[Paleopsych] Independent: Why do so many psychologists shy away from research into the power of imagination?
checker at panix.com
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
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Premise Checker [SMTP:checker at panix.com]
> 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
> 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 www.britac.ac.uk/events/imagination/ and click on
> "additional resources". For details of OU psychology courses, visit
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