My friend Lara just showed me this wonderful TED talk by Theaster Gates about the power of imagination, and how, when let loose in the world, it can create remarkable things. Do you self a favour, and put aside 17 minutes of your time. You'll be glad you did.
One of the reasons I think our imaginations are in such a poor state in 2018 is that we spend so much time looking down. Look around you. On the bus, on the train, in the street. Our eyes are locked down to our screens, our attention elsewhere. So I want to share with me something that I find really helps.
It’s not just that this faculty of taking hold of the world in a steady way through imagination is waning, but our whole essential status as independent individuals is changing. We’re not becoming robots but we’re becoming much more subjected to vast systems. We live out most of our waking day in some way interacting within some larger system, whether it’s economic or otherwise, and this depletes us. It makes it harder to register reality in ways that people might have done formerly. So yeah, that’s one way it manifests. We live a more distracted, interconnected and sort of shallow daily-ness.
What happens in the brain when we’re being imaginative? Neuroscientists are moving away from the idea of what’s called ‘localisationism’ (the idea that each capacity of the brain is linked to a particular ‘area’ of the brain) towards the idea that what’s more important is to identify the networks that fire in order to enable particular activities or insights. Alex Schlegel is a cognitive neuroscientist, which he describes as being about “trying to understand how the structure and function of the brain creates the mind and the consciousness we experience and everything that makes us human, like imagination”.
As regular readers will know, I have been working, since March, on the research for a new book about imagination. In the spirit of sharing my research as I go along, I have been posting here the interviews I’ve been doing which I really hope you’ve enjoyed. More to come next year. Before I put robhopkins.net to bed for 2017, I thought I would share with you the list of books I’ve read over the year. I’ve read lots of other stuff too, papers, articles and so on, but I was inspired by Shane Parish over at the Farnham Street blog who compiled a list of all the books he read in 2016 .
So personally I feel like we have never been in a time of more imagination. I see children inventing, creating and also having a place to broadcast, because the more validation you get for your imagination, the more likely you’ll put some more stuff out.
This is an incredible time for imagination in the way people can connect. People can put their ideas out there. Say climate change, it doesn’t cost anything for a company to build a website that people can write their ideas in. You could set them problems and there are always a certain amount of people on the internet who are looking to come up with creative problems.
While the media is full of the story of the declaration of independence of Catalonia and the subsequent response by the Spanish national government, what is not being told so much is the very real, and remarkable, story of the municipalist approach that has risen there, and elsewhere in Spain. I recently visited the city, and spoke to Felix Beltran, a freelance editor, proof reader, festival organiser and municipal activist, who takes part in what is happening in the city.
When we approached him in 2013 and said, “Have you ever thought about quinoa growing?” He said, “Have I ever thought about quinoa growing?!” He said, “I tried it in the 80s and no-one was interested.” And we said, “Look at the internet, Peter”. And he phoned up the next day, and he said, “Quinoa is everywhere!” “Yep, people are ready for quinoa. Your moment is here.”
When people say, “Well it didn’t do me any harm” which a lot of people say, and then you stop, and you pause, and you ask them the question, “Do you remember the first day?” some people will go, “Oh, well of course I remember the first day, it was terrible, you know.” There are so many stories of people who were really excited about going to boarding school. It had been built up. And then there they are standing on the threshold of this huge institution, these tiny little children with a monster stranger, who is called the Headmaster, or a Headmistress.
Professor Gordon Turnbull is someone I wanted to interview for this book project for a long time. He is a consultant psychiatrist who has spent a lot of his career in the Royal Airforce before going into civvy street, where he continues to work as a consultant psychiatrist. In 2011 he wrote a brilliant book ‘Trauma: from Lockerbie to 7/7: how trauma affects our minds and how we fight back’ which I highly recommend. He pioneered a recognition of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the armed services and more widely in society.
He sees trauma, as he told me, as “part of the human condition. It’s actually the way we learn about things, particularly under duress”. “It’s oddly not right to see PTSD as a disease”, he continued, “as an aberrant reaction. It’s actually a normal reaction to an abnormal stimulus. An abnormally long life threatening experience, so that we actually make the most of that experience to learn a new skill”. We chatted by Skype, and here is an edited version of our conversation. I started by asking him just how prevalent, in society, he believes trauma is today:
There I was, at 10 o’clock at night, wandering the streets of Gothenburg in the dark, with an 17kg sack (which is heavy) of biochar straddling the handle of my wheelie suitcase thing, lost, tired, and wondering what on earth I was doing. It wasn’t the plan. Someone was meant to meet me at the station, carry the bag, and show me where I was staying. But, due to some confusion, it was just me and my bag of biochar. “One day”, I thought, desperate for my bed, “I will be able to share this and to laugh about it. One day. But certainly not today”. When I finally arrived at the hotel, exhausted, and delighted to no longer have to drag biochar around the city, the receptionist said “what’s that?” “It’s a long story” I said. But it’s a story I’m going to share with you now.