USING OUR IMAGINATION: CHILDISH FANTASY OR ADULT SUPERPOWER?
Hillary Clinton was infamously ridiculed for ‘talking with ghosts’ and ‘communing with the dead’, as she sought advice during imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet many of those same critics – mainly from the Christian right, of course – saw it as only natural that George W. Bush consulted with God before launching the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. While some might choose to invoke a supernatural explanation for Clinton’s or Bushes mind-expanding adventures (with the charity of the interpretation probably driven more by political affiliation than anything else), there is a much more straightforward, and ultimately more empowering, explanation – the use of the imagination.
Why more empowering?
Because once we embrace our imagination as a natural and astonishingly powerful tool or instrument that can be cultivated and developed, we can leverage it for ourselves, rather than believe it is the property of a select few, a mystical revelation or something best left behind in childhood. By leveraging our imagination, we enter worlds and possibilities where we haven’t been before. We begin to tame fire.
Yes. Imagination really is that powerful. Look at any of the great change makers, innovators and visionaries (as well as the despots) of history and the ability to imagine something different will be there right at the top of the list.
Indeed, given the scale of the challenges we face today, imagining new possibilities has arguably never been more important. In its absence, it is hard to see how we are going to be able to navigate the challenges of issues such as climate change and technological development (not just AI), when we seem unable to address even our current problems, such as mind-bending levels of inequality in the world or threats to pluralism.
So how can we use our imagination more effectively, whether we are seeking to fight climate change, write better code, overcome our fear of public speaking or promote cleaner business practices? Or even just have more fulfilling lives on a personal level?
To answer that, let’s take a brief detour to look at what imagination is and why it is so powerful.
There is a vast spectrum of imagination, ranging from imagining how dinner will taste tonight through to Einstein seeing himself travelling so fast as to catch up with a beam of light. The first type might lead you to add something to your shopping list, whereas the second ultimately contributed to the theory of special relativity. Of course, to make imagination useful, you still need to go shopping and Einstein, who got to call his use of the imagination ‘thought-experiments’, still had to do the maths (E = mc²). So, it is not a question of using either childish imagination (imagining new foods or travelling through space) or adult “expertise and skills” (cooking or theoretical physics). The real magic – the innovation, the creativity – comes when (childish) imagination and (adult) domain expertise are combined.
But despite the differences between food halls and fundamental physics, the different types of imagination have a key element in common; namely, using imagined sensory input to open up new possibilities for action.
Merriam-Webster defines imagination as “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality”. (Note: Don’t just think of a ‘mental image’ as a picture, but rather a 5D experimental movie also incorporating the sensory inputs of touch, smell, taste and sound).
But, as research in neuroscience repeatedly shows, the brain uses similar circuits whether the sensory stimulus comes from outside (absorbing light on your retina/ seeing) or from the inside (imagining). Indeed, many neuroscientists argue that all perceptions of the outside world are ultimately created, inferred or produced by our brains (Predictive Processing) and are essentially ‘controlled hallucinations’. Thus, just as a smell from walking past a restaurant will lead to molecules hitting your olfactory receptors and might provoke fond childhood memories of grandma’s cooking, ‘seeing’ Elenanor Roosevelt might stimulate your ability to come up with new policy options.
Why? Because as far as your biological brain is concerned, all input, regardless of source, is ultimately in the unified language of the brain (let’s call it Brainwanese), i.e., electrical spikes in neurons. Not ‘just’ neurons in a dry, reductionist sense. Rather, in the breathtaking and awe-inspiring sense of the brain as the most complex object in the known universe: nearly 100 billion neurons made from wet organic matter working and wiring together through electro-chemical signals in trillions upon trillions of astoundingly complex and beautiful networks and connections to produce your perception and ability to act in the world.
This is not to say that your brain cannot in any way tell the difference between imagination and reality, but rather to point out that the distinction is not nearly as clear as we like to think.
As new and different sensory information comes in, so the configuration of the circuits and connections changes to take account of this data in the brain’s automatic and subconscious attempt to make sense of the world. (What’s going on here? Is it a threat? How does this new data connect to other things I know about the world? etc.). In doing so, new maps and pathways get created. And if this data (sensory input) is surprising or unusual enough (e.g., a conversation with Elenanor Roosevelt) and you are prepared to take your foot off the rational, adult brake on your imagination for a while, then your existing knowledge, information and experience can be rearranged. You are literally making new connections between different parts of your knowledge and experience bank. New configurations can pop out. And that, of course, is what creativity and innovation is all about.
Again, just to re-emphasise, it does not mean that what you imagine is true in the external/ factual/ objective sense or that you should just blindly follow intuition. Indeed, conflating imaginary George Bush-style conversations with God with believing that you are actually getting a divine revelation to wage war leads to disastrous results; in this case the effects of which continue to reverberate around the world today.
So if you believe that the products of your flights of fancy are somehow “true” then, yes, it is unsurprising that so many people are scared of allowing their imagination free-reign as they desperately try to maintain a firm grip on reality. But if you see your imagination as just that – your imagination – then you are free to imagine whatever you want to imagine. The key is not to try to censor or evaluate results during flights of imagination, where the aim is to open up surprising and unexpected new possibilities (divergent thinking) rather than shut them down. Rather, to leave the evaluation and selection until afterwards, when you are are engaging your more rational and domain-knowledge expertise (convergent thinking).
Of course, it is an iterative and on-going process. But if you censor either the power of imagination or domain expertise at the expense of the other, then everything will stay more or less the same, i.e., fantasy or rigidity. Combine the two and (what seems like) magic can happen.
Does all this sound abstract? Well, it shouldn’t because combining knowledge with imagination can lead to anything from more creative coding to inspiring the kind of political leadership the world needs. And everything in between. Used rightly, nothing could be more practical. Because if we can’t even really imagine the possibility of something different, it’s hard to know where our energy and drive will come from to get out of bed in the morning, step up and make a change in the world.
There are numerous different ways to leverage our imagination, but here I concentrate on two which I have used with people many times. These aren’t standard ‘creative thinking tools’. Rather, they rely on throwing a creative-spanner in the works of normal thinking and, in doing so, help your brain to reorganise your existing information, knowledge and experience. In other words, they make latent knowledge (you already have all the information ingredients within your brain) spring to life and become potentially useful.
Since the two exercises below are a little more complex than the usual ‘brain-hacks’, a recording is included to guide you through the process so that you can become absorbed in the imagination rather than have to remember the steps. Both are best done with eyes closed and without distractions, since the point is to shut off external stimuli.
The first exercise – Walking The Plank – demonstrates how our imagination can fundamentally frame our perceived options for action.
The second exercise – Your Own 24/7 Advisor – shows how our imagination can allow us to make new connections from within our existing knowledge and experience.
Both can be played with or modified in numerous different ways. The important thing is to understand and use the general principles.
WALKING THE PLANK
As said, there is also a recording below, since it might be easier to follow than trying to remember the steps.
- Sitting or lying down, close your eyes and allow yourself to switch off from external disturbances a little.
- Imagine that in the room you are in, there is a plank of wood, raised up at either end by a few bricks. In your imagination, walk over to the plank of wood and walk along it.
- Now imagine that you are on the top of a huge sky-scrapper (maybe in New York or somewhere) and connecting you and the neighbouring sky-scrapper is a plank of wood. Imagine yourself walking across it (don’t look down, cause it’s pretty high!).
- If you find this a bit difficult, don’t worry as help is at hand: Standing next to you is Super Man or Wonder Woman. Imagine that you pull them into your body and, as you do so, you take on all of their super powers. Now you don’t have to walk across the plank of wood – you can run and jump across the sky line, flying, doing somersaults and enjoying your new powers.
- Now come back and walk across that plank of wood to the neighbouring sky scrapper and notice how easy it is.
Click on the video link below to listen to the Audio.
In this case, the use of the imagination (Super Man/ Wonder Woman) totally and automatically immediately reframes the situation and the possibility for action within it, because our embodied brains never just see situations the way they objectively are. Rather, they always simulate our possibility for action within the situation, even though we are mostly not conscious of it, because the evolutionary purpose of the brain is to keep us alive. Change the brain’s perception of either the external situation or of our capabilities within the situation and the whole equation shifts.
When doing this exercise, many people (especially those who visualise things easily) actually feel their pulse quickening or start to sweat a little when walking across the plank to the neighbouring sky scrapper. In other words, just by imagining a picture, they end up activating physical circuits. And this is crucial, since all action in the world ultimately requires physical movement (engagement of the sensorimotor system), whether it is typing an email or running a marathon.
While the exercise relates to a plank of wood, it does not take much imagination to understand the broader point! Or, put simply: change your internal state and you change your perceived possibilities. And rather than trying to ‘think your way’ to being in an empowered state, it’s much easier to use your imagination.
YOUR OWN 24/7 EXPERT ADVISOR
Building on the same principles as Walking The Plank, this exercise also introduces a new dynamic into a situation by use of the imagination. The main difference is that this exercise can be used to access, or rearrange, latent information for solutions to a particular issue.
As with the previous one, there is a recording below which might be more effective for many people rather than trying to recall the steps while also doing the exercise. A note: Do not try to analyse what is happening while you are doing the exercise. Analyse it all you want afterwards (you still need to evaluate the information afterwards, or ‘do the adult maths’), but during the exercise, just let your imagination wander. And whatever you do, during the exercise don’t ask yourself ‘is this real or is it just my imagination’? Of course it is your imagination; that’s the whole point!
- Identify an issue or problem that you would like some expert advice on. It could be anything from overcoming a fear of public speaking to how to implement a human rights campaign or from exploring new ways of combatting antibiotic resistance to solving a seemingly impenetrable coding problem. Recognise that there is someone else – either living or an historical figure – who might have an insight as to how to solve the problem. It is best if it is a public figure or someone you don’t know well. You don’t need to identify the person yet; simply recognise that there might be someone else who might know more than you.
- With your eyes closed and when you won’t be disturbed, let yourself switch off from external distractions.
- Imagine you are sitting in a room which also has another empty chair. Without trying too hard, try to picture the room in as much detail as possible.
- Notice that there is a door in the room and in your imagination, let it open and someone walks into the room and sits in the chair who can provide some insight into the problem or issue. No need to censor who it is and even if you don’t really ‘see them’ (some people visualise easily, others less so), just get a sense of them being there.
- Then just have a conversation with them in your mind, explaining the issue and asking them for their advice. Take as long as you need.
- When finished, open your eyes and write down anything which came to mind.
Click on the video below for the audio recording of the exercise Your Own 24/7 Advisor.
This exercise really does work with nearly everyone to some degree, although it can be easier if it is facilitated (hence the recording). Some people get very specific answers, others more general insights.
Of course, the person does not actually appear in reality; it’s not some kind of supernatural event. By bringing in someone in your imagination, you allow your brain to look at things in different ways – any answer you get was already there in some sense!
Sounds weird? Well, many writers have imaginary conversations all the time to spark ideas. The inventor Nikolai Tesla also used these kind of techniques, even as a child imagining himself going to different countries he had never been to and meeting and having conversations with people. As an adult, he used similar approaches to build machines in his head.
The point is: Trust and use your imagination to explore new possibilities. Assess the results (do the adult maths) afterwards.