Notes on Creativity and Imagination
On 11th December 2018, at the CheckInn99, along with William Wait, we explored creativity and imagination. Below are my thoughts I shared with the audience.
The most astonishing, extraordinary thing that happened to each of us tonight is we walked into this room without stopping to marvel and reflect where we are. We aren’t in nature but in constructed space sprung came from imagination. This is true of all rooms around the globe. We’ve gathered inside a confined space designed for entertainment, food, socializing, and exchange of ideas. You know some of the people in this room but many are strangers. You feel relaxed, comfortable and not threatened. All of these feelings are recent and quite unusual.
We’ve occupied man-made rooms for a brief period in the existence of our species. But long enough that we no longer notice that the room and everything in it is the product of imagination realized through various creative acts. The same is true of everything contained in this room. Everything you are wearing, carrying—your clothes, shoes, cellphones, iPads, watches, glasses, rings, handbags, wallets—all are products of imagination.
Imagination is a powerful force that co-ordinates movement, decision-making, and emotions. The evidence is all around us.
We have an embarrassing question, though. Imagination. What exactly is it? Where does it come from? What is it for? Why do we have imagination and other species don’t? Lots of unanswered questions about this immaterial thing we call imagination. You can’t touch it. You can’t see or hear it. You can’t smell or feel it either. It is an elusive, subjective experience we’ve all had.
It happens inside our mind. It leaves footprints in our consciousness.
Imagination depends on your mental state. Are you asleep or awake?
This black box of non-sleep imagination goes offline every night when you fall asleep. Your brain switches the place of operation. In the latter stages of REM sleep (there are four stages) your imagination is a series of hallucinations, randomly assembling of emotions, visual images and memory by the most primitive part of your brain stem.
This part of the brain stem makes no effort to edit or control weird strange events, creatures, and landscapes. Dragons and unicorns rise to the surface in deep sleep. Your memory, feelings, and image storage areas go into full improv mode. Imagination in sleep is this surreal, chaotic mix of information from the active centers of the brain associated with motion/movement, emotion, memory and visualization. Your dreams are the harvest of imagination management in sleep mode. We discover sleeping brains produce this unmanaged chaos. This is not an occasional experience, it happens every night.
Imagination is different when we are awake. In our non-sleeping part of the day, our imagination is managed by the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, which uses rationality, planning and logic to order what how our brains process movement, feeling, memory, image and pattern recognition.
We stayed alive because in real life experiences our pre-frontal cortex edited out excessively bizarre, unhinged images, behavior, and events. It was fear and peril that keeping the delusions in the dream state that we survived in our waking state with a different kind of imagination. We learn to understand that magical objects and beings are not real but a fantasy. What makes a video game so powerfully addictive is we are emerged in the visual story as a player. When we unplug from a day-dream or a video game, most people snap back into reality. What happens when you fail to wake up from the day-dream or the video game continues in your mind in the unplugged video game world? You can’t step outside of it. That’s called being mentally ill. The doctor says you have become psychotic or delusional.
Mediums to imagine in
Are there different mediums of imagination? Imagination is exercised in more than one way. Some people process their imagination through mathematics. Newton, Dirac, Einstein, Turing and Von Neumann to take a few noted examples. Their imaginary portal opened with equations and numbers. Other people’s imagination is expressed in the language of musical notes. Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, William Wait. They compose sonatas and overtures in their head. And still others process their imagination in the medium of images, colors, textures, or shapes. Through movement we call dance. And we imagine in language. Writers use a metaphor as an imagination enhancer.
Look around the room and choose your medium. Nothing you observe, in whatever imagining you choose, is a direct product of nature. The objects, events and the interactions are creations that originally can be traced back to an act of imagination of some individual or group of people. Mostly we don’t know nor do we care who first came up with the idea of fork or spoon or air-conditioner.
Facebook and email spilled out of someone’s imagination. Could Facebook have arisen out of the imagination of someone living in the distant past?
Plato, Confucius, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, Jane Austen or David Hume never saw a TV, used a cellphone, drove a car, rode in a plane, took an antibiotic, switched on an electric light, or forgot half a dozen logon passwords before breakfast. They never imagined such things. Yet we can’t imagine life without them. Imagination is contained inside a particular state of technological development in time.
Look at the ceiling lights. Most people who ever lived never imagined such a thing. The same goes for the electrical circuit boards in your cellphone and computer, the floors, walls, cupboards, carpets, chairs, sofas—all of them sprang quite recently from an imagination, which ignited another’s imagination which in turn sparked creativity activity to realize what had been imagined. There are gaps that imagination can fill.
Guttenberg had a brilliant imaginary leap.
He imagined that a wine press could function as a printing press. He also had the technical skills and tools to adapt a machine to another use.
One Heart Beat
An American architect and sculptor named Edward Casagrande is an example of creativity. He was approached by a man who arrived with old his pace maker. The device had worn out and was removed from his chest. What do you do with a no longer useful pace maker? He gave the old pace maker to Edward and asked him to incorporate it into a work of art. The artist imagined how a pace maker manufactured for insertion into your chest, could be made into a post-chest artifact that told a story.
He created a sculpture of the heart and a pace-maker as visual experience that makes the observer re-elevate her relationship with our heart as a machine that works one beat at a time. I played a small role. Edward had read Heart Talk, my book on the Thai language use of the root jai or heart in hundreds of different phrases. Image in your mind what that piece of art looks like. What would you have done with the old pace maker to incorporate it into a work of art?
In a hundred years, assuming our species hasn’t gone extinct, people just like you will marvel at how we never imagined the objects and events of their world. We will be in the same category of people like Confucius, Jane Austen and Thomas Jefferson who lived limited, sheltered, and narrow lives captured by the artifacts of a primitive technology and at, from our perspective, suffered from a low level and slow speed of innovation. Imagine a future world in which the pace of technological developments at the Nobel Prize level happens every minute of every day. And those future people consider that pace of innovation as normal.
History of imagination. Our species has been around for 300,000 years and for 99.999% we made sense of the world through a limited database of information, knowledge, belief, our GPS, our calculator of odds, risks, and opportunities. To turn it off meant you were lost, confused, and very likely soon dead.
History has many examples of the powerful seeking to control, limit or contain people’s imagination. A separate talk would be needed to describe the restriction on women’s imagination right up the Enlightenment. The English Witchcraft Act of 1735 punished people—actually it was overwhelmingly women—for advertising powers to channel spirits, to predict future events, to cast spells on enemies or to locate stolen goods. These are acts of imagination that have been criminalized. There is a long history of suppressing imagination through witchcraft, heresy, and censorship laws. We get the idea that imagination is seen as dangerous by the authorities unless it is controlled, regulated, and directed
Imagination hijacking. There has always been a downside. Our imagination is easily hijacked. In prior times it was religious figures or government officials who provided the images and visions to fire our imagination. For instance, the grand question, to imagine what happens after death. There’s been a large audience for such imagination makers. We once called them performance artists, shamans, story-tellers, and court jesters, who provided the images, music, songs, dance and words to create legends, fables and myths. The modern process of imagination making has changed. The Internet spawned a new system of digital imagination hijacking. Social media addicts suffer from the digital equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. They defend their captors.
Imagination triggers. Compared with the authority figures of the past, who sat as guardians of our imagination, we have been drawn into a world of social media. Daily thousands of stories compete for our attention. Our attention is that mental facility that is triggered by death, violence and sex. That’s why you see a large amount of content about war, conflict, murder and porno. Such stories trigger strong emotions such as fear, anger, lust, envy and hatred as if we personally faced a murderer or natural disaster like a typhoon, earthquake, or forest fire.
If you’re a materialist, imagination is found in the firing of neurons and hormones in the brain. If you’re a romantic, imagination is a gift of the Muse. Inspiration comes from a mystical and magic and unknowable source.
Creativity. Imagination is the rough draft used by creativity to innovate. In the world of Star Trek, you can travel across the universe at warp speed. No matter how creative we are, no one has figured out how to create the technology to allow a space ship to reach warp speed.
Competition for superior weapons means there is pressure to hire creative minds through benefits and propaganda. These creative minds become a part of a heavily funded industrial/military complex to innovative more powerful and precise weapons. This explains how imagination is harassed to construct future technology. We highly reward those whose creative talents are responsible for the next generation of killing tools. Where the private and public sector blurs the space between them. The world of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple are creative processes with a mission to invent a future that they control.
Most of our lives are spent in rooms where people imagined objects and events and invented the creative methods to realize the imagination. We also learn it is easier to imagine than it is to realize that imagination. It can stay in your head. You don’t have to worry about testing, product development, quality control, funding, the law of physics, or biology. In the creative world of objects, all of these elements require coordinated activities of lots of different people who must create as a group. Organizing, funding and cooperation supports creativity.
Imaginary Source Material. What is the source of our imagination?
Most of our information sources are discovered through our direct contact with the physical world. We evolved to take in information in this fashion—first hand, direct experience of living in nature. But our source of imagination, however, has changed for many. Two billion people have Facebook accounts and acquire their information about the world largely from what appears in their timeline. There are other platforms: Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest to fire up a wide range of ideas and images. This is a temporary state. Social media is likely a passing phase in our information evolution.
In the emerging VR digital world, a new source of imagination is opening, strange, elegant, surprising, and surreal. In this world we are both in and out of our heads at the same time. That’s bound to create new avenues for imagination to travel.
Airplane announcement. You know the standard announcement as you are buckled in your seat as the aircraft pulls away from the gate: turn off your electronic devices. Turn off your laptop. Put your cellphone on sleep mode. There we sit with our “neck top” unconnected with the outside world.
That private processor in your head is burning the equivalent of 20 Watts. Not enough to interfere with the pilot’s navigation or communication systems. We are left with only our body and its head stripped from its usual outside augmentation. For a moment, they are getting to know each other like two old lovers who’d not seen each other for ages. We go into withdrawal when separated from our information feeds. We lose our imagination.
Self–publishers. We think of ourselves as independent publishers of reality stories. We don’t think we have or others have imagined our stories. We don’t think about those whose imagination and creativity are responsible for the culture we inhabit. In fact, we aren’t indie publishers; we are imprints of our time, place and culture.
We spent most of our lives processing stories we consume from story-tellers of one variety or another. Our story-tellers include those who are currently alive along with many others long. We are genre people crammed with stories waiting for an audience to share them with as if they belong to us. Our ‘self’ is structured on the scaffolding of these stories. If I know your time, place and culture, I have a good chance to understand where, how and from whom you acquired the components of your imagination. And its limits.
You can predict the stories people will tell as their own and you can hear the echo of others in those tales. The longer back we go, from the observer’s perspective, the more impoverished a person’s imagination appears. Think of the 1950s science fiction movies. We laugh. As those a hundred years from now, if there are people left, will laugh at us.
Creative genius. Everyone starts with the same seed for creative genius. The potential is in everyone to be creative. But nothing prepares us with being submerged in an overwhelming sea of information. We aren’t taught swimming lessons to survive in this sea. We offload the work to others who seem to have mastered the art of dog paddling in this sea. They bark. We listen.
This sea of information is all around us—most of the time we don’t know the size, shape or boundaries of this giant information machine that challenges our creativity. We are taunted by its vastness, its chaos, its indifference to us, and its failure to bend to our will.
The Good Bad and Ugly of Creativity. Of course, words like creative can be slippery. Don’t assume that creative is always one hundred a good thing. It can produce evil, existential results, too. More about that possible dark side that be as creative and original as any artist. And don’t assume all creative people are geniuses. Everyone is creative. Just like everyone has an imagination. But acquiring and inventing creative tools and processes are hard. That’s why it is easier to imagine a unicorn or dragon than to create one.
Creativity and imagination come installed as basic, standard kit at birth. But it isn’t one setting; it’s a wide spectrum with some people at the long-tail where creativity and imagination are small, isolated oasis as they journey life through a vast desert of routine, habit, and downloaded beliefs. Like certain talents or intelligence, some people are both creative and imaginative at the other end of the long-tail. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of these extremes.
Time Travel machine. While creative or imagination can be a lot of different I found the two words describe different states that define us as species. Imagination is a time travel machine. Your imagination visualizes, witnesses and experiences an event or object in the past or future. As consumers we pay for and consume the imagination of people who make films, video, paintings, music, books, and dance. We graft the imagination of strangers into our own imagination.
How many times a day does our media uploaded imagination into our neck top take us out of the present? Multiple times. It happens when you realize where you’ve entered a time realm in your mind. An imagined happening in the past or the future. It is exactly this activity of the mind that is hard to shut down. It’s that jazz music channel that is always playing in the background. Your mind weaves in and out of reality like a drunk looking for a lamppost to lean against.
Imagination had evolutionary advantages. It allowed a small seed population to spread and increased over the entire globe. While this took many thousands of years, on the time scale of evolution this was a blink of an eye. Imagination was the short-cut or mental hack that allowed us to visualize what was on the other side of a mountain or the opposite shore.
Imagination has also produced the tools and instruments to broaden our exploration, taking us far beyond earth. We have used our imagination to construct technology that creates artificial worlds.
We are the beginning of the imagination marathon. Our most imaginary and creative minds are constructing artificial intelligence that promise to expand imagination beyond what is capable for the Homo Sapien mind. How a superior intelligence will use imagination is an open question as is how such an intelligence will value our own imagination.