[Paleopsych] Independent: Why do so many psychologists shy away from research into the power of imagination?
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Why do so many psychologists shy away from research into the power of
By Peter Taylor-Whiffen
Michelangelo Buonarroti was once asked to explain how he had crafted
one of his most famous sculptures. His well-documented reply was
honest, simple and accurate: "I saw the angel in the marble and carved
until I set him free."
The Renaissance Italian genius was first and foremost an artisan who
had learnt the craft of sculpture from his elders. But that fails to
explain how he "saw" a non-existent celestial figure in a lump of
marble with such clarity that he could create its image in three
The concept of imagination remains one of the greatest uncharted
territories of psychology. Granted, we can't all paint the ceiling of
the Sistine Chapel, but almost all of us have an ability to come up
with ideas or images. So it's time scientists paid more attention to
the power of imagination, said Open University senior psychology
lecturer Dr Ilona Roth.
"The problem is that psychologists have either studied individual
aspects of imagination piecemeal or have avoided the topic
altogether," she said. "It features in several branches of psychology
but no research seems to tie it all together."
Certainly some early psychologists thought the imagination wasn't
susceptible to scientific study. Behaviour theorists such as John B
Watson, who saw human behaviour as learnt responses to an environment,
refused to research the concept because they could not observe it.
"Some contemporary psychologists see imagination as imagery:
visual-type experiences in your head without any sensory input," said
Dr Roth. "Others focus on pretence, fantasy, or creativity. Others
look at 'social' imagination and empathy. Still others link it to
counter-factual reasoning - 'what if?'. Imagination means different
things to different people, so maybe psychologists are right not to
put it all together. But while psychologists are skirting the
territory, researchers in other disciplines are seizing many of the
initiatives. We need dialogue - not only among psychologists but with
researchers in other fields."
Dr Roth recently demonstrated the scope for such a fusion of
approaches when she hosted Imaginative Minds, a symposium on the
subject at the British Academy in London. It proved, she claims, that
imagination can be valuably researched in a variety of disciplines,
not least evolutionary studies and archaeology.
"Our distant ancestors undoubtedly had forms of imagination," she
said. "Tool making, the capacity to hunt and to live in social groups
all required it."
But researchers into imagination disagree about the nature of its
history. It's a common, though not uncontested, belief that between
20,000 and 50,000 years ago mankind experienced a "symbolic
explosion", resulting in the first decorative art. "People were
creating things for more than functional purposes," said Dr Roth.
"They made them attractive or even created artifacts with a primarily
This explosion heralded such imaginative creations as the famous
French cave paintings in Lascaux and Vallon Pont D'Arc and bequeathed
an artistic, inventive legacy that has influenced every aspect of our
lives. But it doesn't follow that with 50 millennia of imagination
behind us, this 21st century will herald a golden age of creativity.
"We have greater stimulus than ever," said Dr Roth. "But some would
say certain aspects of our culture suppress the imagination. There's a
risk that modern technology - TV, computer games - stifles imagination
by supplying the images a child would otherwise work to create in its
mind. That said, IT can be a wonderful inspiration. Computers are
bringing more imagination than ever into, say, maths teaching. The key
is to get children actively engaged."
Not everyone can be a Picasso but it seems we do all have a talent for
mental pictures. One of Dr Roth's research interests is autistic
children, who are usually thought to lack creativity. "It's true such
children will play unimaginatively - while others use building blocks
to make things, the autistic children will lay them in a row," she
said. "They are capable of less pretence than others. But some forms
of visual imagery function rather well in autism."
Then there is the one in 200 autistic children with so-called savant
skills. At the age of 12, Stephen Wiltshire astonished a nationwide
television audience by drawing a detailed architectural sketch of St
Pancras station entirely from memory. The BBC show, entitled The
Foolish Wise Ones, prompted a wealth of commissions and enabled
Wiltshire, now 29, to make a living from his talent. There are others,
too. An English girl known only as Nadia could draw exceptional
sketches of horses at the age of three. Richard Wawro, who exhibited
his autism in childhood by walking in circles and striking a piano key
for hours at a time, did not talk until the age of 11 - now 52, he has
sold 1,000 paintings, almost all recreations of images he has seen
"There is discussion as to whether such people are truly creative,"
said Dr Roth. "Stephen Wiltshire is a fantastic artist but some would
argue that what he does is more reproductive than imaginative. Then
again, Richard Wawro's pictures are so vivid and idiosyncratic, how
can you square that with the idea they are not imaginative?"
Atypical brain function can certainly affect imagination. Some
psychologists claim to have found a disproportionate link between
creativity and mental illness. Dr Roth is quick to stress a propensity
for one does not automatically lead to the other but accepts there may
be a connection. "The genealogies of Byron and Tennyson show mental
disorder, and they suffered from depression," she said. "Virginia
Woolf was a manic depressive. So was Spike Milligan. Even people with
early stage Alzheimer's can show increased creativity. This suggests
an enhancement of some neural mechanisms at the expense of others."
But however imagination manifests itself, inventors need discipline to
hone their creations into objects of usefulness. Shakespeare broke
many boundaries but was a master of the tightly structured plot.
"Mental fluidity needs constraint," said Dr Roth "Without it, you have
free association, which leads to chaos. Your imagination literally
runs away with you.
"Because of the traditional link between imagination and 'flights of
fancy', there's been a lingering belief that imagination doesn't have
much to do with science. But imagination is just as important in
science as in the arts."
Even the world's greatest scientists might agree with that. After all,
"knowledge is limited" once wrote no less a figure than Albert
Einstein. "But imagination encircles the world."
To test your creativity and imagination, visit the Imaginative Minds
website at www.britac.ac.uk/events/imagination/ and click on
"additional resources". For details of OU psychology courses, visit
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