Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Power of the Imagination

Imagine the world without imagination. You cannot, because to do so you would need to employ the very power you are trying to erase. Imagination is a definitive part of our humanity, in much the same way as oxygen and liquor are. Yet by just asking the question indicates the kind of power imagination has, imagining a world without it shows us the answer most clearly, because without imagination mankind would not live life as we know it; we may be able survive but we would not thrive. It enables humanity to make connections and evolve towards, hopefully towards a better existence. Of course it would erroneous to assume the power of imagination is a source of pure good. Like most situations, using the imagination is wielding a power in which one can have a double edged sword that may be employed for good or evil. While it can be extrapolated from the most humble of beginnings to achieve amazing ends, it can also be used to devastating effect. To this end, the power of the imagination could be equated to the power of the beholder of the imagination, be they an individual or a collective.

In today’s society the true value of imagination is neither acknowledged nor appreciated. Most people devalue it and dismiss it as merely fiction or fantasy and in doing so they demean the word unjustly. When in reality we use our imagination many times daily.

Imagining is a process of generating an illusionary visual, or other human sense such as smell, taste, touch or hearing, within our mind. We are constantly, both consciously and unconsciously, picturing different situations. Typically, we picture our options and the possible outcomes of our envisioned acts and potentially decide whether to make out imagination reality or not.

The imagination is by its own definition almost impossible to define as it has no bounds, no form and exists solely in our heads. In essence, our imagination is our human capacity to mentally build scenes, objects and events, be they real or figurative, and project them into a cohesive story. Yet more exciting than the definition of imagination, are the repercussions of our imagination as it gives us the power to make daily decisions, push forward inventions and innovation, and to empathise with others whose experiences we have not shared.

One of the most influential and revelatory capacities of the imagination is that it enables us to understand and identify with other people even though we may not have shared their experiences anything to compare to the situation they describe. Humankinds ability to imagine ourselves in another’s place. It defines us as human beings. Ponder for a moment, how without compassion we would be as robots, indifferent to each other, like little islands floating separately and aimlessly. Imagination is the sea that connects us, it allows us to reach out and have meaningful interaction with each other and learn from each other, in essence, to grow. Through learning of each others different circumstances that we are able to understand one another’s plights and motives.

Imagination and creativity are intimately intertwined. To create is to mindfully make active choices that bring what we imagine from inside our minds into reality. Our imagination is a spark of thought creativity could be considered as what takes place after the seed of an idea has been sown. Creation is inventing, building, designing, and making things. Creation could be considered the “working horse” of our imagination. Being inspired by our imagination makes us innovate, which then motivates us to be creative. Experiments and mistakes help us in being creative, which in turn is an excellent way for us to broaden our imagination.

For creations to be original they must not be a replica of an object which the creator has already seen. If the object is a copy then no imagination was used. Although some creations have presuming qualities that make them similar, that does not mean imagination was not utilised. Every creation, from the simple exercise of making music from clapping, to incredibly complex inventions such as the super hydro collider, has required a certain amount of imagination in its invention. When examined in this light, it could be argued that all human endeavours could be considered creative. From the apparently unimaginative chore of washing dishes we have seen the design, and manufacture of the dishwasher. And from the seemingly innocent hobby of watching a bird fly we have witnessed the construction of planes and ultimately rockets allowing man to make that “one giant leap” and walk on the moon. Technology, writing, music, art, games, food and even our health and wellbeing are all areas that have been improved or developed as man has dared to dream.

Inventing is an evolutionary process which will continue throughout the ages. Why? Because inspired by our imagination there is a never ending discovery of recreating and designing that drives mankind to develop ever more new and fascinating endeavours. Wonder is human nature. Wondering triggers curiosity, curiosity triggers the imagination and the imagination is put forth into creation. A perfect example of this is music. Throughout the existence of mankind new forms of music have been continually created. It is possible to imagine a rhyme, beat, tune, certain sounds and then create them. Ludwig Van Beethoven arguably made some of the greatest music in history even after losing his hearing. His music has such a powerful impact on listeners it has people asking to this day how he could possibly compose it while unable to hear it. The answer to this conundrum is that he was able to “imagine”, i.e. hear in his mind, the sounds and arrangements therefore was still able to compose musical pieces that continue to be enjoyed by listeners today.

Our imagination manifests itself through many mediums, such as music, paintings and my personal favourite creative writing. It is a form of expression that paints a picture into our minds as we read and allows us to peer into the lives of other while also discovering the diversity within ourselves. Good writing can stir very powerful feelings, be they of empathy for others or inspiration within ourselves. You need only look to the writings of the Bible or William Shakespeare, even quotes from on the back of a toilet doors as evidence of this. Yet this is a power of which should be exercised in a positive manner, although that is not always the case. Indeed as often as it is employed for good, the power of imagination is used for ill. An example of this is when someone imagines their plane crashing and then becomes transfixed that would actually happen.

Our imagination helps us decide between choices. It moulds our beliefs and morals and in doing so helps create who we are. Often when plans go awry people claim they “did not think” as if that is an excuse for their behaviour. In reality, what they didn’t utilize was the ability to imagine the consequences of their actions or only chose to picture a single outcome.

Imagination pervades human interactions in many negative ways; a perfect example of this is lying. Lying is a skill in which the imagination allows the liar to come up with a different scenario of reality. Humans lie for a variety of reasons, from wanting to avoid punishment or conflict, to seeking approval, to maintain privacy or to regulate power. Mankind’s natural instincts push us towards these conclusions. We may also lie to seek approval from others or lie to gain power or respect. We are so used to lying, that whether we intend to or not, we do it on a daily basis, possibly without even noticing. Sometimes when lying to seek approval or attention, we begin to believe our own false images. This is considered to be self-deception. A recent good example of this was Heath Ledger trying to get into character for the role of the Joker in the film, ‘The Dark Knight’. He locked himself in an apartment for a month and pretended to be the Joker. He began to inhabit the lie that was the character of the Joker so intensely, that he absorbed the physical traits of the character such as a nervous tic and the consistent licking of his lips. His imagination prompted him to believe that in some small ways, he was the Joker.

Another example of the power of the imagination is the effect it can have, both good and bad, on the physical mind. The common theory that the brain cannot tell the difference between reality and imagination was supposably backed by research on the placebo effect. The placebo, meaning “I shall please” in Latin, effect is used in medical research which provides inert drugs, the placebo, to a certain number of people and the actual medication to others. In these trials, the doctors do not tell their patients if they are being given the placebo or the actual drug. Instead the patients are advised that the inert pill will change their current condition. Frequently patients in the placebo groups have reported similar results to those in the groups taking the actual drugs. On the other hand, Nocebo, meaning “I shall harm” in Latin, is where the patient disbelieves in the treatment and as a result, may experience no effect or even worsening of symptoms. These results indicate that the power of the imagination is so strong it can trick our mind and body into changing the expected outcome.

Those who do not make full use of their imaginations do not understand the justifications of other people’s actions. There are also those who prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all, choosing to remain comfortable within the boundaries of their own experiences. They do not dare to dream for better and do not understand that their actions, however minor they may be, could affect many. They do not think that they have the power to influence, change or impact others. They do not build, invent or make original things. They do not write creative pieces with meaning and value that tell stories or speak for others who do not voice. They may read, listen or watch but they do not have compassion for those who suffer hardship and adversity because they choose not to imagine, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. But life is difficult, complicated and it is beyond anyone’s control. The humility to know that fact will enable us to survive life’s vicissitudes. Those who do not exercise their imaginations but choose to live in indifference will surely not know what to do when tested by adversity.

Jessica Smith

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