A crucial aspect of creative thinking is the capacity to imagine. As author and educational advisor Sir Ken Robinson once said: “Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement.” Or perhaps a more inspirational quote would be this one from Albert Einstein:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Without imagination, our ability to blend ideas, to see things not as they are but as they might be, is greatly hindered. If we cannot imagine new possibilities, our ability to think creatively is limited. How can we think of ways that generate novel and worthwhile ideas if we keep coming back to existing and proven ideas?
To improve our imagination we must look to the source of our perceptions: our knowledge.
What fuels imagination is everything we already know.
Our minds always come back around to what we already know. It’s in our nature to compare new experiences to ones we’ve already had, without that comparison we cannot begin to understand new ideas.
For example: try imagining a color that doesn’t exist. The harder you try to do so, the more likely you are to keep envisioning colors that readily come to mind: blue, red, yellow, green, white, black, and so on. If you try really hard you might blend colors together, forming off-shades of violet, teal, etc.
Where our knowledge fail our imaginations, our perspectives can encourage them.
We can easily turn our knowledge on its head in order to come up with more imaginative answers to the question at-hand: What if we were to imagine sounds as colors? Not literally, of course, but metaphorically. Who’s to say the ping of a door closing or the hum of a flapping wing cannot be types of colors? Or what about textures, or tastes, or entire experiences? Suddenly unimaginable colors are imaginable…but again: only in the context of what we already know.
How to increase your imagination.
To build a bridge between what we know and what’s possible, we must do two things.
First, we must build knowledge and gain new understandings of the world. If our minds can only imagine possibilities within the context of what we already know, then it’s clear we must increase that knowledge if we want to increase what we can imagine.
Thankfully, knowledge is easily gained if you dedicate even a small amount of time to it.
Reading, not merely books or blogs you are drawn to, but the ones you initially disagree with or find boring as well, is one way to build knowledge. Travel can open your mind to new cultures, often ones that will do things in surprising or backwards ways than you’re used to, as a way of spurring knowledge and ideas. Trying out new things, like a new type of food or a new store in your neighborhood, helps to build knowledge as well. Conversations with acquaintances can be a surprisingly powerful source of new knowledge too.
The second thing we must do to increase our imaginations, once we have begun to build our knowledge, is to remain powerfully curious about that knowledge, even humorously so.
We can do this by asking questions constantly, not only about new things we experience, but about everything old and true as well.
Imagining the improbable.
Back to the question of imagining new types of colors: of course a sound is not a color, and we are wise to not think of the two as one in the same most of the time, but to use our imaginations is to ask: what if sounds were types of colors? How would that influence our ability to imagine new ones? What if, when someone asked us for our favorite color, we shared a favorite memory instead? How can the concept of “color” become enhanced by merely changing what we mean when we say the word?
For those who live with synesthesia, this concept of combining typically unrelated themes is more than just a hypothetical situation. The mental phenomenon of synesthesia is a cognitive experience where stimulation in the brain connects to unusual neural networks. That is to say: those who experience synesthesia might taste different colors or see smells, in very real and concrete ways.
When looking at words on a page, for example, a synesthete (as they’re called) might see each individual letter as having a distinct color. Rather than merely reading paragraphs, the synesthete would be – quite literally – reading a rainbow.
Researchers Peter Grossenbacheremail of Naropa University and Christopher Lovelace of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine write in their 2001 report titled Mechanisms of synesthesia: cognitive and physiological constraints: “Synesthesia probably obeys the same rule as other conscious experience: conscious experience of concurrent phenomena depends on neural activity in appropriate sensory cortical areas.”
That is to say: the brain perceives stimulation from the senses and tries to recall information related to that perception, but somewhere along the lines other tidbits of information (say: a color or sound) gets crossed along the way.
For those of us who don’t experience synesthesia, we must imagine criss-crossing cognitive signals in order to see the world any other way than what it really is.
To do that: constantly ask questions and play dumb.
Why is the sun yellow? Why is a rock called a “rock”? What happens when a bucket of water is poured out from 5,000 ft in the air? What would the color of your favorite memory look like?
These are possibly improbable questions, but if we are not asking them, we are not imagining.
The importance of cognitive conflict.
It seems as though our imagination is best drawn-out when we are faced with improbabilities and cognitive conflicts.
In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, neuro-researcher and author Jonah Lehrer writes: “The imagination is not meek–it doesn’t wilt in the face of conflict. Instead, it is drawn out, pulled from its usual hiding place.”
The reason these types of improbable and arguably silly questions provoke imagination goes back to the origin statement of this article: our minds are drawn to what we already know, without doing so the world is a strange and unfathomable place. To ask new questions, to experience new things, our imagination grows because our very nature is to understand that which we do not understand.
To improve your imagination, build your knowledge and stay remarkably curious. That’s all there is to it.