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.