A fascinating discovery in child psychology is that though children know that imaginary beings are not real, they are still a powerful and meaningful presence in their lives. In other words, though a child knows that an imaginary friend is not real, they are still able to maintain a meaningful relationship with that character. Though a child may not believe literally that their teddy-bear is real, that St Nicholas lives in the North Pole, that their deceased grandmother is still with them, or that their Guardian Angel is watching over them - they still are able to believe these things in a quite remarkable and wonderful way. A child is able to have one foot in their imagined world while having another foot in reality without feeling any tension between them both.
We would be foolish parents if we admonished children for not living in reality because the child has this wonderful ability to walk an illuminated path between imagination and the real world. For example, if you were to kick your child’s teddy bear across the kitchen floor because it is just an inanimate toy your child would rightfully become distressed because his love for that toy is grounded in an intelligent imagination. If you insisted that Santa did not exist or that there was no god, a child may become upset for reasons that your literal view of the world does not comprehend. This is because children and adults are imaginative and not literal creatures. If you only took life literally you would be reduced to an animal concerned only with survival.
Unlike children, adults keep their imaginative life hidden from the world behind a paper-thin veneer of reason and logic. Scratch the surface of anyone’s adult life and you find it is built on the stones gathered in the imaginative world of childhood. Your inner self is the same as it was when you were six years old. You are still the same person seeing the world in similar ways.
Imagination is so vital to everyday life that if you lost it you would become trapped in a meaningless world of repetitive ritualistic behaviour. This is because imagination is the lubricant that allows your mental life to flow. It is necessary to conduct all sorts of everyday mental tasks such as planning your day, thinking about what you are going to do next, calculating a sum, recalling an event from yesterday, visualising a scene, or telling a story. You need to be able to imagine things from the past to problem-solve in the present. Simply put, imagination is being able to imagine things that do not exist in your present reality and to use that to problem-solve and enhance your life. You do this almost every moment of every day. You are a far more imaginative and creative person than you have ever given yourself credit for.
One interesting imaginary activity is having an inner relationship with people who are not physically present to us. You, as both a child and adult, have imaginary relationships with real but inaccessible people like a deceased parent or absent sibling. It is not at all fanciful to acknowledge that we carry the deceased within us and continue to relate to them throughout life. We talk to them, we listen to their voice, and are often consoled by their presence within us. We can also have relationships with an inner god or presence that we pray to, talk to, or listen to. We can feel comforted and supported by these inner relationships. All of this is not strange but rather a wonderful aspect of how the human imagination enriches life.
We can also have relationships with inanimate entities like nature or personal objects like wedding rings or photographs. This ability is also seen readily in children who have relationships with soft toys and pets. We hear our children talking to their ‘teddy-bears’ as if they were real - and they are real in a vital sense. As an adult you actually do the same thing - but you keep it secret. For example, as you go through your day you will often talk to yourself, your car, God, or ‘life’ as you complain, delight, or call for help. You will casually urge inanimate objects to co-operate with you when they are stuck or resisting your efforts like a car that won’t start, a lock that won’t open, or a handbag that can’t be found. “Come on, come on” you exclaim, just like a three-year old talking to her teddy bear. This is all good and normal.
Just as a child engages in pretend-play, as they imagine themselves being doctors, nurses, heroes, etc., you also engage in ‘pretend’ all the time. You mentally rehearse your way through imagined scenes in your future. You will mentally imagine what you will do when you meet someone, arrive somewhere, or attempt something new. All-day every-day you engage in foresight - that is mentally imagining what lies in the future and preparing for it. In this way your imagination is fully alive and active and not at all passive.
Our mental life is a mix of problem-solving, logical thinking, and magical day dreaming where we go on imaginative little trips through scenarios such as winning the lotto, moving home, meeting someone new, or changing job. We take hundreds of little magical excursions throughout our day that embellish and animate the dull routine of life. It is magical because it is closer to the shore of imagination than reality. In fact Seamus Heaney said his life’s work was devoted to building a bridge between both.
We usually draw a line between reality and imagination, which we tend to see as a wasteful dreamlike diversion. “He just lives in his imagination” a parent will say disapprovingly of her son. “Start dealing with reality” a teacher will tell a student. Imagination gets a hard time! However, psychologists take imagination much more seriously and challenge that assumption. Surprising advances in neuroscience, particularly in the field of brain scanning, have added support to the notion that our imagination and sense of reality are actually closely intertwined.
For example, if we imagination things to real, they are real in their consequences. If we imagine that we avoid heavy traffic by taking a certain route, whether we are correct or not does not matter because what we imagined had an effect. Imagination plays a very real role in our decision making. For example, in the upcoming elections our views of candidates will be largely influenced by what we imagine they stand for and we will vote based on those imagined assumptions whether they are true or not.
Too often humanity is ruled by superstitions, stereotypes, and tribal prejudices—resulting in all-too-real suffering, violence, and war. Our mind can run away with us, leading us to act through suspicion or fear, but we can also use our imagination as a tool to change our life—a process we’re beginning to understand through advances in neuroscience.
For centuries, we have envisioned two separate areas of the brain: one that processes the evidence gathered by our senses, and one that spins off into daydreams. MRI (brain imaging) research has helped us understand that these two functions are not as distinct as they seem. Using MRI scans, researcher have found that the same cells in the brain light up whether we perform an action ourselves or when we simply imagine ourselves performing the action. MRI studies show that reading about stimulating things or physical actions activates the same brain areas that process real-life experiences.
There is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters. Studies by two Canadian psychologists that show that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective.
Imagination can provide us with rich lifelike experiences and give us a powerful opportunity to develop empathy and compassion. But it can do even more: it can literally reshape and retrain parts of our brains.
For ages, scientists have believed that our brain become rigidly set and defined in early childhood, but MRI scanning now reveals plasticity: the adult brain is surprisingly malleable. If, for example, we go blind in midlife, some of our neurons for processing vision can shift to dealing with sound.
What’s particularly exciting is the discovery that focused mental exercise can alter the brain. For example, scans of some of Tibet’s experienced monks found that through years of meditation they had strengthened the centres in the brain that deal with such vital life skills as attention, emotional balance, and compassion. A number of contemplative practices directly recruit the power of imagination to retrain the mind. For example visualization is helpful in pain management or in preparing for difficult events. Ronan O’Gara’s accuracy with kicking was enhanced by his ability to visualise what he was going to do. Mental rehearsal using imagination has been shown to improve actual performance in a host of areas.. If you use your imagination to help you perceive situations in a different light, you can turn all sorts of “problems” into constructive challenges—and radically alter your experience of life.
If you want to work on your anger a therapist might suggest to you “Let’s say you’re sitting on a park bench and someone sits down next to you and they’re doing something you find annoying, like popping their gum or singing along with the music in their headphones. Our first reaction is usually to see the person as an external problem and to blame them for making us angry. Instead, you could change your thinking: Imagine that you want to become more tolerant. Then you could say, "this is an opportunity: Here’s somebody who has come along to help me work on that!”
The transformative power of focused imagination is central to Buddhist practice. The Buddha was said to have held up a flower and asked, “How many of you think that this exists independently of your mind?” To those who said “Yes” he asked “How do you know it exists?” Student’s replied: “I can see it”; “I can feel it”; “I can taste or hear it.” He went on to show that the only way one could know the flower was there was by interpreting what came in through our senses. The Buddha pointed out that this is true of everything in our lives: objects, our friends and families, what we learned in school, everything. Ultimately, there is no such thing as objective reality out there.
The point is not a weird one, suggesting that nothing exists, but rather that nothing has a detached, fixed identity. Phenomena do not exist in their own right but have an existence dependent upon many factors, including how we imagines them. Our whole experience of life is filtered through our minds, and we continually project our own sense of meaning onto people and things. With our imagination we make the world. In short, our imagination is not an alternative to reality. Our imagination is our reality.
As a psychologist, in any given day I will meet with individuals, couples, children, and families whose lives have been scarred by the tragic hand of fate - people who have been abused, neglected, grief-stricken, lonely, or traumatized by misfortune. Yet despite the fact that the lives of many people are, by any objective standards, overwhelming I never fail to be astonished by their resilience, perseverance, and optimism. “The audacity of hope”, as articulated by former President Obama, strikes the right chord in the lives of so many people during such difficult times.
“The audacity of hope” is a wonderful phrase. It highlights that hope in life requires courage. Audacity, in this phrase, illustrates that hope must be daring and bold. It implies that hope is not a weak optimism but a gutsy determination. It is as much an act of defiance as it is an act of faith.
“The audacity of hope” recasts American optimism in a different light. Formerly, most Europeans have been put off by superficial American optimism through the symbols of “Have a nice day”, tinseltown, Disneyland, “mission accomplished”, and Hollywood mythology. We Irish prefer a more honest mythology. Our songs are filled with grief as much as hope. Our literary heritage is filled with stories about life that weave darkness and despair into narratives of hope and possibility from Beckett to Joyce and from Yeats to Kavanagh. We love Shane McGowan’s “Fairytale of New York” because it describes the bloodied character of life in all its tragic beauty. Luke Kelly sang as if he knew the texture of life’s hardship as much as its tender beauty.
It is the responsibility of all leaders to be able to strike this chord, to find the balance between hope and despair, and courage and fear. The audacity of hope is then the willingness to salute and acknowledge the hidden tragedies of life while still remaining hopeful. As Emerson put it: “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards”.
We all know what physical courage is (as seen on the field of Thomand Park every January). Mental courage in life is the willingness to look facts in the face, the ability to grasp the tragic and often meaninglessness of things in life. Without this courage the soundings of the poet, politician, or pope is restricted to cant and religious humbug! Spiritual courage is the willingness to suffer and change. The striving for the divine in life is courage.
In life all of us are “made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.
As people, we each seek in life the will, the audacity, and the boldness to believe in ourselves when all objective signs suggest that we may as well give in. We can so easily batter ourselves with our mistakes, failings, and imperfections and find countless reasons to fold up our tents and go home to a depressive conclusion about ourselves. But NO! We must not yield. The very essence if life is to remain audacious, is it not? To give ‘the finger’ to life’s indifference.
Audacity is that which also endows us with the power to accept gratefully all that happens. To be able to bear all the brutal truths about life and yet, despite ones circumstance to remain calm and in touch with the pulse of life.
This is the achievement of the heroine. Courage, the audacity of hope, is the greatest of human virtues. It is the virtue of the homemaker, housewife, working mother, single-parent, partner, lover, and single woman who, despite adversity, “picks herself up, brushes herself down, and starts all over again!” Without it the true psychological and spiritual life is not possible.
When we hear of some calamity that affects our parents, our families, or ourselves our mind instantly endeavours to find some cheap compensation, something to console us for our inevitable grief, some profit in the loss. Cheap hope is without courage. Audacious hope, however, starts from an acceptance of our condition, an empathy and compassion for how hard life can be and a gratitude for the opportunity to live and to believe in…
“The world which ere I was born,
The world which lasts when I am dead,
Which never was the friend of one,
Nor promised love it could not give,
But lit for all its generous sun,
And lived itself and made us live”.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. He has written hundreds of articles on family psychology - some posted here.