Plato and Aristotle disagreed about the imagination. As philosopher Stephen Asma and actor Paul Giamatti pointed out in an essay in March, Plato gave the impression that imagination is a somewhat airy-fairy luxury good. It deals with illusions and make-believe and distracts us from reality and our capacity to coolly reason about it. Aristotle countered that imagination is one of the foundations of all knowledge.
One tragedy of our day is that our culture hasn’t fully realized how much Aristotle was correct. Our society isn’t good at cultivating the faculty that we may need the most.
What is imagination? Well, one way of looking at it is that every waking second, your brain is bombarded with a buzzing, blooming confusion of colors, shapes and movements. Imagination is the capacity to make associations among all these bits of information and to synthesize them into patterns and concepts. When you walk, say, into a coffee shop, you don’t see an array of surfaces, lights and angles. Your imagination instantly coalesces all that into an image: “coffee shop.”
Neuroscientists have come to appreciate how fantastically complicated and subjective this process of creating mental images really is. You may think perception is a simple “objective” process of taking in the world and cognition is a complicated process of thinking about it. But that’s wrong.
Perception — the fast process of selecting, putting together, interpreting and experiencing facts, thoughts and emotions — is the essential poetic act that makes you you.
For example, you don’t see the naked concept “coffee shop.” The image you create is coated with personal feelings, memories and evaluations. You see: “slightly upscale suburban coffee shop trying and failing to send off a hipster vibe.” The imagination, Charles Darwin wrote, “unites former images and ideas, independently of the will, and thus creates brilliant and novel results.”
Furthermore, imagination can get richer over time. When you go to Thanksgiving dinner, your image of Uncle Frank contains the memories of past Thanksgivings, the arguments and the jokes, and the whole sum of your common experiences. The guy you once saw as an insufferable blowhard you now see — as your range of associations has widened and deepened — as a decent soul struggling with his wounds. “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” William Blake observed.
Can you improve your imagination? Yes. By creating complex and varied lenses through which to see the world. Novelist Zadie Smith once wrote that when she was a girl, she was constantly imagining what it would be like to grow up in the homes of her friends.
“I rarely entered a friend’s home without wondering what it might be like to never leave,” she wrote in The New York Review of Books. “That is, what it would be like to be Polish or Ghanaian or Irish or Bengali, to be richer or poorer, to say these prayers or hold those politics. I was an equal-opportunity voyeur. I wanted to know what it was like to be everybody. Above all, I wondered what it would be like to believe the sorts of things I didn’t believe.”
What an awesome way to prepare the imagination for the kind of society we all now live in.
Zora Neale Hurston grew up by a main road in Eatonville, Florida. As a young girl, she’d walk up to carriages passing by and call out, “Don’t you want me to go a piece of the way with you?” She’d get invited into the carriage, have a conversation with strangers for a while and then walk back home.
These kinds of daring social adventures were balanced, in Hurston’s case, and in the case of many people with cultivated imaginations, with long periods of reading and solitude and inner adventures in storytelling. “I lived an exciting life unseen,” Hurston later recalled.
A person who feeds his or her imagination with a fuller repertoire of thoughts and experiences has the ability not only to see reality more richly but also — even more rare — to imagine the world through the imaginations of others. This is the skill we see in Shakespeare to such a miraculous degree — his ability to disappear into his characters and inhabit their points of view without ever pretending to explain them.
Different people have different kinds of imagination. Some people mainly focus on the parts of the world that can be quantified. This prosaic form of pattern recognition can be very practical. But it often doesn’t see the subjective way people coat the world with values and emotions and aspirations, which is exactly what we want to see if we want to glimpse how they experience their experience.
Blake and others aspired to the most enchanted form of imagination, which, as Mark Vernon writes in Aeon, “bridges the subjective and objective, and perceives the interior vitality of the world as well as its interconnecting exteriors.” This is van Gogh painting starry nights and Einstein imagining himself riding alongside a light beam.
Imagination helps you perceive reality, try on other realities, predict possible futures, experience other viewpoints. And yet how much do schools prioritize the cultivation of this essential ability?
What happens to a society that lets so much of its imaginative capacity lie fallow? Perhaps you wind up in a society in which people are strangers to one another and themselves.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.