I discovered Jonah Lehrer in 2008 as I was browsing around the internet looking for interesting, accessible blogs about the brain for non-brain-people. Back then, Lehrer’s blog was hosted on a relatively obscure (given where he ended up) blog sharing site called Science Blogs, but regardless of where he was, it had the same name as the subsequent, heavily-trafficked blogs he moved to afterward:The Frontal Cortex. The frontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for most of our higher functions. It is a noble place, and Lehrer wrote about a lot of noble and exciting and human things. I was fascinated with Lehrer and his writing, the way he was so genuinely enthusiastic about the brain, the quirks of it, the peculiar, exciting things that it did and didn’t do. As an English and Psychology major in college who quickly (thought he) abandoned both in favor of theatre (though, in hindsight, it seems I’ve actually managed to find a way to perfectly mash them together into what I do on most days), I found the accessibility of Lehrer, his patience in explaining complicated processes, his seemingly overwhelming volume of writing, his grasp of anecdote and story, extremely gratifying and pleasant to read.
When I discovered he was my age and had written a book and was a frequent guest on Radiolab, one of my favorite radio shows, and was a much-sought-after speaker—and did I mention he was my age—Lehrer officially became my idol and model. Perhaps even more than his rising success, he became someone for me to emulate because of his dual respect for science and creativity, and his oft-evident belief that the two are linked, inexplicably, one driving the other, one explaining the other, both absolutely necessary to the functioning of society. As someone who spent a lot of his time (especially in 2009 and beyond) attempting mightily to strengthen the link between science and creativity—as someone who increasingly devises experiments and research and conversations the express purpose of which is to measure assumptions about the power of art using scientific means—finding a kindred spirit who chronicled the thorny, convoluted, but always-there relationship between art and science with such eloquence and frequency was truly energizing.
I heard Lehrer speak at a conference in San Francisco put on with Wallace Foundation money in 2010 and felt like a fantastic insider. As people were questioning who this young, tiny, dorky guy on stage was, I was sitting in the back, self-satisfied at having found him first. It was Lehrer who sparked my interest in the mirror neurons in the brain, which I’ve written about here, and their demonstration of the physical response to communications and, perhaps, art. It was Lehrer who reminded me of what it really means to suspend disbelief, which is to say to lie to yourself, and why that skill, just like a lot of other brain skills including memory and language acquisition, improve over time and with repetition. It was Lehrer who re-introduced me to “flashbulb memories,” the concept that in the right circumstances you can store away an incredible amount of detail about an event, much more than you ever would normally–which I have carried with me as I have wandered through the forest of art and impact and memory-making. It was Lehrer whose frequent writing on the way memory works, most notably in his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, has inspired and continues to inspire my investigations into how we as artists can affect memories as they are made, make them stickier, and therefore impact people more. It was Lehrer whose discussion of belief revolutionized my thinking about art and what we can do in a dark room. In a real and true way, Jonah Lehrer is responsible for some of the best ideas I have ever had.
Which is why I’m in a sort of mourning now, because my idol has fallen, and fallen stupidly and with great hubris.
Let me put out there right now that I don’t care at all about the charges from earlier this year that Lehrer “self-plagiarized.” Lehrer comes from the blogosphere, much as he’s now considered a “writer” and “journalist,” and much of what he did over time was visit and revisit ideas, fine-tuning conversations, making variations on the same point, fleshing out a picture. As someone who writes and blogs all over the place (with much less frequency and lower recognition, I admit), I must say I frequently revisit ideas. I am, right now, obsessing, repeatedly and in a variety of places, about the concept of “participation” in a presentational medium and, separately (at least for now) about the concept of mediating the artistic experience. I write about them a lot, and often the writing takes the same or similar forms. With all that, I can’t blame Lehrer for reusing his writing, and I’m not even sure I feel like he really needed to acknowledge where it came from in the first place—who, honestly, feels so put out at having read the same paragraph twice?
But I do care, and care deeply, about the scandal that is going to rip Lehrer down—that has already cost him his cushy job at the New Yorker, that has already halted sales of his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. I care very deeply about the fact that Lehrer fabricated quotes. From Bob Dylan. Who is still alive, and about whom people obsess. I care very deeply that those fabricated quotes added almost nothing to the parts of the story he was telling that, it sounds like were true—that he fabricated them as artifice, not thesis (not that fabricating them as thesis would have been any better, but I could perhaps have understood in it the desperation).
I find myself mourning this loss in a way that makes me feel silly. And when I examine the mourning, I realize that it’s not just about me losing a personal idol. Jonah Lehrer, both before and after the publication of his latest book, which is all about the creative process and the elevated place that creativity deserves in our society, was a strong and articulate proponent of the power of art and creativity in society. By relying on scientific findings, by pulling difficult, jargony papers into the mainstream with patient and enthusiastic explanation, by placing the role of the creativity in the functioning of the brain, and both the brain and creativity at the center of what makes us human, Lehrer in ways large and small was an ally to the arts field. Whether he meant to or not, he fought against the marginalization of what we do by attempting over and over to explain the particular work that our work was doing. And more than that, particulars aside (as I don’t pretend to know what other quotes he might have fabricated), he told true stories, valuable stories, stories based in a tremendous amount of reading and research, built out of data and embroidered with stories and anecdotes. Imagine is a formidable book, a book that at its core tackles the same questions our research into intrinsic impact is trying to tackle—what is creativity? How does it happen? How does it work? What does it do to us, as makers, as consumers? In the same way that he previously tackled memory through the creative lens, Lehrer has created in Imagine a book, which had sold more than 200,000 copies at last count, that placed front and center the secrets of what we do in this field, and for the world.
And now, because he needed to tack on a few emphatic quotes, because he needed to not let the words of one of the great poets of our time sit as they were, that book has been pulled from shelves, removed from e-book stores, and its author shunned.
In November 2006, before I started reading Jonah Lehrer, he wrote a blog post called “Deception.” Here it is, in its entirety:
Abraham Lincoln summarizes the election:
“You may deceive all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time.”
That, right there, is the genius of the democracy.
It is also, Jonah, the downfall of a person who allowed foolishness and unnecessary embroidery get in the way of good, strong arguments. I do not have many idols, and now I have one fewer, and for that I am sad.Related