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How creative people cultivate eureka moments

What makes the light bulb of creativity go off over someone’s head? What is the catalyst for groundbreaking inventions and innovative breakthroughs? In his illuminating new book, journalist Jonah Lehrer explicates some classic case studies.

• The Nike slogan “Just Do It” materialized when Dan Wieden of the ad agency Wieden & Kennedy thought of the last words uttered by the murderer Gary Gilmore before his execution – “Let’s do it” – and gave them a tweak.

• The idea for Post-it Notes came about when Arthur Fry, an engineer at 3M, was daydreaming in church, thinking how annoying it was that the bookmarks in his hymnal fell out. He remembered a colleague’s talk about a glue he’d developed: a paste so feeble it could barely hold two pieces of paper together.

• The Barbie doll was reportedly born when Ruth Handler, a founder of Mattel, was on vacation in Switzerland and saw an unusual doll in a cigarette shop: The doll was a well-endowed young woman with platinum blond hair.

In recounting the stories, Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired, proves an engaging guide to the mysteries of the imagination and the science of innovation.

Like Malcolm Gladwell (“The Tipping Point”) and Joshua Foer (“Moonwalking With Einstein”), Lehrer takes scientific concepts and makes them accessible while dispensing insights that verge on self-improvement tips. With these suggestions, his book implies, you too might be able to maximize your creative output.

The book’s breezy methodology makes for some problems – it’s often difficult to tell how representative a study cited by the author might be – but Lehrer largely avoids the generalizations that undermined Gladwell’s “Outliers.”

Much as he did in his books “How We Decide” and “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” Lehrer shows how adept he is at teasing out the social and economic implications of scientific theories while commuting easily among the realms of science, business and art.

The 18th-century philosopher David Hume, Lehrer notes, argued that invention was often an act of compounding an idea or transposing it from one field to another:

“Johannes Gutenberg transformed his knowledge of wine presses into an idea for a printing machine capable of mass-producing words. The Wright brothers used their knowledge of bicycle manufacturing to invent the airplane. George de Mestral came up with Velcro after noticing burrs clinging to the fur of his dog. And Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed the search algorithm behind Google by applying the ranking method used for academic articles to the sprawl of the World Wide Web; a hyperlink was like a citation.”

In each case, Lehrer points out, “the radical concept was merely a new mixture of old ideas.”

In other words, Lehrer says: “Chemists didn’t solve chemistry problems, they solved molecular biology problems, just as molecular biologists solved chemistry problems. While these people were close enough to understand the challenges, they weren’t so close that their knowledge held them back and caused them to run into the same stumbling blocks as the corporate scientists.”

Being able to step back and view things as an outsider, or from a slightly different angle, seems to promote creativity, Lehrer says. This is why travel frequently seems to free the imagination, and why the young (who haven’t learned rules) are often more innovative.

Lehrer turns from analysis and reportage to prescription. The jostle and serendipity of city life, he believes, can provide a model for how the Internet might be retooled to accelerate creativity.

“We must engage with strangers and strange ideas,” he writes. “The Internet has such creative potential; it’s so ripe with weirdness and originality, so full of people eager to share their work and ideas. What we need now is a virtual world that brings us together for real.”