On Imagination: Part 2
2. Where is imagination?
Obviously, imagination is in the brain. Or is it?
Well, yes it is. But we need to be careful about the terms we use to discuss imagination. Creativity and imagination come from the fact that human beings are conscious, but we are conscious as a species in society rather than as a collection of individuals. In my opinion it is a category error to say a person is conscious (even though, for all practical purposes, they definitely are), just as it is a category error to call one bird a flock. The important thing however is: in society – which every human being ever born lived, lives and will live in – we experience ourselves as self-aware. A similar debate could be enjoyed about “where” in the brain consciousness is, though many modern philosophers have pointed out the fallacies there. As Dirk Ngma observed in Beautiful Intelligence, consciousness, if anywhere, is somewhere in the space between people. But I digress…
The human brain is constructed in two halves linked by a bundle of neural fibres, the corpus callosum. In general, the left half of the brain tends to specialise in analytical, logical thought; it is consciously symbolic, abstracting, taking small pieces of information for analysis; it is temporal, and thus tends to think sequentially, in a defined order; it is rational, verbal, and digital. The right half tends to be more synthetic, thinking intuitively; it is nonverbal; it tends to experience in wholes, in real-time, without the need for symbol and conscious thought, and in this it is more direct; it tends to see relationships, nuances, resonances; it is intuitive, relying on unconscious pattern-fitting and recognition as the basis for understanding. In other words the left hemisphere tends towards reductionist thought, while the right tends toward holistic.
There may be a good reason for this arrangement. As Douglas Hofstadter pointed out, the two modes of thought are mutually exclusive; they cannot exist in the same symbolic system. Thus, two linked hemispheres, one ‘looking downward’ to parts, and one ‘looking upward’ to wholes, may have evolved, each with a certain amount of specialisation. Although our minds do not experience these halves as separate – all is a seamless whole – the brain does nonetheless use different parts of its physical arrangement for different types of thought. It’s also worth pointing out that “logical, analytical” people are not all right handed while “creative, intuitive” people are not all left handed. There is a difference between brain lateralisation and hemisphere dominance, with the latter now an often discredited description.
But because the two halves of the brain control the opposite side of the body, this means that should the left hemisphere be favoured a right handed person results, whereas right hemisphere favour brings a left hander. Human beings have a profound and genetically rooted bias towards one side of the brain, the left side, where language centres usually reside. This bias to one side is not unique in the animal kingdom, but its origin and evolutionary mechanism remains unclear, though for humans it must have something to do with language acquisition and associated modes of thought.
It has been noticed for a long time that left-handers tend to be more creative, and this may be a consequence of them tending to experience life holistically and intuitively, rather than logically or analytically. Their particular kind of experience tends to bring enhanced creativity. Brain surgeons talk of the brains of right handed people as being “like chocolate soldiers,” whereas the brains of left handers are far more varied. Well, you only have to think of Paul McCartney or Jimi Hendrix.
The mental model of reality built up by a human mind has one momentous advantage over reality itself: it is not subject to the laws of physics. It is non-physical; an emergent, symbolic model transcending the real neurons on which it is based. Such a model can bring into being variations of reality, thus allowing the mind to experience both reality and its myriad of metaphors; in other words, the mind acquires imagination.
The experience of reality by a human mind means it is endowed with reason, imagination and productive ability. The mind transcends the animal state, becoming fully alive, involving itself with reality. But to transcend reality, reality has to be seen; it has to be experienced. In fact, reality has to be seen very clearly. The clearer reality is seen and the more vividly it is experienced, the more intense the desire to transcend; in other words, the more creative the mind is. So it is not that being creative allows a person to see more clearly, in some special human way, rather that seeing and experiencing in a special way, in a human way, brings creativity as a consequence.
Creativity is the result of the human mind transcending reality through its ability to make a model, experiencing reality through emotions and through the holistic view (as well as in other modes), then imagining unrestrained variations. Emotional involvement in reality is profound involvement, the knowledge imparted being of a deep and realistic nature; it is not intellectual appreciation, though that does have some part of the experience. Thus, many of the characteristics of creativity, such as intuition, spontaneity, a sense of timelessness, a heightened awareness, are not rooted in the intellect but in more fundamental emotional understanding. Such sensations cannot be controlled as the intellect can; they well up from the roots of human understanding. This is why emotions often accompany creativity, for it is essential that the human mind tell itself, and others, of the importance of the creative act.
The holistic view is also vital. Such a view takes in the whole of reality, and is a clearer overall view than the analytical. Experiencing life holistically – that is, experiencing sensations and the self as a whole, while at the same time having the ability to see some parts – is a more profound way of experiencing reality on the human scale, and so this too makes the urge for creativity more intense. Reductionism has its uses, but we don’t live on those scales.
So, creative human beings can solve problems. The experience of difficulties in life forces us to fall back on our mental models, which can, by virtue of the non-physical state, change and alter reality in the imagination, and hence allow us to arrive at new understandings, which in turn bring new solutions. Such insights are often flashes of creativity, emotional and holistic understandings which are the fitting together in the imagination of the relevant parts of the problem, producing a new whole never seen before. Creativity is very much an unconscious phenomenon.
Part 3 tomorrow.