The Versatile Imagination: 3

Traveller, there is no road. You make your own path as you walk – Antonio Machado

When I get in the car to drive somewhere, first I have to bring to mind where I am going and how I am going to get there. Well, no: I might leave the second part to the sat-nav to work out for me. But for shorter or familiar journeys, I rely on my imagination to mentally map the way in advance. If I am preoccupied with other thoughts, I will find myself automatically taking my most habitual route instead. Then I will have to make an even more conscious effort to envision how to get where I want to go from here: a rapid shuffle of inner flashcards will give me snapshots of the route and get me back on track.  If I ask someone for directions, they will go through much the same imaginative process, searching their mental maps and images of the places in question, so that they can point the way. We can thank the imagination for our ability to remember, organise and plan.

Perhaps some people visualise a map, rather than a series of landmarks, to guide their journeys. Perhaps some hear an inner voice giving directions. Some may feel their way intuitively – this way feels more ‘right’ than that way. However you go about it, you first have to bring to mind an idea of where it is you want to go, and then – in imagination – link that place in your mind’s eye to where you are now. Otherwise, you must either set off at random or stay paralysed in the same place.

This knack of picturing a series of stages in advance works for almost anything you do. The more distinctly you can imagine the sequence of events first, the more smoothly you can bake a cake, teach a class, send an email, attend an interview, take an engine apart and put it together again. Imagine it first. Before starting any activity, imagine the process that will lead to the outcome you want. In effect, this is planning ahead, mentally mapping your use of time. Or it is planning backwards; starting with the outcome, and then imagining the steps needed to get there. Imagine it first allows you a preview, a swift mental rehearsal that will help you to meet a situation more effectively.

If you do not imagine first, you are more likely to drift, be late, feel unprepared or panicky. It means you are leaving it up to someone else to decide the outcome. A classroom experiment that had primary school children spend the last five minutes of every lesson quietly looking back on the lesson just finished and thinking ahead about the coming one, found that they were more alert and focused when they moved on from one class to the next.

Imagining an outcome in advance does not guarantee that events will turn out that way. You can picture your desired goals as much as you like, but unless you can make some mental link leading from here to there, they will be no more than castles in the air. At the start of my journey, it is not by picturing the destination that I want to reach that I will know how to get there, but by mentally reviewing, or previewing, the stages on the way, the turnings I need to take, the landmarks to look out for, the time to allow.

Whether you have a doctor’s appointment, or are going shopping, or have a list of tasks to get through today, imagine them first. Have you asked yourself what outcome you actually want? It is surprising how often events turn out much as you sketched them out for yourself to begin with. It is perhaps more surprising how often we plunge into decisions and actions without first framing to ourselves what we want to achieve by them. If you are unsure what exactly you hope or intend, at least you can imagine yourself feeling gratified by the end result. Then, picture the process that got you there. What has to happen first, to get to where you want to go?

The Versatile Imagination: 2

It’s all about making it up – Paul McCartney

Everyone imagines. Some people exercise their imagination more deliberately, regularly, and colourfully than others. Creative people in every field identify with it, delight in it, depend on it as an essential tool for what they do: artists, writers, inventors, performers, scientists. Michelangelo looked at the size and shape of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and filled it in his mind’s eye with a host of gesturing bodies. Einstein called his habitual exercise of imagination ‘thought experiments’. “Every day, he would attempt to visualize how an invention and its underlying theoretical premises would play out in reality” (New York Times, Oct 2015). Every day! Genius is theimagination at play.

Such feats of imagination in other people may inspire us, or dishearten us. The gulf between what some great mind does with his or her imagination, and what most of us are doing, or failing to do, with ours, convince us that they have it and we don’t. Someone once said to me: ‘I can’t visualise! I don’t get any pictures in my mind. If I am told to imagine a house, my mind goes a complete blank.’ I asked her, ‘If you could imagine a house, what sort of house might it be?’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I suppose it would be a typical country cottage, with beams and a thatched roof and roses round the door…’ If you tend to dismiss your own fleeting and indistinct thoughts because they are not as cinematic as the ‘visualisations’ reported by other people, use words like ‘suppose’ and ‘maybe’ instead.The imagination hypothesizes, speculates, invents. You may not see a distinct picture displayed on the screen of your mind or hanging like a hologram in the space inside your head; the imagination also talks in words and feels emotions.

Another reason why some people find that their imaginations go blank may be a consequence of the psychoanalytic tradition of interpreting dreams and daydreams. Self-conscious or embarrassed about what they fear their thoughts may reveal about them, they may suppress their fears and fancies instead of encouraging the imagination that engenders them.

Some will object to the images that come to mind, and say ‘But I just made that up’, because they feel they have consciously directed a process that they expect to be involuntary. What is the difference between imagining and making up? There does seem to be a qualitative difference between the ideas we draw on that are familiar, and that we discount as ordinary, and the occasional revelation or inspiration that takes us by surprise, and has emotional impact, and makes us wonder ‘Where did that come from?’ But we need to learn to trust that it will not run amok, before letting the imagination off its leash. A critical or over-analytical, defensive or apologetic attitude interferes with the mind’s natural inclination to imagine, speculate, guess, intuit, hope, ‘make up.’ ‘Making it up’ is exactly what inventors, artists, novelists, poets, dreamers and children do; and so do liars. Being told as children not to tell lies, and as adults to ‘get real’, can inhibit the mind from exercising the imagination deliberately, inventively, and fluently. It is not cheating to construct a fantasy; it is only dishonourable to try to pass it off as fact or as God-given truth.

Some people equate imagination with irrationality, with being out of touch with reality, and want nothing to do with it. But the imagination is not to blame for wishful thinking and self-deluding beliefs, any more than an untrained puppy is for widdling on the floor. Imagination is not an ability that some have and others don’t, nor a lapse of reason. It is a mental activity that we all engage in, some more productively than others. You can’t choose not to imagine, but you can choose to make far more creative use of your capacity to imagine, and to co-pilot its flights rather than find yourself driven in random directions.

The Versatile Imagination: 1

Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions (Albert Einstein)

Imagination helps all of us to make sense of the world, to anticipate problems and to overcome them. It is what once told us in advance that a rustle in the bushes might be a cave tiger, or that a seed planted now might turn into food next year, or that a heavy object could be moved more easily if rolled on wheels. It is what makes us able to plan a journey, laugh at a joke, respond to someone else’s suffering. Imagination is not only for creative people and fantasists. Everyone can imagine, and does so all the time, whether they are aware of it or not. The imagination never stops inventing, supposing, anticipating, making associations. It is ceaselessly shaping and reshaping your view of reality.

By day, the senses report what they perceive of their environment in a patchy, incomplete way. It is the imagination in the back room that joins the dots and fills the gaps, so persuasively that we are sure we can see the whole picture – until we compare our version of events with someone else’s, or with what a camera shows us. In imagination, we hold a picture of who we are, where we have come from and where we are going. We speculate, toss up new ideas, refashion old ones, frighten or motivate ourselves, and find meaning in random occurrences.

By night, the imagination takes over and runs the show, freed from the checks and objections of the rational conscious mind. It directs a secret theatre of dreams – or is it one continuous dream? – in which we take part as both actors and spectators, only to forget the whole performance with each new waking. In the fairy story of The Twelve Dancing Princesses, the princesses lead a double life, secretly leaving the palace to dance all night before slipping back to their beds at dawn. We catch enough of our dreams to know that something is going on, but until we determine to keep watch and find out, our conscious awareness sleeps through all but a few occasional glimpses of the nightly dramas of the imagination.

Night or day, the imagination drives our emotions and prompts our reactions: so automatically, that it takes an act of will to check our impulses and question our assumptions. Our senses place us here and now as living organisms in space and time, warily noting and responding to the world around us and to other creatures and doing what we need to survive.  But the imagination adds the element of further possibility. It introduces a ‘What if?’ into any situation. It casts each of us as the central figure in the story of our lives, fudging facts and embroidering its version of events as fancifully as we will let it. It is motivated by desire and prejudice more than by reason and fact. It influences our choices and actions, and then comes up with rational-sounding explanations and excuses to justify them. But even as we are driven by its waves of hopes and fears, we also have the capacity, and the responsibility, to harness its genius, and to use the imagination as a versatile, everyday tool for a wide range of practical purposes. You can use the imagination to solve a problem, improve your memory, learn faster and for longer, relate more warmly to others. It takes imagination to heal a hurt, drop an old habit and shape a new one, get something done that you’ve been putting off, and do anything better.