Half a century ago, Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge. Today, imagination is fueling the global knowledge economy. Asking ‘What if?’ and ‘Why Not?’ has launched multi billion dollar enterprises with life altering ideas and products. Apple is a good example. Thomas Friedman, editorialist and author, observes: “If whatever can be done will be done…the biggest competition is between you and your imagination”. General Electric’s tag line is “imagination at work”. Its website states “The human imagination is one of our most valuable resources”. Indeed imagination is limitless.
Imagination is defined as “the ability to form images and ideas in the mind, especially of things never seen or never experienced directly”. In classic Persian it is Na-kojd-Abad or ‘ the Land of No-where’. Imagination “is remarkably easy to enter into … For the most part, we can imagine whenever we wish to … and [it] often takes place without any concerted effort … even in spite of ourselves.” The ability to imagine what doesn’t exist and give it expression hasn’t changed since we first envisioned raw stone as a hand tool. Consider winged horses, for example. From time immemorial, we’ve depicted such creatures in story and picture. None exist biologically, yet they live on in our imaginations.
Philosophers, from Plato onwards, have tried to situate and analyze this subtle faculty. The consensus of many brilliant minds across the ages is that it can’t be trusted like reason and logic. “Pascal, echoing an entire tradition, called imagination ‘the mistress of falsehood and error’”. One hundred years later, Samuel Johnson wrote, “All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity”. The Victorians believed play, a natural complement to imagination, was sinful. We hear these views still echoed in the 21st century. Why such antipathy? Simply put, we’ve long distrusted imaginations’ inherent irrationality. This manifests in myriad mercurial ways – flashes of inspiration, flights of fancy, daydreams, hallucinations, and delusions. There’s often a fine line between inspiration and madness. How can one rationally evaluate the worth of something just imagined for the very first time? For example, Leonardo Da Vinci’s design for a helicopter must have seemed fantastical to his contemporaries. For the past five hundred years, science, medicine, technology, and industry have inexorably shaped human life. This is largely due to the rigorous intellectual demands of the scientific method. As empiricism, rationalism, objectivism, and materialism became prevailing norms, the imaginal faculty became even more marginalized within Western society and schooling.
Blurring Boundaries, Quickening Magnitudes
Many non-Western societies have continued to affirm the power of imagination in its intuitive, irrational, inexplicable, and mysterious aspects. The Vedas, Tibetan Buddhism, Voudon, and Shamanism all posit worldviews wherein the imagination and the real are interwoven and iterative. These alternative views greatly influenced early 20th progressive thinkers. For example, the artist Paul Klee observed ’the painter should not paint what he sees, but what will be seen’. In 1964, the philosopher Henri Corbin wrote, “The most astounding information of modern science regarding the physical universe remains inferior to [the imagination].” It seems that the more we learn, the subtler the line becomes between what is real and what is imaginary. Cosmologists and physicists are studying ever-larger vistas of space and ever-smaller units of matter. The more they see into the heart of things, the subtler our ‘perceptual take on reality’ becomes. Just how fine is the line between mind and matter, imagination and reality? The answer is pithily summed up in a luxury car advert: “What if has become what is.” Or, as William Blake noted much earlier, “What’s now proved was once only imagined.”
There’s a growing interdisciplinary body of research and practice regarding the use of such imagination in health science, sports psychology, social psychology, organizational management, community development, and the military. In medicine, for example, “the power of positive imagery is not just some popular illusion or wish but is arguably a key factor in every action. The medical profession now accepts, as genuine, the fact that anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of all patients will show marked physiological and emotional improvement in symptoms simply by believing they are given an effective treatment”. In sports, for example, “comments from numerous athletes, including Olympians and professionals, are similar. Most athletes say that they can actually feel the muscle twinges associated with their actions as they imagine themselves executing a dive, a jump in skating, a service in tennis, and a variety of other skills… Although physical practice is superior to mental practice of a motor skill, mental practice produces superior learning compared with no practice at all, and the combination of mental and physical practice appears to be maximally effective for honing skills and making progress”.
Half a century ago, Walt Disney dubbed the process for creating his automated multimedia animations imagineering. This was an ingenious melding of two terms, imagination and engineering. A blueprint is a good example of imagineering. It depicts something that does not yet exist, such as a new art museum. Moreover, it does so in precise detail, in three dimensions, to scale, and from various perspectives. A blueprint provides the builder with an accurate guide for making the imaginary real, step-by-step, stage-by-stage. In its expanded definition, imagineering is what people do when they envision something new, better, different and then bring it to life. This may be done individually or in groups. Imagineering makes extensive use of picture making, story telling, play, and games. Interestingly, these are all the classic tools of untrammeled childhood imaginative activity.
Elise Boulding, a Quaker and a sociologist, co-founded imaginal education with her husband Kenneth Boulding. Her core work was on “imagining a world without weapons.” She’d have participants imagine what a world at peace thirty years hence might look like. She then had the group play the story backwards as one might a film from its end in reverse to its start. This was done in five-year increments, for six chapters in all. At each step back, she asked what needed to happen at that stage in order for their dream to manifest. In this way, the picture of the present and that of one possible future were married and mediated “from the real to the desired, from the present into the future”. Boulding’s approach is awesome because of its very simplicity of means. It places group imagination at the centre of purposeful transformation.