Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Imagining Itself (part I)

Around a year ago I intended to write a short piece about the limits of human imagination. As I ruminated upon this idea and began to read further on the subject it occurred to me how little I knew about how the imagination actually works or even what it is. Considering the fact that I’m a maker and teacher of art it seemed especially curious that I could have such a vague understanding of what is surely a fundamental component in the creation, not only of artworks but of all manner of human inventions and innovations.

Evidently we can function quite well in the world knowing very little about how we function. Nonetheless, knowledge – accurate knowledge that is – that conforms to what we observe and provides genuine predictive potential, allows us to make more precise inferences about realms of human enquiry that have previously been too murky or too complex to fathom. Our faculties of perception and imagination allow us to get by in the world; to survive, but they also allow us to both raise and in some cases to answer some of the most far reaching questions about what we are and how we operate in the world. The following series of articles therefore seeks to explore some of the most vexing questions that human imagination can ask of itself.

So what is imagination? Is it possible to imagine absolutely anything? We often hear of the boundlessness of the imagination but is there a limit to what can be brought before what is colloquially referred to as the mind’s eye? Is it possible to be talented imaginatively? Can the imagination be improved through practice and might it be argued that artists have more prodigious or vivid imaginations than other people?

Much, if not all, of what we learn in life is the result of experience or education but do we learn to the same extent from the inventions of our imagination as we do from direct experience? Can current neuroscience cast any light upon the role, evolution and functioning of the imagination and, perhaps most importantly of all; are the theoretical foundations upon which the accumulating scientific evidence is built as secure and reliable as mainstream cognitive science and philosophy would ideally wish them to be?

In the following I am going to explore the contention that the imaginations of all human beings – artists included - are indeed limited, and necessarily so. I will examine the evolutionary grounds for this hypothesis and the evidence provided by psychedelic experiences, mental illness, the imagery of art and the struggles of science to conceive of that which exists outwith the bounds of the known. Furthermore I aim to show that human cognitive architecture is far less likely to undergo change - to learn - on the basis of the inventions of the imagination than it is on the basis of perceptual experience. If this is true there may be significant implications for our understanding of learning in general and of education in particular.

In order to examine and substantiate the above questions and claims I have gathered together a wide range of theories and research, both historical and contemporary, which serve to chart some of the most informative and enlightening work that is being, and has been, undertaken in this area. Several sources have been of particular use in this survey and I will provide links throughout for anyone interested in following up the theories and research discussed.

Any thorough account of a complex field of human enquiry or interest is likely to be founded upon previous insights, questions and problems arrived at by others. These forthcoming articles are no different in this respect and I am grateful to everyone who has helped me on this journey. However, more generous and challenging than any other single source as been the advice of Donald Brook whose theories have led me to abandon some of my most longstanding and unexamined assumptions about the nature of perception, mental imagery, representation and ultimately imagination itself. For this I would like to extend to Donald my sincere Thanks.


Post a Comment