“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” – J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Most would consider imagination to be the playground of the young and the adult’s escape. Until recently I shared this blanket assumption. I was the child who saw not a playground but different worlds entirely. I spent as much time as possible wrapped in alternative identities, weaving outrageous stories and inventing other characters and creatures to share in my quests. Only a few others were privy to my creations and some of my best friends were not aware that in their company I was living a story and had given even them a new identity in my head.
Perhaps it was insecurity, a longing to be somebody other than myself (as a stubborn tomboy, many of the characters I created for myself were male), or maybe I was just odd. However, many would argue that rather than a peculiar characteristic of the insecure, the imagination is one of the most important tools that humans can access. Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Without knowing it, I was developing vital skills in a way that nobody can teach.
The term ‘imagination’ encompasses the ability to form images and ideas of concepts that are unknown; the ability to be creative and resourceful, and the part of the mind that imagines things. Simple enough definitions to grasp, but none properly convey the power imagination holds over our past, present and future. Eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote “the faculty of imagination is responsible for important features both of each individual human being’s mind and of the social arrangements that human beings form collectively.” (see more). Writing more recently in the bestseller Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari concurs, attributing all culture and cognitive evolution to the imagination. This gives a whole new meaning to the ‘playful’ imagination. It gives a great deal of responsibility to authors of fiction and TV and film makers in the development of society and the future of mankind.
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” – Albert Einstein
If we look first at the simpler, more familiar concept of imagination, we think of storytelling, fantasy and fairytales. Think Grimm, Lewis, Tolkein, Pratchett, Colfer, Pullman, Rowling, Martin, etc. All appeal to our imagination in creating worlds and creatures that do not exist. Our investment in such stories relies on our past experiences and the ability to draw parallels with our own lives and ideologies to create an image in the “mental arena” (Thomas, 1999) that is our imagination. By so doing we develop our creativity and inventiveness and open our minds to greater and more diverse possibilities. By this logic, I like to think that I developed my creativity at Hogwarts and my resourcefulness in Middle Earth. Every child’s dream.
I wonder what Steve Jobs, James Dyson and even Barack Obama read as children?
“While human evolution was crawling at snail’s pace, the human imagination was building astounding networks of mass cooperation, unlike any other ever seen on earth.” – Yuval Noah Harari
Does imagination hold the answer to why humans have found themselves at the top of the societal food chain?
Myths and legends are unique to the human race, conjured by imagination and the basis for the cultures, religions and ideologies of today. The first clear evidence of the human’s ability “to imagine things that do not really exist” (Harari) was found in a cave in Germany. The Stadel ‘Lion-man’ is estimated to be about 40,000 years old. An ivory figurine depicting a creature with the body of a human and the head of a lion, it is thought to be one of the first examples of ‘art’ and possibly of religion. The first cultural artefact?
Modern society is built on myths, stories and the personifications of ideas; Uncle Sam, St George, Jesus… Harari writes all culture “is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.” In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that even the dollar, the United States and Google are figments of our collective imagination. The concept of the US only survives because we all believe in it, we imagine it to be true. Harari asks that if something has no physical ties to the earth, does it exist beyond our imagination? If Google were to undergo immediate legal dissolution tomorrow what is there to confirm that it exists? Corporations are ‘fictions’, ‘imagined realities’, ‘social constructs’ (see more).
This question of existence is a really tough one to grapple with. Do we consider the imagination, our “mental arena”, to be a library of everything we know and trust, everything that we ‘imagine’ to be real? Or are we all in fact clinically insane, believing in what does not exist?
“Fairy stories loosen the chains of the imagination. They give you things to think with – images to think with – and the sense that all kinds of things are possible.” – Philip Pullman
The cultivation of our imagination in Einstein’s view comes from fairytales and fantasy, delving into worlds that we have to create for ourselves, guided by the words of the author. Philip Pullman, bestselling author of fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, agrees; fantasy allows the reader to break free of the shackles binding the imagination giving you more resources with which to think (read more).
What then happens if the current trend continues? Children are reading less and less as years pass in exchange for alternative activities such as watching television, movies and playing video games. Are these media forms really so bad? The film and TV industries are after all saturated with sci-fi and fantasy, not to mention the immersive and interactive video game world. What’s the difference between the written word and the silver screen?
I am of the ‘Harry Potter Generation’, that is, I was just about the right age to ‘grow up’ almost coincidentally with Harry and his friends. I awaited each instalment with eager anticipation and spent long hours wondering what would be in store for the characters. My experience of Harry Potter lasted a full 14 years, pretty much without a break and friends and family would confirm that I was pretty much obsessed.
My sister is eleven and loves the stories, but her experience lasts as long as it takes for her to read the books cover to cover; a few weeks if you’re a Nicholson. It will however, be very different because a lot of the ‘imagining’ has already been taken care of by the four directors and Stuart Craig the production designer in the creation of the films. Should we be worried about the future of culture and society if the development of imagination, and consequently creativity and resourcefulness, is restricted?
“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” – Carl Sagan
It is easy to believe that there are many vocations these days which appear not to require any imagination at all. Accountant for example, it’s just logic, right? No. Even an accountant uses imagination in problem-solving; thinking ‘outside the box’. An accountant needn’t have been a scholar of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin to be resourceful, granted, but an ability to conjure up a solution to the unknown is developed through a combination of experience and imagination (Harari).
I have come to believe that we owe an awful lot more to best-selling writers of fiction than purely our enjoyment and the opportunity to escape to another world. It goes without saying that authors such as J.K. Rowling will have influenced the interests and perhaps personalities of their readers in the same way that prehistoric tribal elders would pass down stories and thus culture from generation to generation. If the characters, plots and ideologies affect each reader on an individual level, the collective influence could be almost global in some cases. Is J.K. Rowling partly responsible for the future of our culture, our community and the world?
Imagination is so much more than just an ability to dream and create pretty pictures of fantasy worlds in our heads. As it turns out, we owe the survival of our species to the imagination.
At that child in the playground, the odd one waving a stick at no one or charging at an invisible foe, don’t laugh and point, but stop. Stand and watch as the future unfolds.
Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind. 2011. Yuval Noah Harari