Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Imagining Itself (Part XI: Imagination and Experience)

When thinking about the limits of the imagination it might be helpful to ask if the experiences brought to mind are ever wholly satisfying or complete. It strikes me that this is very rarely the case, except as it pertains to ideas (and even where ideas are concerned there is little satisfaction in an idea that cannot be utilised or shared). As regards experience, the products of imagination - as experiences - are little more than intangible and therefore sensorily bereft phenomena. I’m reminded of the curious shop that Alice encounters in her journey through the looking glass:
The oddest part of it all was that, whenever she looked hard at any shelf, to make out exactly what it had on it, that particular shelf was always quite empty, though the others round it were crowded as full as they could hold.” Lewis Carroll
No matter how sublime, extravagant or abundantly furnished our imaginings might seem, there is always something characteristically incomplete about the experiences evoked - something that only the world of sensation and perception can fully satisfy. Nonetheless, there are several forms or configurations of the imagination that are, at times, deeply satisfying, moving or convincing. Dreams and hallucinations, for example, are often so potent that our body’s autonomic processes are triggered by the sheer intensity of the responses involved. These autonomic responses are a vital part of many, if not all, of what we might think of as satisfying, overwhelming or complete experiences. In order for us to feel sated by food for example, not only do our mouths and tongues need to be stimulated with pleasant textures and flavours but our stomachs need to register the physical presence of food which then triggers a further cascade of unconsciously regulated processes, one of which results in a conscious perk: the feeling of satiation.

It should be noted though that confusion often arises here regarding the relationships and distinctions between sensations, perceptions, experiences and responses. Strictly speaking an imagined event, memory, dream or hallucination is not an experience. I realise this is may seem controversial, but to remember something is not to re-experience it, even in a fragmentary or diminished sense. To remember something is to acquire one or more of the responses that correspond to the experience of the thing or event in question. Such responses are defining characteristics of perceptual experience but they are by no means solely constitutive of it. Sensory input is also required and if the ongoing sensory input contradicts or distracts from the memory then it may be necessary to blot out the interruption by closing one’s eyes or covering one’s ears etc. in order to focus one’s attention and to more deliberately elicit the associated responses.

It is hardly surprising then, that we should find memories, dreams and hallucinations difficult to distinguish from perceptions. The very same responses are involved, and these are especially likely to seem vivid or realistic if some monitoring, filtering or verificatory portion of the brain is inhibited, disturbed or destabilised by sleep, drugs, emotional trauma or illness etc.

I do not wish to deny or belittle the often traumatic impact to which certain memories can give rise. There is no doubt that these often recurrent episodes are sometimes deeply disturbing. But an important point needs to be emphasised here. Disturbing memories, nightmares and hallucinations etc. invariably trigger unconscious processes - emotional responses principally - that have clear perceptible consequences. The racing heart, elevated temperature and feelings of anxiety etc. associated with a stressful memory are all perceptually available in spite of the fact that the dog that bit us is no longer present and the physical wound has long since healed. So, whilst memories, dreams, hallucinations and imagination are not perceptual phenomena, they often coexist with perception or spill over into it such that they become an inextricable part of it. The evening ruined by an unshakeable mood brought about by the persistent memory of an unfortunate incident at work is a common experience – one that many of us could much rather do without. But it is no less an experience, in spite of the fact that it was significantly influenced by something that has no perceptible characteristics whatsoever: a memory.

Imagination can influence and even precipitate experiences but it does not constitute them. The adaptive role of the imagination makes a lot of sense when thought of in this way, since, if it were completely satisfying in its own right – if it were an experience of potentially boundless proportions - it would provide little advantage in evolutionary terms. Indeed, it seems very likely that we would find ourselves hopelessly addicted to the incomparable pleasures of a limitless imagination, losing our grip upon the reality that sustains us and most likely wasting away in exquisite gratification.


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