Imagination taking power

Scott Barry Kaufman on why imagination matters

Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director at the Imagination Institute and a researcher in the Positive Psychology Centre of the University of Pennsylvania.  He teaches their course on Positive Psychology for undergraduates.  He is one of the leading thinkers on the topic of imagination.  A few weeks ago I was fortunate to speak to him by Skype, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump.

What is imagination and how is it distinct from creativity?

I see imagination as a necessary, but not sufficient condition for creativity.  Creativity involves a lot more than your ability to imagine, but imagination is essential.  So I define imagination as the ability to represent things in your mind that aren’t currently present to your senses.  That’s a very technical definition of imagination, but it encompasses lots of different things.

So it could encompass sensory processing; your vision of the future; perspective taking; taking the perspective of someone else: you obviously can’t read their mind literally, but you can infer their mind.  It involves compassionate thinking about the suffering of someone else.  It can involve imagining future possibilities for yourself and the world, like grand visions, and things like that.  Visual spatial rotation, the kind of imagination that engineers do.

I see lots of different sub-processes that all fall under the umbrella of imagination.  Creativity requires a lot more than that though.  If we define creativity as originality and meaningfulness in your life, then it requires thinking, imagining new possibilities, not just any old thing.  If I imagine what I’m going to have for breakfast tomorrow, that’s not necessarily creative.  So imagining new possibilities, but also that have meaning or value to the world or to yourself.  There’s creativity every day in our lives which encompasses a set of habits that I talk about in Wired to Create that are essential to being creative or living a creative life.  And imagination would really just be one part of that.

Why do we need to be able to imagine?  Why did evolution give us this particular ability?

It was essential to consciousness, to our ability to stand away from the present moment, and be able to plan our future, be able to exert self-control over our current actions.  The famous marshmallow study that everybody knows about, and it was just immortalised in this recent Donald Trump cartoon in the New Yorker (children were given the option of taking a marshmallow immediately, or waiting 15 minutes or so, and they could have two marshmallows).

“You can eat the one marshmallow right now, or, if you wait fifteen minutes, I’ll give you two marshmallows and swear you in as President of the United States.”

The ones that were really able to have self-control were those that were really able to imagine those two marshmallows – really think about a future beyond that current moment.  And you know, for millions of years of human evolution, we really were tied to the present moment and all we produced were hand axes, and we really didn’t have many great innovations.  But I think slowly when these genetic mutations occurred allowing us to start thinking in longer time-frames, that’s when we really start to see a creative explosion, and a cultural explosion.

In your book, “Wired to create” you suggest 10 habits for creativity, for individuals to become more creative.  If you had been elected yesterday, instead of the person who was elected, and your aim was to bring in a culture wide acceleration of the imagination…

Make America Imaginative?

Make America Imagine Again.  Yeah.  What would you do?  What would a culture wide programme of trying to make as many people as imaginative as possible look like?

We would have to completely reinvent the education system in America.  I would probably appoint a different Secretary of Education than the one that’s just been appointed!

When you and I use the word imagination, we’re really referring to positive imagination.  We’re referring to encouraging a world where people can imagine bright positive futures that are realistic, that are inspiring.  That’s the kind of imagination I would advocate as more of a culture that would be infused in schools.  Kids would be more encouraged to dream, to daydream, to share their ideas with others, to create projects where they can make incremental progress towards those goals.  Things like that.

But then what about for adults?  What about everyone who has left school and had their imagination squashed over that time and are now out working in jobs where their imagination is something they leave on a peg with their coat when they arrive in the morning?

People are people, you know.  Kids grow up to become adults, but we have the same basic needs and ways of getting the best out of ourselves.  I would apply very similar principles in business, in the way that organisations are structured and the reward structures of organisations, the motivating forces.  There’s lot of levers of imagination that could certainly be applied in the workplace.

Do you think we have an imagination crisis?

I think there is an imagination crisis in the sense that we’re not allowing easy mechanisms for people to generate multiple possibilities, that some of them might sound crazy. Some of them which may be so outside the traditional norm.  But this is a wide scale problem in academia, and as you note, in climate change. This is a very widespread problem. I’m with you on that.


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© Rob Hopkins 2017