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Useful And Fantastic: Applied Imagination – 7

"The stories that we all tell ourselves influence our own lives, as our imagination weaves interpretations and expectations,'' says Val Yule.

Imagination shapes the construction of self, in what we see as our own possibilities. It can set goals and ambitions, or shrink our selves through undue perceptions of limitations. ‘I couldnt do that’ and ‘I’m not like that’ and 'I wouldn't have the patience.'

Imagination can make us see other people as if they were monsters. Novice mothers can see their tiny toddlers as threatening ogres eight feet tall, for example. But imagination also makes for harmony in relationships. To ‘imagine the other’ makes it possible to maintain long-term intimacy and affection in relationships across gender, age, culture and working conditions, and to care with kindness for children, the disabled and the dying. ‘Expressing our emotions’ and being ‘honest’ can be a destructive sort of self-indulgence, unless that very honest person pauses to imagine being on the receiving end of what they say, and consequently, the likely reactions from that other end. Vendettas and reciprocal vengeance go on for generations because of failure to use this sort of imagination.

Imagination can give us advance notice of how people will naturally respond to acts of revenge, and how they respond to all posturing in international, social and industrial affairs.
When other people are imagined to be not as human as we are, then we can assert ‘The only language that they understand is violence.’ Throughout the Middle East, ‘other people’ are turning out to be as human as each other, and they respond to violence in the same way that the perpetrators would.

Intellectuals and even teachers often comunicate only to their own small in-groups because they can fail to imagine what it is like for others who do not have their own insider knowledge and language.

Education ought to develop imagination. Piaget (1926) and others show how all new learning has to be assimilating the unknown to the known, and existing mental schemata acomodate to the new input. Whatever does not resonate to our present condition does not stick in our memory. Education has to ‘start where the children are’ - but the trick is to avoid leaving them there, giving them only what seems ‘relevant’ - that is, what they know about already. It is a dangerous assumption that teachers know where the children are. A major purpose of schooling is to discover what is not known - and a child of four is excited about travel to the stars, a) because he does not know about it, and small children are naturally curious about what they do not know, until it is squashed out of them, b) because it resonates with his psychological development.

'John and Betty' early reading books were more boring to other middle-class children who knew the life-style than to children unfamiliar with sailing boats on ponds or playing tea-parties. A slum child was shown a range of books to choose one that she would like to keep; she decided on a Leila Berg story about how stupid it was to offer slum children a story about a fairy tale princess, not something relevant to their own lives. I asked the little girl what she liked about the book. She clutched it to her, and then turned with starry eyes to a page in the middle, with a colored picture of the princess in a cottage in a forest.

Imagination can make us aware of our own death, and that what happens to others could happen to us too. Otherwise that is not easy for us to credit, when we are so alive. Our lives can be constructed according to how we imagine what we are and where we might be heading. Our religions involve a great deal of imagination by whatever revelation and fantasy and openness to numinous experiences, which theologians then attempt to put into some sort of logical construction.

New visions mutate from past experience. It is impossible for human creativity to be ex nihilis, so it has to mean building new things from old. Works of imagination of the greatest consequence have been practical inventions and innovative solutions to problems. Archimedes had a ‘Eureka!’ experience while immersed in his bath, which helped to solve the scientific question of the specific density of gold. This ability to apprehend serendipity has been shared by countless thousands, most of them unknown, as they realized how to use fire, grow plants, and make clothes, pots and tools. The progress of objective Science through the ‘scientific method’ of collecting data and making inferences and deductions has required imaginative breakthroughs of ‘What if?’ ‘Do these connect?’ ‘Would this work?’ and the consummation of ‘Aha!’ experiences.

Imagination applied in science and tecnology has transformed our lives more than anyone could have imagined, to raise our standard of living, save and preserve life, and kill from a distance. So much, so wonderful, that now it can seem unimaginable that there could be anything at all that Science cannot achieve, including rescue from its unintended consequences. It needs imagination to realize the limitations! Because once again humans have created their own idol to worship, as they have always tended to do.

It is time to turn to social inventions the inventing drive of the Industrial Revolution, the Technological Revolution and the Electronic Revolution over the past three hundred years. Surrounded by disasters of our own making, we need ideas and projects to improve quality of life, solve social problems and turn around our hell-bent direction. Social inventions need everyone’s imagination, whoever and wherever. Robert Jungk (1954), a founder of the British Institute for Social Inventions, hoped that ‘everyone could come to see themselves as effective fellow-architects of a world in which they and their children would wish to live.’

Every day we use tecnological and scientific inventions. We are aware of this, and even know the names of some of the inventors – although most of the famous names we know are only entertainers. Less aware still are we aware that every day we benefit from social inventions made by other people whose only qualifications were their curiosity, imagination, and persistence. Social innovations can be engineered for financial profit, but stronger motivators are ideals and the inner drive to create.

Examples of social inventions include democracy, the alphabet, markets, postcards, pastimes and cooking recipes. They include art exhibitions, back yards, charity organizations, dances, holidays, kindergartens, name tags at meetings, charity shops, the Plimsoll Line, scouts, surfing, trade unions, and universal education.

Lack of imagination prevents people seeing how many are the aberrations we tolerate, and how many they are. I produced a calendar in 2002 that listed ‘A Problem to Solve Every Day except Sundays’, 365 problems from A to Z, as a solution against boredom. It was not popular. There was more enthusiasm for a calendar for the previous year, with a Holiday Every Day of the Year, taken from international calendars round the world, and inspired by the Balinese, whose calendar listed a holiday for every religion that touched toe on their island, as well as their own multiple Hindu festivals. What a great idea!

But there should be a data-base of ‘Inventions that are needed’, that everyone could look up, and think how they could produce a needed invention or innovation themselves. A start at one is on the Ozideas website. For example, innovative thinking and creative action are needed for - adventures for high-spirited youth, alternatives to self-destructive pleasures, alternatives to war, cooperation as an economic motivator historically more useful than competition, electoral improvements to ensure democracy, fashions both beautiful and comfortable, how to pay for all the jobs that need to be done, faster ways to learn literacy, humane solutions to populations exhausting resources, and sustainable households.


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