Thursday, 30 May 2013

Imagining Itself (part II: Absence of Imagination)

Imagination allows us to recall memories at will and to recombine them, in whole or in part, with seeming infinite variety and to use these new combinations to consider, anticipate and respond to possible future events. Imagination is arguably one of the most formidable cognitive tools we possess, one that is surpassed only by consciousness itself, indeed consciousness may well be an impossibility without imagination, since how otherwise could we form a sense of self without the means to knit the many disparate fragments together?

It is tempting to assume that imagination is a singular entity without which life would be reduced to little more than a procession of behaviors bereft of all dimension; a bland succession of preprogrammed or acquired responses. In this conception of imagination its lack would leave us unable to envisage the future nor to learn from the past. Dreams, hopes and aspirations would vanish, whilst desire would be reduced to vague shadow of its current form, plaguing us only in the very moment of encounter with a desirable “object”. Without the means to dwell on our desires we would be mercifully free of that all-to-human agony arising from the expectation of future pain or misfortune, of anxieties played and replayed interminably in the mind’s eye until the moment of reckoning and enlarged beyond all measure in the process. Disappointment too would be unthinkable as would all plans, intentions, failures and successes. But, as it turns out, imagination does not emanate from a single neurological source nor does it suffer total degradation when any one of it’s constituent elements is impeded or damaged.

It is often reported that children on the autistic spectrum lack imagination but, once again, this claim betrays a limited understanding of the nature of imagination (and autism for that matter). As the term “spectrum” would suggest, autism involves a wide gamut of abilities from severe and wide ranging deficits to near normal and even exceptional ability in specific areas. In fact, scientists at King’s College London have recently concluded that about one third of autistic males have “some form of outstanding ability compared with 19 per cent of females.”

Over the last three decades psychologists like Uta Frith or Simon Baron-Cohen have focused attention on what is termed “Theory of Mind” and its associated deficits amongst autistic individuals. Theory of Mind - sometimes also known as “social imagination” - describes the human ability to interpret other people’s desires, beliefs and intentions: to form “metarepresentations” (mental representations of other peoples’ mental representations). What is often observed as a lack of symbolic or pretend play amongst autistic children for instance - whilst previously taken as proof of their overall lack of imagination – is now believed to be closely associated with these characteristic difficulties of inferring and interpreting the thoughts and intentions of others. Nonetheless, it is not uncommon for autistic children to have other interests and skills that evidence imaginative engagement. This has lead to speculation, that there may be discrete forms of imagination that are called upon in different circumstances to overcome many of the obstacles that constitute the complex fluctuating environments within which we commonly operate.

If imagination is the product of diverse mental processes, as is increasingly believed, then it follows that different aspects of imagination draw upon a variety of cognitive resources in different proportions and to different degrees. For example, with individuals on the autism spectrum, whilst social imagination may be a significant difficulty for many, varying degrees of difficulty with other forms of imagination may also be present. Furthermore, it is by no means certain that what appears as an instance of say Metaphoric Imagination in one situation would of necessity harness the same cognitive resources in another. And if this is the case, then the challenge of isolating the neurological basis of any singular specific type of imagination could prove daunting if not impossible for future scientific enquiry. However, whilst it is undoubtedly true that imagination is a sophisticated process, the increasingly common tendency to explain its functioning by recourse to ever more finely divided modules or distributed networks may risk clouding the point. Whilst social imagination may be implicated in the difficulties of individuals on the autism spectrum it need not follow that the cause lies with a discrete form of imagination. Just as likely is the possibility that the imagination of individuals on the autism spectrum is perfectly intact but that their cognitive predisposition towards social information and inference is in some way impaired, inhibited or simply diminished.

Brain science still has a lot to discover about the workings of the imagination, but what is already clear is that definitions of imagination that describe it simply as a variation on the ability to form a representation (image, sound, feeling, etc) in the mind, independent of any sensory stimulus are overly reductive and, as much of the following discussion aims to show, may even turn out to be entirely wrong.

The closer we study the imagination the more it turns out to be a tantalizingly elusive phenomenon; a complexity that continues to tax the very brain networks that bring it into being. One of the most challenging issues for theories and research into human imagination is the question of what is known as “mental imagery”. Is it possible, for instance, that what we call mental imagery is nothing like images at all? Parts III & IV will explore the history of this question in order to clarify some of the principal issues that continue to generate considerable debate and disagreement on this subject.


Post a Comment