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Useful And Fantastic: Applied Imagination - 1

Imagination is the ability to see what is not in front of your eyes. It is the most exciting faculty you have, declares Val Yule.

Applied Imagination is the ability to consider what may be possible in the real world, not only in fantasy.

This is urgent today, because there are so many crises and catastrophes in the world that should be faced, and there is so much unhappiness and depression that should not be. The greatest crisis of all is a crisis of human energy, mental energy.

Seeing with the inner eye is an ability that humans have with good reason. “What if we . . ?” “Suppose we . .” This is why we have not remained stuck up our primeval trees, unable to cross rivers, shivering when it is cold, carrying everything as we walk . . . Without imagination we cannot be ‘the wise human’, ‘homo sapiens’ and, we cannot even use our reason well.

Fantasy – using imagination to consider what is not possible in the real world we see around us – gives us tremendous pleasure. It is also vitally important to us, as we shall see. When – or if- we encourage children’s imagination, it is also to fit them to be fully competent in the changing world ahead of us.

The first part of this book looks at the nature of imagination, its enemies, and how to use it in your own life. The second part is ‘Practice in applied imagination’, chapters on almost anything, that can be dipped into, about alternative ways to do and to think, and about ‘social inventing’.

Social inventing is something anyone can do – finding ways to improve lives and solve social problems around us.

Science and technology have changed our lives and the whole world itself so dramatically in just two hundred years. Now it is time to turn our inventive energy to the business of human affairs, which science and technology have not been able to fix. The qualities needed for ‘social inventing’ are not specialist, requiring long and intensive training. We shall be looking at the mental tools of imagination that you do need, whether you are a child inventing a game or an adult caring for a child, or someone passionate about one of the messes around us and ahead of us. Or just to have a different form of fun.

The Muckraker was a fellow in a story so busy raking muck that he would not look up. If he had, he would have seen an angel offering him an escape from his cage and a crown of glory. A lot of muckraking still goes on since John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress in jail in 1678, and there are still alternatives to the life-style, if people lift their noses and their eyes.

Man the Naked Ape (Desmond Morris’s word for us) has kept inventing more things to cover his nakedness that other animals have not got round to. He keeps extending his own self by adding to himself – he adds clothing and housing to cover his skin, tools to extend his hands, books to extend his memory, cameras and spectacles to extend his vision, electronics to extend his communication, computers to extend his calculations, vehicles to extend his travels, artificial and harvested body parts to make up for physical defects (He or she has not yet invented English words for both genders together, and Man remains the generic term for all of us, but alternatives are offered later.) Almost anything that a human being can do, science and tecnology have found ways to help us do it better. Including reproducing and killing, life and death. The only thing that has not been invented as a further extension to a human being is improving his original impetus to be able to do all this. Imagination. We have tried to give computers imagination to see if they can imagine better then we can. So far they cant. And whether Man is notably improved as an Ape is hotly discussed, especially, perhaps by other apes.

Often people regard imagination as just about fantasy and what never was or will be. An imaginative little child is one who may imagine playmates, or bears under the bed. My little sister had three imaginary friends named Geraldine, Melusine and Kerosene as her defence against two older sisters. In schools, imagination is about creative writing and the arts and children’s books about giraffes wearing top hats that won’t stay on. And out of school it’s about horror films and fantasy fiction. But these are only spin-offs from what our inner eye can see.

Animals can find out how to do new things accidentally - like the Japanese monkeys who accidentally found out about washing potatoes in the sea, and learnt to keep on doing it. Human imagination can work on what we find out accidentally. Fleming noticed that something was killing off a germ culture in a little petri dish, and then imagination stepped on and started off the amazing life-saving field of antibiotics.

But Jules Verne imagined so much that is now our world in fantasy novels that he wrote at the rate of about forty a year, starting in the 1860s - nearly 150 years ago. Of his stories about going to the moon, twenty thousand leagues under the sea, round the world in eighty days, aircraft heavier than air. Almost the only notable fantasy of invention still not completed is his Voyage to the Centre of the Earth, but we already send probes deeper and deeper. Young writers of ‘Creative Fiction’ could benefit from reading Verne. H G Wells’ fantasies of the Time Machine and the Wars of the Worlds may still be realized – unfortunately the nightmare dystopias may overtake the dreams and visions. But just wait.

There was a young lady of Bright
Who traveled much faster than light
She eloped one day in a relative way
And returned home the previous night.

Someone in their mind’s eye has an idea, and from that comes a new step for humankind. Indeed, there is nothing we do, except for what comes instinctively or as an automatic response, that is not at some time a thought in the mind, as a child’s origin is sometimes said to have been a twinkle in its father’s eye. You could even hazard that what someone imagines, someone else will do. A hope and a caution.

Today so many dooms are looming around that a common response is to tune out.

This is about NOT tuning out. It’s what we could do with our imagination, to use it like great nets spread out to catch the future, and make it closer to what it could be if only - we used our imagination to see what might be possible, and also, as we should have learned, be aware of possible consequences.

Edward De Bono has caught the public imaginations with the idea of putting on different hats to think with. You put on different colored hats to ensure that your mind can think in different ways that can help solve problems. The idea of these hats has not changed the world for many reasons, which we can look at later. But it is a good idea to shake up the ways that we are used to thinking. There are fresh meadows still to see.

We can look at different ways to use our imagination. Looking out of our ruts (Get your head around this, outside your schemata, outside the squares, outside the circles). Only connect, Daily exercising, the Wishing Game, Measuring your imagination, Thinking as a pleasure, Going upriver for causes of problems, Reductionism - its uses and abuses, Curiosity - the driver of imagination.

The word imagination comes from the Latin word for an image – imago. It can be defined in many ways, because after all, it is only a word. An image is not the real thing, only a representation of it.

Here the word is used about seeing in the mind's eye, what is not immediately in front of you. It is an extraordinary ability, when you come to think of it, to see what is not there, but may be in the past or future or somewhere else or not anywhere at all. Psychologists have been fascinated by how it could be possible. What is its psychophysiology in the brain? Do animals imagine? Surely some can, such as the cats that find their way home, taking six or more months to arrive, hundreds of miles from where they may have been left behind. Ulysses was a cat in our family, unable to be found when it was time to return from a holiday. 'Home! Home!'' must surely have been imagined somewhere in his mind.
Humans can feel like abandoning all conceit that we are a special order of creation, as we look around the world and see how awful are the things we do.

‘Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll,
A thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
‘Man marks the earth with ruin, his control
Stops with the shore’

So wrote the poet Lord George Noel Gordon Byron (1788-1824, but ruin marks even the sea and sky today.

Many branches of the sciences that we are so proud of produce findings that cut us down to a small creature with great destructive power. Evolutionary psychology, a new study still not safely established as a science, attempts to show that everything we are and can do is laid down for us in our genes. It rather assumes that the evolution of the nature of the human species stopped at the time people began to shape the environment with fire and agriculture. So we are stuck at being a pretty hopeless war-programmed sex-ridden lot.

There was a young man who cried damn
I plainly perceive that I am
Predestined to move in a pre-ordained groove,
I’m not even a bus, I’m a tram.

Yet we can imagine better for ourselves. Our imagination can be different from Ulysses the cat imagining where it wants to be in order to find its way there. Through language we can communicate thoughts and ideas that are much freer than the ants’ signals with smells and waving feelers and little dances. Perhaps we may really be just as pre-programmed as the ants, bound to do what our genes have told us, but we can act as if we are not, we can act as if we do have free-will, even if we do not, and this may, perhaps, help to be a way out of our impasses.

‘Fantasy’ imagines what has not been possible in the ‘real world’, but it has often been a pathfinder to what is possible in the future. Read Jules Verne, H G Wells, and Buck Rogers’ space comics of the thirties to see where we go, what we think, what we can wear and what cities can look like in reality as well as in computer games. What is the ‘real world’ ‘really’ is arguable, but like the pin on the philosopher’s chair, which might or might not be there but he can feel it, how we perceive what we think we see does affect our lives regardless of how we spin out our theories.

Imagination is as important in the direction of human affairs as intelligence. The commonest definition of intelligence, How you score in an IQ, is preferred by social scientists because it is an objective measure that can be quickly scored and used in research, even though MENSA members with the highest scores in the population can be surprisingly silly in practical life. Intelligence more broadly defined as ‘the ability to work out what to do in a situation’, requires more than the memory for facts, pattern perception and speed of operations that are essential for high IQ stores. It has a positive relationship to imagination, but it is not the same.


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