Sunday, 13 October 2013

Imagining Itself (Part IXX: Learning Skills)

If it were the case that imagination could initiate neural growth (learning) to the same degree as experience then the question arises: how could we ever distinguish between cognitive development drawn from experience and that drawn from entertaining but infeasible flights of fancy? If there were no difference between the ways we learn from experience and the ways we learn from imagination then how could our cognitive architecture ensure that imagination didn’t simply fill our minds with a deluge of impractical nonsense? To set too much store by the inventions and indulgences of the imagination would surely risk laying down all kinds of meaningless neural networks and worse still, this would probably happen without the slightest conscious awareness. But how is this not the case and how do our minds avoid such self-deception?

It might be suggested that there must be some kind of limiting mechanism or filter at work that inhibits neural development on the basis of imaginative thought, but this need not be the case. There need be no such mechanism because - as Sartre, Ryle and others have surmised - imagination is the exercise of already formed knowledge – of prior memories, ideas and beliefs. Just as perceptual experience leaves its most indelible imprint when it is most repeated, most profound or most surprising, so too, we might suppose, does  imagination. But unlike perception, which frequently presents us with the surprising and the unpredictable, our thoughts and imaginings are rarely truly unexpected. If imagination consists of the interplay of what we already know, then the only means by which we might encounter the unexpected – and from which we might learn – is through the previously untested recombination of this knowledge and the careful pursuit and resolution of incompatible ideas and beliefs. As it happens, we are not especially skilled at this - as research into Cognitive Dissonance clearly shows.

Skills are acquired either by genetic inheritance or by active engagement with the world and never simply by imagining. So for example, it is not possible to become capable of drawing something by the agency of imagination alone because a capability is not something that imagination can ever bestow or confer. Imagination is the means by which we sharpen our skills of representation but it is not the means by which we acquire such skills – or skills of any description. Indeed, imagination would be better understood as being nothing other than the means by which we contemplate, anticipate and refine our skills of representation.

It is because representation is so fundamental to learning that imagination plays such a vital role in the improvement of skills. To acquire a skill is to be able to demonstrate it - it is to be capable of representing it to others. And these capabilities of demonstration and mimicry - of teaching and learning - have been of inestimable use to us as a species. It might be argued that to carry out a learned action is not necessarily to represent it. This is true. However, to carry out an action in the presence of onlookers is for it to be available in representational terms; as the means by which an action is ‘performed’ and as the procedure by which something might be accomplished.

To watch an action is to become capable of representing it. But, crucially, it is not necessarily to be able to represent it either faithfully or fully. Why else would we ever ask: "Can I have a go?" if the capacity to represent something (to have committed it to mind so to speak) was sufficient in and of itself?

Despite the fact that imagination cannot enable skills it can, and frequently does, allow us to improve them. It has long been known that the use of visualisation techniques in sports training can bring about measurable improvements in performance. To imagine how you could better swing a tennis racket is to imagine how you would represent the motion as a performative act. It is to deliberately engage many of the same cognitive structures as would be exercised if you were to actually perform the action. And, as many studies have shown, repeatedly exercise of these cognitive structures through visualisation causes them to become increasingly consolidated and increasingly stable.

In 2011 the results of a study were published evaluating the benefits of a variety of visualisation techniques for the rehabilitation of stroke patients. The study found “No evidence of the benefit of mental practice with motor imagery in stroke.” In other words, no matter how hard or regularly the stroke patients tried to imagine improvement in their impaired motor skills they were unable to bring about any measureable improvement. On the other hand, when visualisation techniques were combined with physical therapy, then measurable improvements did occur and visualisation helped significantly. This research lends strong support to the idea that imagination is not an enabler of capacities but is instead an important means for reinforcing and focussing skills that have already been acquired.

Imagination is an enormously important capacity – not just for capabilities that we think of as being mental, like thinking for instance - but also for our abilities to act deliberately and skilfully in the world. In fact it might be said that imagination is the very precondition of our being able to act in such skilful ways.


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