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.