Imagination: It might be the core of what human brains evolved to do

Imagination: It might be the core of what human brains evolved to do

Philip Ball writes:

‘To me,’ wrote William Blake in 1799, ‘this world is all one continued vision of fancy or imagination.’ The imagination, he later added, ‘is not a state: it is the human existence itself.’ Blake, a painter as well as a poet, created images that acquire their power not only from a certain naive artistic technique, but because they are striving to transcend it – to convey a vision of the world beyond superficial appearances, which only imagination can reach.

For the Romantics, imagination was a divine quality. ‘The primary Imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception,’ wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817. It was a powerful faculty that could be put to use, distinct from the mere ‘fancy’ of making up stuff – which all too often, is how imagination is conceived today.

Blake would have been unimpressed by modern scientific efforts to find imagination among the firing patterns of neurons, as if it was just another cognitive function of the brain, like motor control or smell perception. Likewise, he would have scorned the idea, favoured by some cognitive scientists, that imagination is a mere byproduct of more ‘important’ mental functions, evolved for other reasons – in the manner that the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker proposes that music is ‘auditory cheesecake’, piggybacking on basic skills required to process sound.

Compared with longstanding research about how we process music and sound, language and vision, efforts to comprehend the cognition and neuroscience of imagination are still in their infancy. Yet already there’s reason to suppose that imagination is far more than a quirky offshoot of our complicated minds, a kind of evolutionary bonus that keeps us entertained at night. A collection of neuroscientists, philosophers and linguists is converging on the notion that imagination, far from a kind of mental superfluity, sits at the heart of human cognition. It might be the very attribute at which our minds have evolved to excel, and which gives us such powerfully effective cognitive fluidity for navigating our world. [Continue reading…]

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