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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Seeing Possibility in Imagination

  • Imagination is what makes our sensory experience meaningful, enabling us to interpret and make sense of it, whether from a conventional perspective or from a fresh, original, and individual one. It is what makes perception more than the mere physical stimulation of sense organs. It also produces mental imagery, visual and otherwise, which is what makes it possible for us to think outside the confines of our present perceptual reality, to consider memories of the past and possibilities for the future, and to weigh alternatives against one another. Thus, imagination makes possible all our thinking about what is, what has been, and, perhaps most important, what might be.

    —Nigel J.T. Thomas, philosopher and cognitive scientist

Nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible, according to Scottish philosopher David Hume. Once we have the capability to form images in our mind, we can define the capabilities needed to bring these images to life—to enable them as technologies. Based on our experience of the world around us, our imagination constructs only images of possibility. If something seems impossible, it may also be unimaginable.

Imagination creates images of the mind, what Aristotle called “phantasia”: an image that is present to us in a given moment. According to Aristotle, “The soul never thinks without a mental image.” In cognitive theory, imagery or “mental representation” is considered essential for thinking but not necessarily linked to creativity.

We imagine from experience, from knowledge, from curiosity, and from memory. In the exercise “The Flower in Your Mind” (see sidebar), the words car, flower, and statue retrieve different specific memories for each one of us but the same general archetypes of those memories. A car will be a form of transportation with four wheels, a flower will have a stem and petals, and the Statue of Liberty will be a woman holding a torch in a raised hand. Will the torch be in the left hand or the right hand? And what is she holding in the other hand? It does not really matter—an archetype is not constrained by specific details. In much the same way, the imagination is free from objective constraints. Its power comes precisely from this freedom. And as the mind reframes and integrates images of new mental or physical artifacts, the more we encounter, the more we can imagine.

People using the most basic tools will find it difficult to imagine new applications of technology, or understand the meaning of emerging signals in devices that do not match the form or functionality of the tools with which they are familiar. This was precisely the problem faced by the Taino when they encountered Columbus’s landing party: a group of people who did not use iron and lacked substantial weaponry face-to-face with another group of people armed to the teeth with swords, helmets, shields, and heavy armor. What meaning do they make out of these sharp contraptions made out of strange materials? What intentions do they carry?

Let’s modify the Flower exercise a bit. Instead of car, flower, and Statue of Liberty, try to see something you have never heard of: freuzel.

Difficult, isn’t it? You have no idea what a freuzel is. A chemical substance, an electronic component, a unit of measure, an individual? Everyone will imagine freuzel in a completely different way, and if they were to draw pictures, these differences in imagination would be clear. Why?

Words represent triggers to knowledge or experience, and are points of departure for the creation of images in our mind. The more evocative the words, the more complex the images we can conceive. It is through words that we allow the mind to access the possibility of a flower. When we make use of our memory to retrieve an image not present to us, we are using our imagination. Which brings us to the simplest definition of imagination: a mental faculty forming images or concepts of external objects, things that are not present to the senses.

The Imaginative Mind

Five-year-old Sophie uses plastic bags to do something you probably have never tried—she skates on carpets. Plastic bags + carpet + imagination = a new indoor sport that exploits the attributes of all the materials involved—availability and low cost—as well as their physical properties—reduced friction for a smoother glide.

Imagination combines aspects of memories or experiences into a new mental construct that differs from past or present perceptions of reality and may anticipate any number of future realities. What inspires us in our processes of imagining is play behavior—not what happens when you play with your hands, which is actually akin to creativity, but an activity of the mind.

Two contrasting types of imagination coexist within our minds. One is expert at reconstructing past images or events, while the other is expert at thoughts and the restructuring of sensory impressions. Where the former is imitative, the latter is creative. Creative imagination is credited as the basis of all human achievement in the sciences and in art.

Freedom and Unlearning

  • It is innocence that is full and experience that is empty. The child, full; man, empty. Men must learn how to unlearn.

    —French poet and essayist Charles Peguy

The imaginative mind is a free mind. Being free from the objective constraints of “today” and “now” does not reside well in adults—our minds are filled with too many rational boundaries and ideas of conduct by the time we “grow up.” Imagination finds its natural place in the mind that is free of preconceptions—the mind of a child.

Children have fewer preconceptions than adults about what could be possible, and thus they have more courage. More courage leads to fearless exploration, which leads to more possibility. It is important to note that the potential for imagination is equally present in both the adult and child mind, but the actualization of that potential may be greater in the child because he or she has none of the adult’s fear.

A colleague once remarked, “If children had the power of adults in social and economic terms, the results of their imaginative thinking would be stunning, if implemented. But because they are children, no one takes them seriously.”

Kids do not have to think about being imaginative; they just are. Adults know the difference between a state of imagining and a state of not imagining. We switch, saying to ourselves, “Today I will be imaginative.” Children make no such statements. For them everything is possible. They do not have to force anything; they just do what they do until adults tell them what to do and try to control what could be possible.

Part of the problem is that adults may know too much. We meet many well-educated people who seem to know a lot, but in our conversations with them we do not discover an original idea in their thinking. We might discover an enormous amount of information but not one novel thought. In other words, they simply transmit to others what they have learned from others and from various sources of knowledge.

Most people are so conversant in other people’s imaginative thinking and ideas, they do not assume that they have an imagination of their own. Is it the fear of imagination or lack of confidence that prevents most adults from advancing original thoughts? Or is it lack of practice? To answer these questions, we need to first understand the power of imagination.

The Power of Imagination

  • He lets the last Hungarian go. He waits until his wife and kids are in the ground, and then he goes after the rest of the mob. He kills their kids. He kills their wives. He kills their parents and their parents’ friends. He burns down the houses they live in, the stores they work in. He kills people that owe them money. And like that, he’s gone. Underground. Nobody’s ever seen him since.

    —“Verbal” Kint, describing the legacy of the mobster Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects

Most of us, at one point in our lives, were afraid of the dark. As children, we would lie awake at night, fearfully watching the closet door for traces of movement in the fuzzy darkness, or maybe huddle under the covers, listening for the sound of creaking floorboards or breathing that wasn’t our own. It did not matter that by the light of day, those shadows in the corner were a benign pile of laundry. At night, when we were alone in our beds, they became the boogeyman, and he was just waiting for us to close our eyes so he could pounce.

As we grew older, we grew less afraid of the dark. We knew that the pile of laundry was just that, and our belief in monsters-in-waiting waned along with our ability to make believe. But what exactly was it that we were afraid of? What did we believe in so strongly that it would send us running in terror to our parents’ bed?

We were afraid that what we imagined might actually happen. The power of our imaginations was strong enough to convince us of the possibility. As children or adults, we seek out connections and consistencies to build a solid narrative in the context of our experience—we believe because we have the desire to.

The narrative of the 1995 film The Usual Suspects illustrates this desire. It unfolds in an interrogation room, where the suspect, “Verbal” Kint narrates a story about his experience with the mysterious, semi-mythical Keyser Soze—a vicious Hungarian mobster accused of innumerable crimes. Kint culls the names, places, and events of the story from objects around the room—from coffee cups to mug shots. These details trigger his imagination and enhance the contextual possibilities of his story. It works because he maximizes both the power of his imagination—he has the courage to believe in the story’s capability—and his interrogator’s willingness to believe.

The Fear of Imagination

  • Those who fear the imagination condemn it: something childish, they say, something monsterish, misbegotten. Not all of us dream awake. But those of us who do have no choice.

    —author Patricia McKillip

Like children in the dark, adults fear being exposed to a place from which they can never return, of discovering something whose implications may change them forever. Knowledge changes us. Ideas transform us. Once something new is discovered, you can never look at the world in quite the same way again.

Are you willing to go there? Are you willing to make a discovery today about a new way of doing things? Are you willing to jump backward, head first, in front of millions of people? Are you willing to look silly? Are you willing to try and fail?

The fear of imagination is the fear of failure and of not being original enough. It is the fear of not living up to our expectations and the expectations of others. The chances of being wrong or irrelevant are so great, people think, it’s probably best not to open their mouths. The fail-safe is to kill the giraffe, cut it up, and put it in the refrigerator.

Fear of imagination is the fear of unlearning. A six-year-old I know once remarked, “You don’t have to open your mouth to talk to the dead.” A child can say this because he or she has not learned enough to be constrained by norms, or limited by expectations or bias. For children, there are no consequences; as far as they are concerned, it is all play. It is all life.

This is also the mindset an adult must have to seriously ask the question posed in Chapter 1: “What if my toothbrush could speak?” You do not care how people look at you in that moment. You are just playing. You have created new rules. You have empowered both yourself and your audience by removing the limits of convention. Now what if that question was asked to people who could enable the technologies to implement some of the possible answers?

The Death of Imagination

  • Pingu lives on the ice cap with his mother, his postman father and his baby sister Pinga. They live in a small village with all the usual shops, a school, lots of abandoned ice sculptures to play in, a skating rink and a skittles alley. His friends are Ping and Pingo, and Robby the seal. His enemies include a mean-minded seagull....

    Pingu FAQ, Version 3 19.10.95

In the animation series Pingu, produced by the Swiss group Trickfilmstudio, a young penguin shares his mischievous and engaging adventures with a cast of characters who communicate in a mysterious language of expressive sound and gesture called Pinguish. This unconventional mode of communication has played a large role in establishing Pingu’s worldwide following; many teenage and student fans of the tiny penguin even use Pinguish in their daily conversations.

What can we learn about communication from a language in which the obvious rules seem to be absent?

We learn the value of contextual communication. If we can decode the context, we can decode the content, and Pingu is context for content. The rhythm, syntax, tone, and volume of Pinguish all contribute to the audience’s decoding of the context into content—allowing precise communication between characters and audience. Precise enough for millions of children to comprehend its meaning and absurd enough for millions of their parents to ask, “Why are you watching this?”

Every sound Pingu and his friends make is information. The fact that the language is made of abstract noises helps children concentrate on the whole situation, so that they must participate in decoding the meaning of what they see and hear. Pinguish is an excellent example of complete communication, involving movement, gesture, and facial expression to complement sound.

The fact that it is not a real language is irrelevant—for millions of children in more than 50 countries, “learning” Pinguish is very much the essence of learning through contextual communication. And contextual communication is a function of imagination because it is the mind that puts it all together. If you do not contextualize what you see with what you hear now, you are not a full participant in your own story.

Pinguish teaches us that contexts continually change, so not only do we need to be receptive to the contexts that surround us; we need to adapt ourselves to their changing meanings. As adults, we are encouraged to perceive certain social structures, such as the roles of work or government, as relatively permanent despite their continual change and transitions; they become a social certainty. In some respects, this perception reduces our ability to contextualize and interpret new information, as it does not fit within our expectations. So the abstract sounds of Pingu lose their value as meaningful ideas, feelings, and intent. But when does this happen? Why and when do we stop understanding Pinguish?

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