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.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. You can find more articles by Dr. O'Connor in the Evening Echo every Wednesday.