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

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Sun Aug 8 15:52:13 UTC 2004

Tell us about it, please. Should we still read it, or have there been 
better books since?

On 2004-08-07, Steve opined [message unchanged below]:

> 40 years ago I read a book called "Applied Imagination" by Alec Osborne.
> Changed my life.
> Steve Hovland
> www.stevehovland.net
> -----Original Message-----
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> Sent:	Saturday, August 07, 2004 8:34 AM
> To:	paleopsych at paleopsych.org; Psychology at WTL
> Subject:	[Paleopsych] Independent: Why do so many psychologists shy away from research into the power of imagination?
> Why do so many psychologists shy away from research into the power of
> imagination?
> http://education.independent.co.uk/low_res/story.jsp?story=547357&host=16&dir=368
> By Peter Taylor-Whiffen
> 4.8.3
>    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
>    dimensions.
>    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
>    [16]www.open.ac.uk/courses
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