Neurotrash creativity 'expert' created Dylan quotes from thin air

Journo and author resigns, book pulped. Imagine that

Magnetoencephalogram (MEG) scanner in action

A self-appointed expert who used brain scans to "demystify" human creativity has admitted he was overly creative in his "journalism". Jonah Lehrer confessed that he made-up quotes he had attributed to Bob Dylan, and has quit his job at the New Yorker magazine.

Journalist and author Lehrer is a kind of cut-price Malcolm Gladwell, diving into junk pop science and pulling out profound biology-based "knowledge". This is a proven path onto the lucrative corporate keynote circuit - a trail blazed by the master himself.

Lehrer's trick was to focus on the burgeoning field of fMRI scans - yes, the medical tech that scans brains - to "explain" our ability to be creative in terms of biological processes, dismissing age-old psychological or philosophical challenges with Forrest Gump aphorisms.

Of course, the relatively crude scanners employed by neuroscientists can do no such thing as "explain" creativity, but these are desperate times, and commissioning editors and policy wonks greet each new claim with slack-jawed wonder. They can't get enough.

For example, check out this Lehrer profile in the Observer newspaper, where the neuroscience major is lauded as "the prodigy who lights up the brain - to get a flavour". Or this rickety busload of metaphors, courtesy of the Royal Society of Arts.

As we saw with sociobiology – the debunked field which posits that social behaviour is a result of evolution – the "discoveries" of neurobiologists are often nothing more than a blank canvas upon which people project their favourite prejudices. The MRI scanners merely give them a coating of scientific credibility. With good reason, these claims to authority are called "neuro-phrenology", or more elegantly, "neurotrash".

Magnetoencephalogram (MEG) scanner in action

A reader of Lehrer's work immediately checks into a brain scan appointment

Lehrer's particular twist was to explain how human "creativity" really, really, really works, by explaining that it isn't really there at all. As Stephen Poole pointed out in this memorable review of Imagine: How Creativity Works in the Guardian newspaper, it's:

[A] philistine notion much propagated by today's anti-copyright fanatics among others, that all artistic creation is nothing but (and thus reducible to) a mashing-up or remixing of existing artworks, so that Dylan writing a song is no different from a child on YouTube playing two grimecore tracks simultaneously.

In the neurotrash view of humanity, we're imitative creatures, able to do little more than copy. Lehrer had already been dinged for that. San Francisco writer and sleuth Ed Champion had already noticed that Lehrer's New Yorker blog consisted of huge amounts of material he'd already written for WiReD.

We've already seen plagiarists use the excuse that Poole pinpoints. Here is the tale of an author who justified wholesale plagiarism because, she explained, "there's no such thing as originality".

Lehrer's terminal error was to fabricate quotes and attribute to them to Bob Dylan. This was unwise, as Dylan says very little in public and his fans tend to remember every word. In time, this was noticed by a self-confessed Dylan fan at Tablet magazine, Michael C Moynihan. Lehrer then got even more creative, telling the Dylanologist that he'd been given access to unseen footage of a Dylan documentary, and a 1995 radio interview. He repeated the fictions to his employer, the New Yorker.

On resigning from the magazine, Lehrer admitted that:

"The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes." The publisher of Imagine is to recall unsold copies of the book and suspend ebook sales.

Perhaps, as Lehrer might once've claimed in one of his pop-science pieces, he wasn't really "in charge of his decision-making", and it was his neuro-circuitry that made the decision for him. That would be entirely consistent with the field. ®

Sponsored: Today’s most dangerous security threats