[Paleopsych] Independent: Why do so many psychologists shy away from research into the power of imagination?

Steve shovland at mindspring.com
Sat Aug 7 16:22:19 UTC 2004

40 years ago I read a book called "Applied Imagination" by Alec Osborne.
Changed my life.

Steve Hovland

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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
    decorative purpose."

    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
    only once.

    "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 [15]www.britac.ac.uk/events/imagination/ and click on
    "additional resources". For details of OU psychology courses, visit
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