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Learning to Imagine

By Jacob Bruggeman

In 1929, Albert Einstein sat for an interview with the Saturday Evening Post. Einstein’s work on general relativity and unified field theory won him a Nobel Prize in 1921 and captivated the public imagination. When the Post interviewer asked about the inner-workings of the physicist's mind, Einstein replied: “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” In postwar America, the idea that imagination is separate from knowledge took on a force of its own. Social scientists, businessmen, and educators conceptualized "imagination” as the defining trait of geniuses like Einstein, the essential quality of children uncorrupted by education and age, and the animating characteristic of free-spirited dreamers dancing their way to self actualization. 

In Learning to Imagine: The Science of Discovering New Possibilities, the psychologist Andrew Shtulman argues that separating imagination and knowledge is one of several myths and misperceptions that impoverish our understanding of what imagination is, how it works, and how we can cultivate it as individuals, organizations, and societies. Surveying decades of research in psychology, most notably childhood cognitive development, Shtulman suggests we need major revisions to “our unimaginative imagination”: children are less imaginative than we think; education often does more to structure imagination than suffocate it; knowledge is necessary for imagination, but expectations about what can or will happen constrain innovation; science fiction, religion, and mathematics are all, perhaps surprisingly, tools to strengthen the muscle of imaginative thinking. It is a high time indeed, this period of perceived decadence and decline, to reexamine our models for thinking. 

I recently spoke with Shtulman about the relationship between imagination, knowledge, and innovation, and the importance of understanding imagination as a skill, rather than a trait. Our exchange was edited for clarity. 

Jacob Bruggeman: You begin Learning to Imagine by observing common pop cultural references to whimsical and imaginative children. What do we get wrong about imagination when we associate the concept with children? When did this view of imagination take hold in society? And why does it have such a hold on our thinking?

Andrew Shtulman: Imagination is the ability to think of possibilities beyond the here and now. It is critical to problem solving and decision making and thus something everyone deploys, children and adults alike. The reason we associate imagination more strongly with children is probably because we are impressed to see children use their imagination at all. Rather than just repeat what they’ve learned, children can generate novel ideas of their own, and watching that ability emerge in a tiny human is impressive. On the flipside, we fail to appreciate the many ways that adults use imagination in daily life, as adults tend to apply imagination to their work and work strikes us as the antithesis of imagination. Still, if we look closely at the possibilities that adults generate and compare them to those generated by children, it’s undeniable that adults’ imagination is richer and farther ranging

JB: This common association of imagination with childhood has led to a number of “myths.” The first is that we often think of imagination as a trait, rather than a skill. “Genius” and “creativity” are often thought of in similar ways. An “imaginative” or “creative” person is just so, the thinking goes, because of some natural characteristic or inherent psychological profile. Academic disciplines and business managers have spent decades chasing these traits in measurable phenomena and desirable employees. You suggest this has led researchers, teachers, and everyday people astray. Why? 

AS: Imagination is fueled by two cognitive resources: knowledge and reflection. Knowledge provides a database of possibilities that we can tinker with in search of more useful permutations. Reflection allows us to undertake this activity deliberately and efficiently; by reflecting on what we know to be true, we can actively generate permutations that we can then test rather than wait until we stumble on those permutations by happenstance. Accordingly, if our goal is to become more imaginative, then we need to acquire more knowledge relevant to the problems we are working on and reflect on that knowledge more diligently or systematically. Anyone can do this, and it would be a mistake to locate imaginativeness in the heads of just a few, as if imaginativeness was fixed at birth and could not be enhanced with effort or education.

JB: Is the argument essential that a person’s imaginative capacity is shaped by environmental factors? What should we make of individuals who become incredibly imaginative?

AS: Imaginativeness is most definitely shaped by environmental factors. The people who we might point to as unusually imaginative, like Da Vinci or Einstein, had acquired vast knowledge in their fields of expertise, as well as the habit of actively reflecting on that knowledge. That said, there are people who know a lot and are very reflective but never happen to discover revolutionary ideas. Luck is an important factor in the search, as is the size of the search party. The more people in search of a revolutionary idea, the more likely at least one of those people will find it.

JB: A second myth rears its head in how we talk about education. It is common for politicians, parents, and TedTalk experts to blame education for stymying the imaginative thinking inherent in children. But this is not a new argument, and it’s not exclusively focused on education. Hundreds of books and studies from the last 70 years lament the midcentury arrival of a “bureaucratic society,” the “organization man,” and massive social pressure for families to fall in line with consumer trends and “keep up with the Joneses.” In short, many have worried that social institutions and cultural norms encourage conformity rather than imagination, innovation, and even individuality. How do our institutions and cultural norms shape imaginative thinking? Where do our understandable concerns go wrong? Why is education, in your view, actually essential for imaginative thinking? 

AS: The relation between imagination and knowledge is complicated. Knowledge provides the fodder for contemplating new possibilities, but it also constrains which possibilities we contemplate. It’s helpful to think of the relation between knowledge and imagination as a familiar path through a vast landscape of possibilities. There are many possibilities to be discovered right off the path, but the path itself constrains where we search. Still, the best way to expand our search is not to erase the path—or prevent people from wandering down that path by depriving them of the relevant knowledge—but to forge new, additional paths. The more we know, the farther our imaginations can wander, and education is critical to increasing that knowledgebase. Of course, not all education is equal. Classes and curricula that encourage students to adopt a narrow focus are less helpful for facilitating imagination than those that foster higher-order, interdisciplinary thinking.

JB: If we accept that imaginative thinking is a skill, rather than a trait, then we can effectively strengthen our imagination through purposive practice. In the book, you point to ways we can expand our imagination: through examples (testimony, tools, and anomalies), principles (science, mathematics, and ethics), and models (pretense, fiction, and religion).

AS: Examples, principles, and models are three forms of knowledge that expand imagination. Examples expand imagination by transporting us from our familiar path within the landscape of possibilities to some other, unfamiliar location. Examples are single facts or observations, such as learning about an unfamiliar event, interacting with an unfamiliar tool, or making an unexpected discovery. Principles are abstract ideas that generate their own examples, such as scientific theories, mathematical laws, and ethical codes. Principles do not just transport us to new locations within the landscape of possibilities; they carve their own path through that landscape. Finally, models are frameworks that allow us to stimulate alternatives to known reality, and they include pretense and games, fictional narratives, and religious theologies. Models, like principles, are more powerful than examples because they are generative; they allow us to manipulate the landscape itself through vicarious exploration.

JB: Fiction and religion are essential “models” for expanding the imagination. Over coffee last week, I relayed this argument to a group of four friends, many professional social scientists, over lunch in D.C. All but one were resistant to the idea, especially when it came to religion. Why are these models important? And what factors—historical, educational, cultural, etc.—might explain why the hard-nosed social scientists furrow their brows when we make the case for fiction and religion? 

AS: Fiction and religion expand particular types of imagination. Fiction expands our social imagination by immersing us in vicarious social interactions, and religion expands our metaphysical imagination by situating the events we experience within a system of entities and processes we cannot. Both fiction and religion provide alternative accounts of reality, as well as point to alternative ways of living and thriving. The countless hours that humans spend engaged in fictional worlds—books, games, television shows, movies—speaks to the psychological appeal of simulating vicarious social interactions. Likewise, the countless hours that religious individuals devote to prayer and worship speak to the psychological appeal of contemplating metaphysical possibilities beyond the realm of human experience.

JB: Much of the research you command in your chapters focuses on children: their brains, patterns in their behavior, limits in their thinking. What should adult readers of Learning to Imagine take away to expand their own imaginative thinking? How might educators, policymakers, and entrepreneurs interpret your findings?  

AS: Each chapter covers the origins of imagination in different areas of thought as well as the means by which we expand imagination. Children are a prime population for studying origins, but studies of children also provide important details about how imagination is structured and why those structures are difficult to change, even in adulthood. For instance, children are prone to conflate improbability with impossibility, denying that events that violate their expectations could happen in the real world, and adults, it turns out, are prone to do the same. When we accept that an improbable event like intergalactic travel or human extinction is possible, it is not because our intuitions about possibility have radically changed; it’s because we are better at challenging those intuitions with contravening considerations. Adults are more knowledgeable than children as well as more reflective, but the particular type of knowledge matters as well as the particular mode of reflection. The findings reviewed in Learning to Imagine survey the lessons learned from four decades of psychology on how we can transform imagination from ordinary to extraordinary—from generating close permutations of familiar possibilities to devising possibilities that no one has ever entertained.

Jacob Bruggeman is the associate editor of FUSION.


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