Imagination is the ability to see “what can be” from “what is.” Galileo Galilei’s famous experiment of falling objects occurred in the laboratory of his mind, not from the balcony of the Tower of Pisa. Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity was rooted in a thought experiment at age 16 where he imagined chasing a beam of light; and supposedly, his final breakthrough came during a daydream, lying on a country hill in 1915.
As the great scientist said, “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
What Is Imagination?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “imagination” as “the power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.”
However, most experts believe the concept of imagination to be much too broad and complicated to allow for a simple definition. British philosopher Leslie Stevenson listed 12 concepts of imagination, including “the ability to think of something not presently perceived, but spatio-temporally real.”
Imagination ranges from visualizing James Bond as the suave British agent described in Ian Fleming’s books, to anticipating the taste and aromas of a Chinese dinner. The English poet William Blake described it more beautifully: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand and a Heaven in a Wild Flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and Eternity in an hour.”
As far as we know, imagination is a uniquely human ability. According to mathematician Jacob Bronowski, “To imagine means to make images and move them about inside one’s head in new arrangements.” Some animals, particularly the great primates, have demonstrated elements of imagination – such as memory and interpretation – but their abilities seem to be limited to recognizing only realistic representations of objects. Adult humans, on the other hand, can easily interpret images far removed from reality such as cartoons, abstract paintings, or even clouds passing overhead.
The Wright brothers overcame gravity to move through the air like birds. Shaun White performed original acrobatic stunts in the Winter Olympics. Scientists have developed an artificial leg that moves, feels and responds like flesh and blood. These are just a few examples of the power of imagination. According to pro cyclist Jamie Paolinetti, “Limitations live on in our minds. But if we use our imagination, our possibilities become endless.”
How Does Imagination Work?
Scientists remain unsure of the process by which new ideas and concepts emerge – how the “mind’s eye” actually works. It’s more than a mere replica of physical events and sensations captured through our senses. Imagination creates a new event, detail, or image within our brains which might not have occurred in the physical world.
At the same time, however, our imagination is rooted in reality – you cannot imagine without previous input from one or more of your five senses. A person born without the ability to hear cannot imagine music, since no reality of sound exists as a basis. There is no such a thing as a “new” thought, only variations of data we already have in our memories. For example, composers can create new music, and artists can paint new scenes, but each is just a novel variation of sounds or sights harvested from memories.
Dr. Alan Leslie, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Rutgers University, theorized in the 1980s that the process of imagination involves three basic steps, which he called “meta-representation capacity”:
- Collecting input through the senses to create a mental representation of a “true” object or state of affairs. In Leslie’s words, this is a “primary representation” in the mind, realistically reflecting the real object or event. The accurate representation is permanently stored in the brain as part of our survival mechanism. For example, if there is a real lion out there, as opposed to an imaginary creature, we need to know that our mental representation is accurate in order to accurately respond to the situation.
- The primary representation is then duplicated, deconstructed, and stored by a neurological mechanism. The mental copy is the “second-order representation.” This process is akin to cutting a photograph into very small pieces and saving those pieces, along with the millions of similar pieces of objects, events, and sensations we experience as we age.
- A modified representation is then created in the mind by adding or deleting pieces of second-order representations. This process can happen innumerable times, ultimately creating a new mental representation that, while related, is substantially different from the primary representation. For example, using second-order representations, we could create an image of a creature with a lion’s head, the body of a horse, and the tail of a serpent.
MRIs, PET scans, and CT scans suggest that many parts of the brain are involved in the meta-representation process. Depending upon the type of imagination in which we are engaged, we use different sections of our brains: Imagining a math problem involves the pre-frontal cortex; imagining throwing the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl uses the motor cortex; imagining a painting of clouds requires using the occipital cortex. Other parts of the brain such as the neocortex, thalamus, and hippocampus are also active to varying degrees, depending upon the type of imaginative activity the brain is engaged in.
In layman’s language, imagination is the deconstruction and recycling of memories where individual details are added, subtracted, and altered, often multiple times. It is the foundation of human progress, allowing us to grow from prehistoric creatures to astronauts on the lunar surface. It is the basis for social interaction and communication, and the process by which we put ourselves in another person’s shoes to communicate and learn empathy. Mark Johnson, professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon, believes our moral understanding and moral development are tied to our imaginative abilities.
Imagination and Autism
Researchers now believe that imagination has a biological and possibly genetic basis which is yet to be fully understood. Most infants between 9 months and 14 months of age are able to pretend by adding features that do not exist to a real object which does. By age four, children have figured out how to keep track of multiple pretend games with different individuals simultaneously. A recent study by UCLA anthropologist H. Clark Barrett indicates that mind-reading – understanding other people’s perspectives – begins to develop during these ages as well.
Children who lack meta-representational capacity are classified as autistic. These children do not usually engage in spontaneous pretend play, preferring repetitive activities. They may have a delay or lack of speech development, failing to respond to others, or engage in normal conversations. They frequently have difficulty understanding or interpreting the mental states of those around them so that they generally do not collaborate with others on shared intentions and goals.
The apparent link between autism and imagination has spurred new research into the brain and the processes by which imagination arises. If we can understand how the process works, the elements of the brain involved, and the conditions under which imagination develops, we may eventually find a cure for autism.
Imagination and Delusion
According to Pablo Picasso, “Everything you can imagine is real.” Unfortunately, the link between imagination and delusion is inescapable. People who cannot distinguish between imaginary representations and real objects and events have difficulty functioning normally. Whereas imagined representations can always be validated by comparison with reality (the “primary representation”), delusions are false representations accepted as true by the thinker, but unverifiable in reality.
Several grades of delusion exist:
- Delusions can be confused with odd, but strongly held beliefs, particularly if they are not harmful
- Some are clearly implausible and not understandable and may be considered “bizarre”
- Extreme delusions and hallucinations (sensory experiences generated by the mind rather than external stimuli) may be symptoms of mental or psychotic disorders, many of which can be treated
Encouraging Your Child’s Imagination
While the source and processes of imagination are yet to be fully understood, research indicates that the use of imagination should be encouraged for normal mental development and can lead to a happy and productive life. As a parent, you should recognize that imagination is part of every facet of life, and not just limited to music, painting, or other artistic endeavors. Your own imagination can even encourage the skills of your children – don’t be afraid to use it.
To get started, you might consider some of the following techniques:
- Read From Books With Pictures, Sounds, Smells, and Textured Surfaces to Create Tactile Sensations. Take on a different voice for each character and encourage your spouse to do the same. Reading time is family time – take advantage of the benefits of being together.
- Make Up Stories. Make your children the central characters in stories you invent and encourage them to interact by contributing their own plot lines, settings, and characters.
- Use Props Where Possible. A towel pinned around the neck can become a magic cloak, a broom can become a horse, and a pencil can become a magic wand. A simple cardboard box can function as a castle, a forest cottage, or a fancy room for a tea party. The possibilities are limitless.
- Pretend Games. Encourage your children to make up games with their own sets of rules, or try an old game with new rules.
For Four- to Six-Year-Olds
- Do Things Differently. Encourage your children to draw with their hands, using fanciful colors for real objects (a sky may be green rather than blue; flowers may have polka-dots). Make a trip to the grocery store an adventure, not a task. Construct play-forts out of sofa cushions. Again, the only limit to the possibilities is what you’re willing to dream up.
- Ask Questions. Explore the “whys” and “whats” of the day – what activities your children enjoyed, or why they may have disliked something. Don’t be a judge, just listen and explore your children’s answers to promote their own thinking.
- Answer Questions. Explaining “why” time after time can be tedious, and it’s often a tactic used by children to delay responsibility. As a parent, you come to know when your children have a genuine interest and when they are wasting time. When a real question arises, take the time to respond appropriately and use it as an opening to a broader conversation.
- Create Adventures. Virtually every community has a park, zoo, or a famous landmark nearby. Do some research before going to make sure you’re prepared to discuss what you’re seeing and why it is important.
- Encourage Reading and Listening to Music. Music has the power to trigger emotions, and reading can stimulate the imagination by forcing the mind to visualize characters, settings, and events. Be sure books and songs you choose are age-appropriate and you just may lure your kids into a lifetime of reading for pleasure, not duty.
Robert Kennedy conveyed the power of imagination when he echoed the words of George Bernard Shaw: “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask ‘why?’… I dream of things that never were, and ask ‘why not?’” While humankind has made great progress as a species, there are many frontiers yet to explore. Imagination is the tool that enables us to confidently step into the unknown.
What other ways can you suggest to encourage a child’s imagination?