The Psychology of Imagination
How far can you see?
Imagine a tree.
Now imagine its leaves are blue instead of green.
Now there’s a butterfly wafting past.
Oh no, now the tree is being swallowed by a—giraffe?
Quick backstory: I was watching WandaVision earlier this week, and apart from the thousand plot twists and shocking character reveals, the creators of the Marvel Cinematic Universe clearly have one thing in common: an interesting sense of imagination.
Imagination is a portal to lives yet un-lived and stories yet untold.
It goes without saying that imagination is beneficial for creativity. This isn’t limited to a painter or a writer but is a desirable trait even in business. It has even been discovered to be “a neurological reality that can impact our brains and bodies in ways that matter for our wellbeing”.
Perhaps we’ve considered it inconsequential to study, or we’ve preferred its mysterious allure but the neuroscience of imagination is largely under-studied.
Here’s what I found on how it works.
Imagination and the brain
Derived from the Latin word imaginari, which means “to picture oneself”, imagination is the ability to form new ideas or images that are not readily present to our senses.
Philosophers have theorised that imagination is an evolutionary trait. For example, some scholars have argued that imagination allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes, helping to realise our shared humanity and mortality.
In his book The Evolution of Imagination, Stephen Asma suggests that imagination is a system developed to probe our environmental and psychological states. Plus, it’s also just fun—which I can imagine, in a time without cartoons or cable.
“It is possible that Homo sapiens of 40,000 years ago were graphically literate before they were verbally literate.” — Aeon
Although it seems simple enough to turn off and on like a switch, a lot goes on behind the scenes. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact location of imagination in the brain as it involves an extended neural network. One of these is the posterior cerebral cortex (occiput) which is heavily involved in the function of sight. This makes sense.
While using a brain scan, participants were asked to imagine different scenarios—some good, others not so good. The results showed increased activity in the brain’s default mode network, particularly when they imagined the future. This network includes brain areas found in subjects that were supposed to be “at rest”.
Originally thought to be inactive when we’re not actively engaged, higher activity levels were actually in the frontal lobe—responsible for executive functions such as planning, empathy and self-control.
It goes to show that imagination is a cognitive and intellectual process.
Other studies have also shown that imagination is closely linked to memory. Past events, ideas or objects seen can form the building blocks of what we eventually visualise.
This is why seeking out new experiences is encouraged for creativity.
Can we become more imaginative?
There’s no shortage of advice on becoming more imaginative, and hence, more creative—from taking a walk and being observant to listening to our environment.
But perhaps the most under-utilised tool in a digitised age is the lost art of boredom.
According to this 2013 study, boredom, although often considered irrelevant, is very important. In fact, it is theorised to encourage people to seek new goals.
But of course, too much of one thing isn't a great idea, so as with most things, balance is key.
“Everything you can imagine is real.” — Pablo Picasso
Now go stare at your ceiling.