Not More Imagination but Imagination of a Certain Kind
Sometime, perhaps 50,000 years ago or more, a relatively thin layer of neurons, emerging out of and covering the ancient sensory-motor and limbic-emotional brain centers, exploded - and along with it memory of the distant past and more revolutionary projections into the future. The capacity to create mental images not presented by the sensory or emotional systems grew like a supernova, including the use of symbols, language and metaphor; a word, for example, standing in place of a thing. So powerful and explosive was this new image-making capacity that it quickly swamped the other systems, filing what we call consciousness with dream-images that were so real that we forgot that we were dreaming. Like a giant snowball of dream-images, once set into motion this capacity grew by one dream image triggering another and another, creating a virtual reality machine unparalleled in the known universe.
Now, we think 50,000 years is a long time, but consider that dinosaurs first walked the earth 230 million years ago and dominated the land for 160 million years. They became extinct a brief 65 million years ago. Humans and their ancestors have been walking the planet for about 6 million years. Homo sapiens, the modern form of humans evolved 300,000 years ago from Homo erectus. Human civilizations started forming around 6,000 years ago, just a blink of time.
Imagination is the core capacity that makes civilization possible. Symbols and language formed concepts like nations, empires, systems of belief, ideas about past and future, values, agriculture, racism, accounting, banks, interest, credit, schooling, the space shuttle, baseball, atomic bomb, and so much more. All are grounded in imagination. No doubt, imagination is what makes humans – human.
Joseph Chilton Pearce describes how all this takes place in the brain:
Look at the growth of language itself, and the relationship between word and thing. When the little child is in their own nest, they think anything is safe to interact with. They want to taste it, touch it, smell it, feel it, and immediately say: what is that, mamma, what is that, daddy? They are asking for a name label for the object. When you give them a name, the word and the thing build into the brain as a single neural pattern or field. The name builds in as an integral part of the whole ‘structure of knowledge,’ as Piaget calls it. The brain responds to each experience by creating these structures of knowledge. The name and the thing build as a single unit. We call this concrete language. The word and the thing are the same to the early child. Ask the two‑year old child to say the word hand, and they move their hand when they say it. Why? Because hand means something very tangible, something very concrete. The early child can't deal with abstractions.
When you take the child out in the open, away from the nest, all mammalian animals respond the same way. The child spots an object. Let's say, it's a dirty, nasty, old dog. The child will stop, if they have never seen one before, point toward the object, and silently turn around and stare at the caretaker, and wait for a signal from the parent that they perceive this particular object. Getting that signal, the child immediately wants to know: what is that, mamma? They ask for a name.
Let's suppose that it's a dirty, nasty, awful looking, old mongrel dog. Mamma says, don't dare touch that dirty, nasty old dog. Her acknowledgment of the dog is all the child needs. This is the model imperative. The child is impelled. They are driven, by nature, to interact with the object and build a structure of knowledge of it. Now, the mother's emotional state of that, her horror, alarm, etc., etc., builds into the structure of knowledge as an integral part of it. Her name for the object, dirty, nasty, old dog, is built into the structure of knowledge. All that is without any evaluation on the part of the child.
Suppose you use the word in absence of the thing. Here an auditory vibration resonates with a previously established set of responses in the brain. What does the brain do? The brain will create an inner image in the absence of the exterior sensory image. We are not just processing what the reptilian brain and all the other animal brains can do, but creating an image that doesn't exist at all, in response to a name of that thing that does exist.
This leads us into play and imagination. As the adult uses all of these words the child's mind starts responding with internal imagery in every case it can. And that leads us to storytelling, which is an integral part of language development, language being the flow of inner imagery triggered by symbols and metaphors. You will find that the child responds to storytelling very early, even before they can talk. In storytelling the word comes in as a vibration, which is only a sensory input, and that challenges the whole brain, not just to create an image in keeping with each word, but to create moving imagery, fluid imagery that follows the flow of the words. It sets up an inner world scenario representing the story which is constantly shifting according to shifting of the words themselves. This is a major challenge of the brain and its development. The job is so enormous that the child goes into total entrainment. All of the energy moves into this creation of inner imagery. They go catatonic. The body stops all movement, their jaw drops down, their eyes get big and wide, and they are literally not in this world. Their eyes open wide. They are not looking at anything outwardly. They are looking at the marvelous world that is forming within.
Every new story means new neural connections must be made between all the fields involved in imagery, creating vast sensory maps in brain. New fields must be established with each story. The brain has to continually expand its neural connections. Remember, the neural connections are what count, not just the number of neurons, but the neural connections. So, each new story demands what? A complete, new re‑routing of the neural patterns themselves. It means the brain has to continually expand and expand its operations, auditory, visual, sensory fields, and much more with each story.
Why does the child want to hear the same story over and over and over? Anytime a field establishes long range connections with other fields. And it's those that must be myelinated, that is, firmly established, to lock in a pattern and preserve the activities of that particular neural field and its capacities. Once these fields stabilize and those connections become firm, then the child will want to move on to another story. Once the neural fields are stabilized the child will want to act out the imagery, act out the inner world they have created. This completes the circuitry.
Once this inner world is created they want to take the internal world and project it back out onto their external world. As Vygotsky, the great Russian, said, "they want to modify the external world by the internal world, and play in a world of their own creation". The little tiny child has discovered this great secret that her own internal capacities of creation can modify and make a profound difference in her own external world. And upon this – the capacity to imagine - her future and the future of our world depends.
The Swedish Pediatrics Institute came out with a study showing that the child with imagination was far less prone to violence than a child without imagination. Why? Because the child without imagination is subject to the immediate sensory environment bombarding them without any alternatives. If their sensory environment bombarding them is unpleasant, or demeaning, or insulting, or threatening, they have no choice, out of their survival drive, but to immediately lash out against the sensory input which is threatening, and try to change it. Whereas, the child with imagination will immediately create an alternate inner scenario in which they don't have to undergo all that. And through that, they can sift through and find an alternate mode of response to this, an alternate behavior that is not violent and that doesn't react to the violence with more violence, whatever it might be, but reacts with much higher cortical structures.
The child without imagination is operating out of purely ancient, reptilian sensory motor response patterns of defense against a hostile world. Whereas, the child with imagination is using much higher evolutionary cortical structures for doing what? Creating an inner world in which this is not the case, but in which something else is taking place. Don't forget this when looking at the massive rise of violence today, the collapse of descriptive language and storytelling in early childhood, pushed out by sensory motor visual images on screens.
For 6,000 years or more images created by our capacity to imagine have flooded the brain. Imagination, focused and empowered by passion can and does change the world. So powerful and enchanting are these images however, that we forget they are images, we forget that we are creating them, and reify the creation, treating the abstract image as independent, concrete reality. Without realizing what we are doing our imagined-images are converted into memes, mental viruses that spread from person to person within a culture. True or false, memes carry cultural ideas, symbols, or practices from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or now via the internet and social media, and soon, like Chicken Little, we all believe the sky is falling. As we explored, the First Enlightenment distilled some of our fantasy images, superstitions, such as black cats bringing bad luck, but it failed to penetrate deeply. A great deal of imagined content slipped through the cracks of critical attention; all the images and beliefs that make up culture, our personal self-images, egos and much more.
As David Bohm described, we are completely immersed in the process, playing with mental images that are so convincing that we actually believe the dreams we are dreaming forgetting that we are dreaming. We lack a critical understanding of the process and how it functions. Throughout the ages a few sages discovered what the brain is doing and described our enchantment in great detail. Alas, the show is too mesmerizing for most. Waking from the dream takes a quality of attention most simply don’t have, a quality of attention that is not completely hypnotized by the process. Attention, therefore, is the key to transformation, not more of the same, not another concept or great idea, but almost no one has any attention that is not infected.
Yes, we need to cultivate imagination by turning back the technological clock and replacing screen-time with descriptive language. But that is not good enough. We must break the spell that we, all of humanity, have been under for thousands of years. We need to evolve a new state of attention that is free, clear and unconditioned, a state that can hold conditioning without being conditioned, an expansive state where the source of what is imagined reaches far beyond what is known. It is here, free from the known, but having access to what is known, that the future of humanity abides. And imagination is the way this unknown future will become known after that new possibility is revealed as insight. (For more on insight, please see the attached essay by Joseph Chilton Pearce.)
The first step in breaking the spell is cultivating a quality of attention that is not overflowing with imagined mental images of any kind. As we described, this is a mighty challenge. Consciousness, as we experience it, is the content created by these images. Where most of us sit, no image means no consciousness. All the various meditation and so-called spiritual practices begin with this cultivation; what Buddhists call mindfulness. The second step, assuming that the first is well established and then using this mindful attention, is to negate all the false images and feelings we have accepted about ourselves and others. This includes our nationality, our religious and political beliefs, our culture, comparisons, envies, jealousies, prejudices, hatreds, all the images we have about ourselves and everyone else, our pride, psychological fears and vanities - all of it. Suddenly there is vast space and enormous energy and attention not being wasted by this imagined dog chasing its imaginary tail. With this distilled, clear, unadulterated, uncluttered, coherent state of attention we can evoke the awesome power to imagine, calling on everything known, and more importantly, all that is unknown, grounded now in our authentic nature, wholeness and well-being for everything, not just our petty self-concept and puny beliefs.
It is not simply more imagination but imagination of a critical kind that will save us. With a mind distilled, like crystal clear water, imagination becomes the ultimate tool for wholeness, wellbeing and mutual survival as nature intended. Just as the child grows through ages and stages, so too does imagination. Language evolved and three-cheers it did. The capacity for math and reason evolved and for good reason. The Second Enlightenment focuses at the root, bringing new clarity to what we have been doing blindly for 6,000 years. Now it is time, past time really, for imagination to evolve, not as simply as a capacity, rather how that amazing capacity is used, by what quality of brain; fragmented, isolated, self-centered and neurotic or integrated, whole, empathic and with laser precision. The quality of imagination, in the service of what kind of brain, defines what is envisioned and how our creative potential is expressed and therefore the future of humanity. As very early development specialists know so well; this critical quality is impossible without a strong, nature centered and integrated foundation that only early nurturing can provide.
Ask yourself; is a mind overflowing with social media, political conflict and corporate propaganda masquerading as news or a mind deeply conditioned by twelve to eighteen years of institutional schooling capable of this clear and expansive quality of mind? Will more of the same meet and resolve the challenges we face or deepen the crisis?
Not another concept, rather attention is the key. Each adult must break the spell in and for themselves. They must discover this expansive state of attention that is not marinating in cultural memes and model, by resonance, that quality for their children. As media-literacy was in the past, exposing the form, structure and function of media, imagination-literacy is the challenge, today and into the future. Imagination-literacy applies conscious and critical attention to the capacity to create mental images not present to the sensory system. Imagination-literacy is the prerequisite and critical to the health and well-being of the world’s children, as well as to the future of that world and all its species. Only by distilling our personal imagination will we see what must be done. More of the same is more of the same. Let’s get going and not a moment to lose.