior. People are looking, too soon, to neuroscience for answers.

We need good translators of science to the general public, and Lehrer has the public’s ear and the public’s trust. He is at his best when putting his considerable talents to the task of telling a story that is true according to the facts as we know them, rather than telling a story people want to hear.

collaborated on this review. Requarth is an NIH National Research Service Award Fellow and doctoral candidate in neuroscience at Columbia University. His writing has appeared in Scientific American, Science Magazine, The Millions, and Current Opinion in Neurobiology, as well as the forthcoming book,The Where, The Why and The How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of the Universe(Chronicle Books). He co-directs NeuWrite (, a New York-based collaborative writing group of scientists and writers. Crist is Resident Writer in Biological Sciences at Columbia University. She is a contributor to The Believer, where she was reviews editor from 2005-2011, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as The Los Angeles Times, Lapham’s Quarterly, Triple Canopy, N+1BR, Ecotone, The Believer, Bookforum, Scientific American, and Science, as well as the forthcoming book, The Where, The Why and The How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of the Universe (Chronicle Books). She has taught creating writing at Colgate University and Columbia University, where she is a founding member of Neuwrite, a collaborative working group for scientists and writers. Awards and honors include the 2008-2009 Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship and residencies from The Blue Mountain Center, Ucross, MacDowell, and Yaddo. She is currently at work on a nonfiction book about traumatic brain injury.


  1. Great review article. Very smart and, if I can say it about a brain-book review, fun! Hope to see more from these great reviewers.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful and critical review. Just a few quick rejoinders. Firstly, you are “baffled” by my simultaneous critique of the iPhone insula paper and my own use of fMRI localization results in IMAGINE. Nothing baffling about it. I critiqued the insula result because the insula remains famously difficult to pin down, “lighting up” in more than 30 percent of all fMRI papers. (It also didn’t help that the iPhone insula paper was not peer-reviewed and appeared first in the Times.) The DLPFC, on the other hand, has a much more coherent literature and has been consistently associated with impulse control. (Patients suffering from brain lesions support the scanning results.) That’s why I felt comfortable echoing the assertions and interpretations of the scientists, who argue that the musicians were indeed inhibiting their inhibitions before engaging in improv. In short, I believe that there are many bad scanning papers, but that there are also plenty of well done studies. We shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

    Your review, in contrast, seems to suggest that all fMRI localization work is bunk, that one of the most popular techniques in neuroscience is a massive folly. Personally, I think my view better represents the scientific consensus. Many of these fMRI correlations tell us interesting things.

    As for dopamine and amphetamine…That is a very solid literature, amassed over decades and featuring thousands of papers. I actually think that is one causal link that is tough to quibble with. If you have contradictory data, please share.

    You also quibble with my speculation that human creativity is rather unique. Well, look around. We have remade this world of ours, for better or worse. We live fully surrounded by our own inventions. At the very least, this suggests that the human mind is doing something a little different than every other kind of mind.

    I end the book with an ode to the continuing mystery of the mind. I fully agree that neuroscience is a young science, full of ideas that will soon be discarded. But I also think it’s important to grapple with these empirical rough drafts, to explore their implications. As you note, I rely on many different sources, studies and streams of evidence in each chapter. No single fMRI paper or molecular study is dispositive, of course. But when a theme recurs, when different types of research converge on a similar concept, it deserves to be taken seriously, which is what I tried to do in this book.

  3. Jonah, would you point us toward the most influential of these amphetamine/creativity articles? I’m curious to what extent this literature acknowledges the repercussions of amphetamine use

  4. Thank you, Jonah, for reading our review and taking the time to respond. We’re happy to respond to these particular points, but the broader issue we were trying to raise is that there seems to be a pattern in this book of representing speculation too conclusively, which is problematic because this sort of unwarranted certainty makes for a better story.

    First, while the insula has, as you say, been implicated in a great number of brain functions and the DLPFC has been more consistently associated with impulse control, the DLPFC is also involved in other functions. As you say in Imagine, “… the DLPFC has many talents…” It may eventually turn out to be true that impulse control is related to musical improvisation, but it seems premature to make the leap from correlations in cerebral blood flow to arguing that musicians were inhibiting their inhibitions before improvising. It is possible that one of the DLPFC’s other “talents” is at play here, or that one of the many other regions the researchers observed being activated or deactivated is intimately involved in this creative process. The point we were trying to make, which is supported by the conjectural nature of this paper’s discussion section, is that any conclusions are speculative and to suggest otherwise is misleading.

    As for the broader point of fMRI research, we of course do not dismiss all localization studies, nor imply that in our review. And we were not comparing Lindstrom’s reckless use of an fMRI machine to peer-reviewed papers by actual scientists. But any fMRI localization study faces similar interpretation problems. You’re correct—there’s no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Unfortunately, we believe that studies such as this one you cite are too speculative to be taken as conclusively as even the scientists sometimes do. In other words, this fMRI study of jazz improvisation is fascinating and may lead to greater insight in the future, but its speculative conclusions fall into the category of bathwater.

    As for dopamine and amphetamines, we agree that there is a solid body of research that shows amphetamines affect dopamine activity in midbrain neurons. In fact, one of us (Tim), spent several months directly observing the physiological responses of midbrain dopamine neurons to drugs such as amphetamine in graduate school. But you’ll notice that our review doesn’t focus on amphetamines. The real problem we were trying to illuminate is the logical leap from dopaminergic activity—drug-induced or otherwise—to the extremely complex cognitive phenomenon of “finding the world intensely interesting.” Neuroscience can’t weigh in there, yet. It’s not even clear, scientifically, how we might define “intensely interesting.” (The commenter above, for example, seems to latch onto the idea that amphetamines and creativity are conclusively linked; this commenter doesn’t even question that link, which reveals that its speculative nature has still not been made clear, even by us.)

    Finally, we absolutely agree that “the human mind is doing something a little different than every other kind of mind,” but our argument was that this is a difference of degree, not kind. To say that creativity and ingenuity do not exist in the animal kingdom anywhere other than on the human branch of the evolutionary tree—that they arose “out of nowhere”—denies findings from the world of animal research and seems to deny the step-wise process of evolution while creating a false sense of drama.

    The book does, indeed, end by gesturing toward the continuing mystery of the mind and we applaud you for taking on the hugely difficult task of grappling with ideas in motion. We feel the book would have been stronger if this mystery had been more present, throughout, and if some of these ideas had been presented as speculation rather than accepted fact.

  5. Let me begin by saying I have not read Jonah’s book. But I have purchased it and it will get read, because he works hard at making science accessible to a wide public audience – no small task. So I will confine my comments to the arguments made in the review and postings – and if I have overlooked something in the book please correct me.

    Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that all psychologists enter into an unspoken vow that one day, in a paper, a book or an article, they will attempt to complete the sentence: “Humans are the only animal that…” He also notes that everyone that has ever made this statement usually lives to regret it, because it turns out not to be true. I believe that ending that sentence with “show creativity” is another one of those needless mistakes. Needless because it means nothing that we are special, and mistakes because it’s not the case, unless you define creativity so narrowly that it no longer makes a difference.

    All mammals play when they are young. I think there is no disagreement among behavioral psychologists that play is creative behavior. It may be that humans have worked out the luxury of maintaining playful behavior into adulthood (e.g., jazz improvisation), but that is simply an extension of an existing trait, nothing new. Certainly there is ample evidence for insightful behavior in non-human animals. Although the word “insightful” may seem deep, it is really just a demonstration of creative problem solving. Thus Wolfgang Koehler’s famous chimps who, without prior experience or training, had the insight to pile boxes on one another to obtain a banana placed out of their reach, showed creativity. Recently the same sort of insightful, creative behavior was shown in elephants by Diana Reiss, my wife, and her colleagues. But perhaps the most telling (because the most improbable) instance of creative behavior in animals comes from a little known paper from Karen Pryor in 1969 (I don’t fault Jonah for not knowing about this paper, published, I am guessing, more than a decade before he was born). In this paper Pryor, a dolphin trainer using Skinnerian operant conditioning principles – the most antithetical strategy to creative behavior – rewards dolphins whenever they do something novel. Within a few trials the dolphins have caught on to the game and are inventing all sorts of novel behaviors – for nothing more than a crummy piece of fish that they would get anyway.

    Finally I am always a bit suspicious of too easy answers. The inhibition of inhibition may indeed underlie creative behaviors like musical improvisation – but it could just as easily underlie unwanted behaviors like rape, murder and mayhem. Thus the real question is, why does it give rise to creativity in one instance and horribly anti-social behavior in another. And I think the honest answer is – we don’t know.

    The Karen Pryor paper citation is:

    The creative porpoise: training for novel behavior
    Karen W. Pryor, Richard Haag, and Joseph O’Reilly

    J Exp Anal Behav. 1969 July; 12(4): 653–661.
    doi: 10.1901/jeab.1969.12-653

  6. Thanks for confirming my suspicion that scientists are overreaching with a lot of the more recent claims to understanding how the brain is wired.


  7. As an admirer of both Mr. Lehrer and Ms. Pryor, I’m delighted to see them brought by Mr. Firestein into fruitful relation. In the years since she published that article on the creative capacities of spinner dolphins, Karen has inspired countless trainers of human and non-human animals to challenge the orthodoxy of human exceptionalism in practice, and at long last theory begins to catch up. The ironies attendant on Skinner’s having seeded all this interspecies improvisation may be superficial in the final analysis: he was careful to delimit the range of science in description of subjective experience, but he did not thereby seek to delimit the range of any animal’s adaptive, creative intelligence. (His work was perhaps most controversial for its intimation that humans are “merely” animals, subject to the same largely unconscious processes of conditioning.) I take heart from scientists like Mr. Requarth and Ms. Crist (and Ms. Reiss) who insist on all that we still have to learn about non-human minds.

    I think the reviewers are right to be rigorous in their assessment of whether Mr. Lehrer’s book delivers accurate news from the front (ahem), but I also think that the “sloppiness” of lay descriptions opens up a potentially creative space. One of the reasons I’ve admired Mr. Lehrer’s past work so much (and look forward to reading Imagine) is that he acknowledges that objective and subjective descriptions of the brain/mind may never be fully commensurate and further argues (most persuasively in Proust Was a Neuroscientist) that those of us who “research” subjective reality may have as much to contribute to the ongoing dialogue as do those on the respectably empirical side of the divide. His overeager speculations and metaphorical adventuring may further the discussion (whether or not an underactive DLPFC is to blame).

  8. In the literature on creativity a distinction is made between ordinary and extraordinary creativity- the kind of problem solving in everyday life versus the kind of creativity of say an Einstein, Picasso, Beethoven or Shakespeare- Lehrer in his book collapses this distinction, I think because of the democratic promises of the neurology and sociology girding his argument.
    The same may apply for the distinction between intelligence and creativity.
    Lehrer may indeed be justified in these moves; but no explicit argument is made- he shows rather than says you might say.
    I’d like the opinion of this article’s authors on these matters


  9. Hi Howard, thanks for the comment and the question. We agree that there is a difference, however you measure it, between everyday problem-solving, creating great works of art, and making conceptual breakthroughs in science. Indeed, Imagine shows through example that there are many forms of creativity, which won’t come as a surprise to most readers. The commonality the book suggests is that there may be shared neurological mechanisms underlying what seem to be disparate forms of creativity. For example, “insight” as Lehrer defines it seems to be useful both the poet and the inventor. This is, of course, still speculation.

    And we don’t mean to argue that speculation isn’t important in both science and science writing. It is a hugely important tool for wrestling with ideas—Darwin’s theory of evolution started as speculation and has proved an invaluable way to understand the natural world. That said, when it comes to pop science, speculation needs to be acknowledged for what it is so that readers are not misled. One day, we may be able to make definitive statements about different kinds of creativity and the relationship between creativity and intelligence. It’s just that when it comes to these ideas and the science behind them, we’re still in a messy, exciting phase of uncertainty.

  10. “If there are any truths in biology, one is that nothing arrives ‘out of nowhere.'”
    Love it.

    Both of you, this is fantastic!

    I’ll admit that I was secretly hoping for a bit more bite, but that’s probably because I have an undue dislike for the guy and his notoriety. The writing was very clear and your arguments were thoughtful and, yes, gentle. It was very professional.
    But it is clear from his hasty response that he took issue with the article, anyway.

    He definitely has a predisposition to get caught up in romantic stories melting science and art, which makes for necessary and fun speculation, but these should not pass for absolute fact. You’re right, he should understand his responsibility to present fact rather than “fantasy” when dabbling in the realm of popular science journalism, where a largely uninformed, but voracious audience lies in wait.
    (I find there exists a sect of people who treat the latest scientific findings-often a single paper- as dogma, turning it into this weird kind of new religion)

    Unfortunately, the scientific process is inherently boring and the results at the end of the day are still theories in progress . It is hard to write story with an inconclusive ending.

    In short, I vote you both do us all a service and promptly take over Mr. Lherer’s current columns.

    Very well done.

    Now I will promptly switch to disliking you for writing the unfinished article currently sitting on my hard drive.

  11. Strangely amusing watching the champions or rational conscious thought endeavoring to open the egg of creativity with their pipe-wrench of choice, having raked it’s reflection from their village pond. When will it occur to them that their methods are actually taking them AWAY from where they seek to go???

  12. I find this debate really fascinating – these are issues I struggle with everyday and love thinking about. In the end, though, I think we are going to have to agree to disagree about the specific examples you cite as problematic.

    Let’s take the relationship between impulse control and creative expression, especially as it relates to improv. If the only evidence for this link was a single fMRI study in which the DLPFC was deactivated, I think you’d have a better point. But as you know, that chapter also discusses frontotemporal dementia patients, developmental neuroscience (many scientists argue that the creativity of kids is linked to their still developing frontal lobes), the neuroscience of REM sleep, etc. In short, I find this breadth of convergent research compelling and think it has something interesting and important to tell us about a particular type of creativity and the link between inhibition control and spontaneous creativity. And that’s why I chose to describe both the data and the ensuing theorizing of scientists in the book. If merely describing the research and quoting the scientists is an example of “unwarranted certainty,” then so be it.

    The same goes for amphetamines. You quibble with my description of the phenomenology of the drug, arguing that it was wrong to link the neuropharmacology of benzedrine to a complex cognitive state. Here is what I was doing. You seem to agree that we have a very solid understanding of how amphetamines work in the brain, how they increase activity in midbrain dopamine neurons. There is also a very extensive literature, as I’m sure you know, on how these neurons project to prefrontal areas involved in the regulation of attention. And then there is the current use of the drugs: they are used to treat attention deficit disorders. You can contest my choice of language (“intensely interesting”) but I think it’s fairly clear that these drugs make it easier to pay attention, largely because they increase the valence of stimuli. I’m honestly not aware of a different model of how amphetamines work, or how else to explain their observed cognitive effects. If you know of a different model, please share.

    As for the uniqueness of humans…Of course, I never deny the playfulness of dolphins or the tool use of chimps. My sole point in the prologue was to point out that something about us is clearly different, that no other biological species lives in worlds of their own making. When you look at the creativity of human culture, there really is no biological precedent.

    Lastly, I’d just like to point out that I’m pretty sure nearly every popular book on the brain (written by both journalists and scientists) would fail the standards you preach above. I honestly can’t cite a popular brain book that either 1) doesn’t cite fMRI localization studies at face value at some point or 2) engage in speculative links between neural mechanisms and complex mental phenomena. For instance, I’m currently in the midst of Eric Kandel’s wonderful new book, which has many chapters on fMRI data combined with musings on aesthetics and beauty. Is this inappropriate?

    Scientific truth is messy. I’m proud of my articles that have attempted to document the ambiguity inherent in claims of empirical fact. (In fact, I’ve received plenty of criticism from scientists for these pieces.) But I stand by my descriptions of the science in Imagine.

    Regardless, I’m grateful for this discussion. These are important issues and they deserve to be widely discussed and fretted over.

  13. It was so refreshing to read comments given by both “sides” of an argument that were not spiteful or indignant. Thanks to all.

  14. If the creative superiority of humans is too obvious to need a defense (and I agree that it is), it’s also too obvious to mention. To say within an evolutionary context that “the human imagination has no clear precursors” is another kettle of fish (or porpoises); it is also demonstrably, empirically untrue. As Mr. Firestein notes, such a perspective is unfortunately common, and it has had a strong dampening effect on research into the behavioral and neurophysiological homologies that link creative processes across varied species, and within our own.

    In a description of one of Diana Reiss’ pachyderm subjects, one can make out the shadow of Bob Dylan: tantalized, frustrated, then struck by the bolt of “eureka!:

    “For several sessions, Kandula just stared at the hanging fruit, ignoring the stick as well as the cube that was nearby.

    ‘He did not attempt to use a tool to reach the food for seven 20-minute sessions on seven different days,’ Hunter College’s Reiss said.

    ‘And then he finally had what looked to be this sudden revelation, and he headed right over to the block, pushed it in a direct line right underneath the fruit, and stepped right up on it and got the food in one swift movement.'”

    It may not be “Like a Rolling Stone,” but it’s something.

  15. Jonah – Thank you, again, for taking the time to comment. It speaks volumes to your dedication to such discourse that you are engaging with the ideas in this review. We would love to see more people so willing to wrestle with these difficult and fascinating issues.

    Rather than take you up on the details of particular examples—we stand by our original assessment of Imagine’s representation of the DLPFC, amphetamines, and the evolution of human creativity—we’d like to address your last point. That every popular book on the brain would “fail the standards [we] preach above” does not make those standards any less valid. But we want to be clear: although we believe it is problematic that books “cite fMRI localization studies at face value,” or generally claim certainty where is does not yet exist, we have absolutely no objection to writers who “engage in speculative links between neural mechanisms and complex mental phenomena.” It is a matter of acknowledging the speculative nature of those links.

    You bring up a chapter in Eric Kandel’s new book (which we are excited to read) that features “fMRI data combined with musings on aesthetics and beauty.” The word “musings” grabs our attention because here lies the critical difference between overstatement and fidelity to science. Musing, a great generative force of world literature, science writing included, allows the writer to engage in reflection, meditation, and suggestion—in other words, to juxtapose any number of thoughts or fields or findings. We fully support such writing. However, writing that starts with a thesis, provides supporting evidence, and draws a conclusion, must be held to different standards. An endemic problem in popular science writing is that what should be musing is presented as argument. Such misrepresentation is a disservice to readers and, ultimately, to science, as it clouds public perception of how science actually works. We hope that writers and readers of science will continue to wrestle with questions of representation—pushing the boundaries of both literary forms and scientific literacy.

  16. I would remind all who read this review and discussion that Mortimer J. Adler wrote “The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes”, in 1967 (?) and concluded we are different in kind. Jonah Lehrer seems to agree, a great philosopher’s conclusions born out in current thought from scientific review. The real issue, not yet settled, is, as primates came down the pike, were the hominids leading the parade from which the apes and simians branched off, or did we simply descend from apes as Darwinism prefers. The size of the mental gap has enormous philosophic impliciations, as well as religious ones. As Richard Dawkins has noted, I paraphrase, the bigger the gap the more difficulty in being an atheist.

  17. Any effort to illuminate the mysteries of creativity and so-called “artistic behavior” is always enriching, but is ultimately of little use to any artist or musician involved in any rigorous creative activity. Once consumed by the daily slog of trying to get something done is decidedly very unromantic. That said, something is surely going on in my brain when I get the dopamine rush from seeing or hearing something happening in real time on the surface or coming out my instruments. Those are the times when I chalk it up to some ‘spiritual’ force taking control, and I wouldn’t want to over analyze it but just enjoy the journey.

  18. Hi,

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the article and the discussion and commentary that succeeded. It was most stimulating and thoroughly entertaining to observe 2 differing but well grounded intellectual perspectives on the trait of creativity.

    But back to the notion of fast and easy answers. I am in the field of developmental neurobiologisy whom is studying the visual system in primates and i apologies if my question sounds extremely ignorant. However would it be too myopic to assume Humans are the only animal that cook their own food?

  19. I’m curious as to whether and to what extent the book addresses language — is the claim that “[u]ntil very recently, many scientists thought language set us apart, but in the past ten years, researchers have observed precursors to human speech in primate vocalizations and striking similarities between how infants learn to speak and songbirds learn to sing” one from the book or is it an original claim by the authors here? I’d like to contest this — it is hardly agreed upon that these observed similarities are enough to abandon the notion that language sets humans apart from other animals. While I’m in general sympathetic to the notion that humans are “different in degree rather than kind”, I am sure that no sensible linguist would endorse the idea that animal communication systems differ from human language in only degree. It is a fact that no animal communication system is capable of the open-ended, unrestrained transmission of ideas that human language is.

    Mr. Lehrer says: “You also quibble with my speculation that human creativity is rather unique. Well, look around. We have remade this world of ours, for better or worse. We live fully surrounded by our own inventions. At the very least, this suggests that the human mind is doing something a little different than every other kind of mind.” Agreed, but that something different must at least in part be language. That’s not to say that there aren’t other aspects of the human mind that are distinguishable from other animals’, but language has got to be part of the mix. If some creature has a bright idea that can improve its life and the lives of others around it, the idea will die with it if it can’t communicate it to others. It’s not hard to see that the ability to accumulate knowledge from generation to generation is important to (nearly) all the things that we think set us apart: agriculture, skyscrapers, etc. And key to that is language.

    This isn’t to detract from any of the other points made here or from the book — nor is it to say that language is the only interesting human mental faculty worth talking about; I realize that the language bit was probably a throwaway point by the authors, but I just wanted to throw in my two cents on that issue.

  20. Any argument that relies heavily on how obvious it is that this or that quality distinguishes humans from other animals is a priori troubled and weak. I would further suggest that this need to see ourselves as somehow elevated over other forms of life leads to a limited understanding of what is human by closing down the area of inspection to a small box. Let me make a reductio ad absurdum argument: It’s clear that pedantry is a uniquely human quality. We don’t see it anywhere else in the animal kingdom, so that means it is essential to understanding our very natures… All of this was satirized rather effectively in “Colloquium Defines What Is Human.” I won’t put a link here, but you can google it.

  21. Thanks for a great review and, even better, a respectful dialogue with Dr Lehrer. I felt Jonah overstated the neuroscientific basis of creativity in ‘Proust was Neuroscientist’. You could equally say Proust was a philosopher, or a psychologist. But he wasn’t. He was a novellist. I find Jonah’s grasp of neuroscience, and his ability to apply that in writing quite dazzling. (Does the title ‘Imagine’ owe something to Lennon?). Perhaps sometime there will be a book called “Lehrer was a novellist”.

  22. Tim & Meehan,
    When I interviewed you last summer for The Millions, I sensed that you were on your way to doing some sparkling work, and this essay (among others) proves me right. As you put it, “All writers who translate neuroscience for the general public today work under a tremendous pressure to provide easy answers.” By so insightfully celebrating and questioning Lehrer’s fine book, you have overcome that pressure. Bravo. Keep ’em coming.

  23. Let the really creative people speak up:

    “Creativity is a bad word. Unfortunately, we must leave it in
    the books because the people in power believe in it with sanc-
    timonious credulity. It is a dangerous and misleading word.

    …We recently sponsored a conference on creativity at Los

    …Look at the list of participants. It raises your eyebrows. You
    cannot bunch together creativity in one field and creativity in an-
    other. It’s like matching producers of shoes with producers of meat
    loaf, because they’re both producers. It is an error of logic.

    “A friend of mine, a well-known painter, was looking at a copy of a painting by
    Velazquez. I watched her reactions. She started by saying, “How funny, this stroke is going down! Normally, we brush this way, but he brushed it that way.” Then, “This is a combination of colors I’ve never seen,” and so on. She said nothing about Velazquez’s creativity. It is demoralizing to children to hold up Einstein or Beethoven as examples of creativity to be imitated. The idea of
    genius, elaborated by German romantics, is destructive: it is a flight into fantasy. There is reason to believe we’ve killed classical music because of that idea. People think that they will be either geniuses like Beethoven or nothing, But look at the Baroque Age-there were hundreds of’little Italians who wrote good music and didn’t give a hoot about being creative.”

    —From “Mathematics, Philosophy and Artificial Intelligence”

  24. It is refreshing to read voices willing to explore Jonah Lehrer’s work critically, rather than simply kowtowing to him. It’s not that I think his works are terrible (they’re provocative and stimulating), but adulation seems to be the all-too-common response to his books. That’s a shame since no scholar’s work is perfect, but it’s even more so in Lehrer’s case since he himself has consistently maintained that good decision making and creativity only thrive in critically discursive environments.

    So I’m grateful for this review and the discussion it has sparked, and especially the contributions by the author under review.

    I am an interdisciplinary junkie by nature, but I am not a scientist. I am an art historian. I am considering writing at (reasonable!) length about the ways in which Lehrer’s book addresses ideas that are important to my own discipline.

    But before I bother, I want to know if people in this forum — including you, Jonah — are interested in knowing what a published art historian of the Renaissance, one who specializes in artistic practice and memory, thinks of the book.

    I’ll post if people are. Thanks in advance for your candor.

  25. I agree that creativity thrives due to critical discourse, but I also believe that unnecessary nitpicking can serve to stifle creativity. Those mired in the status quo are less likely to express divergent opinions. This is clearly not the case here, but it’s certainly reflective in public discourse.

    People who care too much about these types of reviews, for example, often stop writing, simply rehash information that’s already well-accepted, or refuse to make inferences.

    This can also lead to terribly bad writing about good science, with overly hesitant writers who form sentences such as “There is a distinct possibility that this study might suggest that an inference may possibly be made which could lead one to assume that this could be the case.” I’m exaggerating, but as the editor of a health and fitness journal, I spend countless hours poring over overly passive writing and adapting it to something readable and usable to our audience (which isn’t even a lay audience by any means), and I blame academia.

    (I also wonder how often critical or controversial reviews serve to simply ride on the publicity of others, but that’s another story.)

    Having said that, I’m interested in your perspective on the book, and how it ties into art history. I have been reading it in the context of elite athletics, and drawing a lot of connections that were perhaps unintentional on Lehrer’s part, but that’s what good science does–it refuses to be neatly confined to any one disciple. In fact that is where I think the author really shines.

  26. Forgive me for taking so long to respond, Yael, and thanks for your taking up my call. Before I comment on the book, I want to respond to your own insights, if I may.

    I would argue that the kind of bad writing you describe is not a signal of stifled creativity, but timidity born out of incomplete or (dare I say it?) bad research. But, yes, overly critical environments can stifle confidence, prevent one from “inhibiting one’s inhibitions,” and stunt creativity, too. The key, of course, is to strike a balance. Critical discourse enables the refinement of one’s ideas.

    I like Lehrer’s book, but it only confirms much of what the people in my field know about creativity. From a Renaissance art historian’s point of view, many historical examples make his observations, critque, and prescriptions on the topic of making seem like old news.

    I should say first that we’re misguided if we think of Renaissance artists as insular geniuses. That’s a rarer scenario than the workshop or “school” environment wherein the master surrounded himself with talent in order to execute monumental commissions. Raphael, Dürer, and later Rubens and Bernini, were master collaborators. There’s even plenty of documentation to indicate that Michelangelo was a fastidious workshop master who was adept at marshaling the talents of others to achieve his goal.

    Moreover, the notebooks and sketchbooks of most Renaissance artists often contain multiple hands on single sheets, not just the sketches and ideas of one artist. They are examples of group think, where artists drew “with the lion’s claw,” quickly, in order to visualize this or that idea before honing in on one that will most effectively accommodate patron, audience, site and material limitations, and their own talents.

    Such a creative process contains so much cross talk, so much intertextuality, that it contains far more than the linearity in the creativity that Lehrer outlines as a “eureka” moment of genesis followed by the “grit” required to see the idea through to its completion. In many instances, it’s clear that the arrival at the eureka moment itself required grit. The completion phase unfolded in many overlapping and interrelated phase that required not only grit, but several more eureka moments of creative genesis. Also, today’s bad idea could become tomorrow’s or next year’s or even the next quarter century’s useful idea. We find artists going back to notebooks from twenty or thirty years prior, and using previously abandoned ideas. There’s no evidence to suggest that all of these moments result from inhibiting one’s inhibitions, either. In other words, the creative detritus of the old masters (major and minor) suggests that in practice, the creative process contains no clearly perceived distinction between genesis and finish than what Lehrer.

    I also think Lehrer has missed the boat on memory. Earlier thinkers from antiquity to Vico saw imagination as a form of memory. Renaissance artists saw their own creativity as dependent upon their capacity to remember a stock of knowledge, motifs, visual languages, and reassemble them in new ways. They also saw the works they made as reminders, commemorations, even mnemonic prompts to call up the very knowledge that they themselves had to bring to bear in their own creative process. We now live in era when memory is ubiquitous (and by the way, sketchbooks then functioned the same way hard drives do now: as repositories of knowledge). It’s thus surprising to see no sustained discussion of memory’s role in the creative process in a book on creativity.

    Finally, I hate to sound like a Romantic, but I came away from “Imagine” doubting that the hard sciences, let alone pop literature like this, could ever encompass creativity in a way that could make us more creative, as Lehrer suggests of his own book’s mission. The art historian in me is uneasy with what I find as the book’s main subtextual implications, which are at cross purposes with one another: on the one hand, the book correctly presents creativity as elusive, multiplicitous, difficult to achieve. On the other, however, it also suggests in many ways that Lehrer holds the key to harnessing creativity in order to become more creative. There is something in this latter notion that I find hubristic.

    Sorry to have gone on and one and on…thanks for reading. Jonah, if you’ve read this, please correct any of the ways in which I’ve misrepresented your argument. I’ve tried my best to be fair.

  27. Oops. The sentence that ends paragraph 6 currently reads:

    “…the creative process contains no clearly perceived distinction between genesis and finish than what Lehrer.”

    But it should read:

    “…the creative process contains no clearly perceived distinction between genesis and finish.”

    That last phrase is the detritus (speaking of) an earlier revision. Sorry for any confusion.

  28. While I acknowledge that some bad writing may be born out of bad research, I wouldn’t necessarily agree that using overtly passive language means one doesn’t have confidence in their own citation. The examples I had in mind are of people who have something to say but are afraid of saying it, despite their own extensive research.

    I personally would rather read the writings of someone making an educated guess which turns out to be incorrect than muddle my way through overly apologetic and all-too-speculative “writing.”

    I also think it’s far too easy to be overtly dismissive. I was at a dinner party recently when the subject of evolutionary biology came up, and I brought up a book I’d read recently by Richard Wrangham. I was informed by some people in attendance who had never even picked up the book that it was all pop science and every one of the citations was based on faulty studies. That is not the type of environment in which people learn from one another–it’s the type of reaction in which people no longer wish to speak. I have always been drawn to writing which relies on solid science but is written courageously by someone willing to take that leap.

    It’s good to know that art historians are familiar with many of the concepts in the book. I would argue that this is certainly not the case in many other fields…including many aspects of both the public school system and corporate America.

    I came away from reading the book with newfound ideas for dealing with creative problems and the qualitative differences between the *types* of problems that arise, as well as a better understanding of why I may have been drawn towards certain solutions. And I left with as many questions as I had answers, which is another reason why I find Lehrer’s work so compelling…it leaves so much room for future development in the field, without needlessly crushing those sparks of speculation that naturally arise…

  29. Hi Yael, We are of like mind regarding timid language. It can have many causes.

    I would venture that most art historians are not aware of Lehrer’s work on creativity. But I do wish he was more aware of our findings when he wrote his book. My point is that it’s a rich body of work that would have provided some support for some of his points, and perhaps would have prompted a refinement of others.

    I agree that it’s too easy to be dismissive. It stifles conversation.

    I’m in the process of putting the finishing touches on my own first book (which “ain’t gonna write itself” if I continue to comment here at length!). Recently, a wizened scholar friend advised: “Stop being such a perfectionist. You don’t want to have the final word on the subject; your work will just sit there. Nobody will talk about it. Do the best you can with it, but don’t over determine it. Get it out, and spark discussion. It’s better for the field.”

    She’s right.

    We both left Lehrer’s book with as many questions as answers. That’s a good thing.

  30. hi, Arthur–

    I, too, am drowning in a sea of deadlines, and yet I keep getting drawn back to this discussion. :)

    As far as memory, though, if I recall correctly (no pun intended!), Lehrer discussed the fallibility of memory in his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist. I actually gave my copy away, so I can’t double check, but I think it had to do with the structure of a memory changing over time… so the conclusions may be different than what you’re looking for.

    The aspects of art and creativity I’m personally most interested in reading about or exploring have to do with the relationship between the artist and his work or the artist and his audience. I’m also interested in art and visual perception, and in learning how to look more closely at art. I’m not sure I’d pick out memory as something which is absolutely crucial to the understanding of creativity in visual art, though I’m certainly far from an expert.

    I read an excellent book once called How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, and it may be of interest. Of course, you might hate it. The history was weak and the reproductions of artwork were poor at best, but I found the exercises quite valuable.

    Best of luck on your book!

  31. I read Jonah’s book, R&C’s reviews and the subsequent discussion. For me, the most crucial part of the R&C review was the figure from the Snyder et al paper, and the subsequent conclusion that there seems to be no effect of TMS on the quality of the drawings. I have not seen the actual paper but prima facie, the drawings seem to support R&C’s conclusion. What is Jonah’s comment on that?

  32. Just to add, Mr. Lehrer’s criticism of brainstorming and Alex Osborn (the creator of it) was inaccurate. He points out that Osborn, via brainstorming, only advocates generating idea quantity without being editing & criticizing the ideas. He implies that brainstorming is a purely divergent process in this regard. However, brainstorming is just one element of Osborn’s creative problem solving (CPS) process. In a nutshell, Osborn asserts that after the exercise of generating unfiltered ideas, then they have to be analyzed & criticized based on their merits. Lehrer then quotes a research that have proven brainstorming’s ineffectiveness. However, there are dozens of research done on CPS that proves it is one of the most effective creativity & innovation framework there is.

  33. Thanks for this post. I saw Lehrer speak, using the ideas from “Imagine” as the basis for his talk. And I also thought he was disingenuous on the topic of brainstorming. He misrepresented the practice by calling it “touchy feely” and a “feelgood moment” when there are “no bad ideas in the room,” as if the practice was devoid of critical thought, the discursive equivalent to giving every kid a trophy, regardless of performance, just for showing up.

    Of course, that’s not how brainstorming works as it was originally conceived. Anybody who has participated in thorough brainstorming sessions knows that the uncritical phase, when people are allowed to think freely and propose ideas without fear of criticism, is only the first part of a multi-phased process. In subsequent phases, critical thought is crucial for honing in on good options.

    I found that particular instance of revisionism by Lehrer — wherein he somewhat aggressively mocked brainstorming (it wasn’t even subtle) while misrepresenting it — more than a little disturbing.

  34. When I posted on July 30th, I was unaware that there was any controversy involving Jonah.

    Clearly, as my comments suggest, I am critical of “Imagine,” and don’t agree with everything I’ve ever heard him say, but these are quibbles compared to the stimulation I’ve received from reading his books and hearing him talks.

    I don’t think this controversy compromises what’s at the core of his ideas, and good about his work. I hope he’s still able to publish in the future.

  35. Pingback: Lögnare
  36. @Lögnare: If I’m translating your comment correctly, you are stating, unequivocally, that Lehrer fabricated Dylan quotes because he is on drugs, and the proof of his drug problem is his interest in Dylan.

    Am I correct?

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