There are lots of ways that human minds differ from those of other animals, but one of the most impressive is our ability to imagine things. Not only can we imagine things we’ve experienced in our past, but we can imagine things that have never been, or could never even be.
If you ask people if they would like to have a strong imagination, most would say yes. Imagination is what allows us to reconstruct events from our past in our minds today, and being able to image things in our minds makes creativity and fantasy all the more vivid. However, it's important to realize that having a strong imagination has its downsides. Some people can ruminate endlessly on regrets or terrible things that happened to them in the past, exacerbating problems of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
We can also imagine possible futures, which comes with its own problems. To a large degree, the engine of anxiety runs on the fuel of imagination. Imagining possible negative futures can be disabling. At the furthest extreme, we have people who are compulsive fantasizers — people who can't stop engaging in their fantasy lives, will cancel social plans, and just lie there, spinning complex scenarios in their head for hours on end, until it interferes with their real-world goals.
But we can be very thankful that we can imagine the future, as it is something that almost no other animals can do. With it we can imagine inventions yet to be built, situations we’ve yet to encounter, and test-drive solutions without the costly and sometimes dangerous experimentation we might have to do in the real world.
Without imagination, we would have no nations, gods, corporations and social institutions. Even money wouldn’t be possible. Without imagination, we would never have been able to feel a kinship with people we’ve never met, be they other Americans or Beastie Boys fans.
Imagination is also crucial for most acts of creativity. Although history has seen many accidental inventions (such as penicillin and the glue used in post-it notes), most inventions are designed: created simultaneously in the real world and in the imagination.
And so it is with the problems facing our world today. Changing society is difficult, costly and risky, limiting our ability to use evidence-based decision-making. Thank goodness we have imagination, where we can simulate new ideas in our heads and weed out many of the bad ones. What might something cost? Would the public accept it? Is there a plausible story of how this might actually help?
Of course, imagination isn’t flawless. It is subject to all of the prejudices, biases and flaws that plague our interactions with the real world. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, if you’d asked me if teens would prefer typing short messages to each other rather than talking on the phone, my internal simulator would have given you a definite no.
Where do the contents of our imaginations come from? The answer has to be memory. All of our imaginings are retrievals or recombinations of memories. We've all encountered ideas that we feel very strongly we never could have thought of ourselves. But after we experience them, our minds can then use them to imagine new things. Memory is the fuel of imagination, and as such, exposing yourself to a variety of ideas and concepts gives your imagination more to work with.
This is where we might see clearly the difference between imagination and creativity. For some creative acts, imagination is very important. It has been said that Mozart could compose entire symphonies in his head before he wrote anything down — a very impressive feat of imagination. Similarly, rapper Kanye West claims to have not written down any of the lyrics of his first several albums. These are acts of creativity and also acts of great imagination.
At the other extreme we have improvisation, which is characterized not by constructing elaborate plans in your head, but by effectively and quickly reacting to the immediate artistic environment. I studied theatrical improvisation for over 20 years, and one of the hardest things to do is preventing your imagination from ruining the scene. That is, if you have an agenda about where this story is supposed to go, you won't be listening to, and appropriately responding to, the things that are happening on the stage. Similarly, with jazz improvisation, you don't want to have the entire piece laid out in your mind, like Mozart, but rather you should allow the piece to evolve as each person contributes. The best jazz improvisers might not be using an enormous amount of imagination when they do what they do, but there is no doubt they can be startlingly creative.
Having a better imagination does not simply mean having more vivid imagery. There's a lot more to imagination than pictures in your head. Many things that you can imagine are hypothetical situations, that might not look or sound like anything. You can imagine being married, or not being married, or owning a pet turtle, but none of these things look particularly like anything. You can be married and be distant from your spouse, you can be rich and look like a poor person. Although the pictures and sounds that we can generate in our heads vary greatly from person to person, we still do not yet know how to measure nonsensory imagination. We do know, however, that some people are able to construct much more complex and involved constructions in their minds.
As we face the future, trying to fight the problems of the past, and to anticipate the problems yet to come, it’s hard to think of a better weapon to have in our arsenal than imagination. We can imagine complex possible futures, fantasy worlds, fantasies about being on a beach, the mundane and the majestic. We can use our imaginations to make us relaxed — or anxious. The most impressive feat of human imagination, to me, is our ability to use it in creative endeavors. Sitting in a chair, with our eyes closed, we can imagine what the world might be and construct elaborate plans.
With such power, we have an obligation to use it for good — to make the world better for ourselves and for the world. So, imagine how the world might be better, in both big and small ways.
Then go make it happen.
Jim Davies is the author of “Imagination: The Science of Your Mind’s Greatest Power.”