In the musical film Yentl, there is a line in the opening song of the lead character that goes, "If I were only meant to tend the nest, then why does my imagination sail across the mountains and the seas beyond the make-believe of any fairy tale?"
We humans, compared to all other species, are known to be capable of such vast imagination, and imagination is the fuel of creativity. This is why scientists, when philosophizing, would always cite how genetically close we are to chimps (over 98% similar) but that 2% difference accounts for all the science and art that have built human civilizations and not just habitats for our species. But how far-reaching is human imagination?
What makes one individual capable of imagining what it is like to be a creature that is round with only one leg when another individual could only imagine slight redesigns of the human form and the places we inhabit?
Where I work in the museum, we have programs where we "play" with teams from companies to imagine what it is like to live in another planet with conditions radically different from the Earth's. In those sessions, we have noted that there is a distinct difference in the reach of various people's imagination. Some draw on their familiar experiences and tweak them, while others are able to cut through their own "baggage" and reimagine a radically different planet and a version of themselves as inhabitants of that planet to match! A recent study revealed what could account, at least partly, for the differences in the kind and reach of imagination exhibited by different people. And the revelations, drawn from 3 experiments in the study are very interesting and could shift the way we view creativity and the crucial role it plays in our lives and the future!
The first experiment is a classic creativity test that had been "gamified" in the show Whose Line Is It Anyway? In that experiment, the deployed scenarios for the subjects to think about were similar scenarios thought up in Improv Theater. They asked 300 randomly chosen subjects to imagine a world 500 years from now, be in a planet with just one giant land mass, be in the shoes of an angry dictator, or other ways to use a pen or a megaphone, These kinds of situations are "distal" because they are so far removed from the familiar time, place, perspective, and even the likely scenarios coming out of them. The more "distal" your response is – like maybe imagining a megaphone on your head as a guardia sibil hat – then the higher you will rate in the creativity scale.
For the second experiment, the scientists used the same scenario as the first, but this time, compared the responses of those whose jobs require mastery in creativity – writers, directors, performers, visual artists – with those whose mastery are in finance and legal and medical professions. The revelation was that the creative masters outperformed the latter group in the way they imagined those situations.
The third experiment in this study homed in on the difference in what was actually activated in the brains of all the subjects when responding to the scenarios that have been deployed. It showed that while the creative masters exhibited the same brain activations as those of other subjects when imagining the next 24 hours, there was a region of the brain that was activated only in the creative ones when all of them were asked to imagine distant futures. Brain scans of this part of the study showed that the dorsomedial network was active only in the brains of creative masters.
In many other studies, the dorsomedial network has consistently been shown to be the "default" network of the brain – what scientists have found to be always activated when we are on "space out," daydreaming mode. This network is made up of interlinked brain regions such as the medial prefrontal cortex (known to be active when "reading" other people's minds, working memory and decision-making and implementing functions), the posterior cingulate cortex (whose role includes emotional and behavioral regulation), angular gyrus (activated in reasoning, social and spatial cognition, processing concepts) and the hippocampus (long-term memory). As a network, the roles which these specific brain regions have exhibited seem to morph into a wondrous process of becoming a "Davos" version of a forum to transcend the familiar and venture into brave new worlds.
This for me changes the "game" – that game when we consider who should be in advisory councils, board rooms, or government offices that require leaps in imagination to be genuinely impactful. In the face of the many challenges posed by the 21st century and beyond – the climate crisis, the deep and ubiquitous role of technology in human lives, food security, deep social, gender, and economic inequities, among others – I agree with philosopher Yuval Harari's imperative that we could no longer keep on referencing the values and references of philosophers and thinkers of past centuries. We need to build new ways to deal with a future that is so radically different from the past. We need new philosophies and we need new philosophers.
These new philosophers should not come from the ones who only studied classical philosophy but those who have plunged into paths that cultivate a keen engagement with both realities and the pondering of immense possibilities of a future that is, for the most part, unforeshadowed by the past. These are master artists, extraordinary performers, innovative scientists, shape-shifting designers, and imaginative soul-scaling musicians who all, by the nature of their craft and reason for being, reimagine multiple worlds as naturally as they breathe.
Imagine economies if they were directed by businesses where creative masters played major roles in steering the wheel. Imagine politics and world order if creative masters also conducted the symphony of governance of a diversity of voices. Imagine education everywhere that had the arts and the sciences in equal footing from preschool to higher learning. That would require a quality and leap of imagination and boldness from masters in creativity, and if we cannot, it is because we have not given creativity – the very soul and essence of being human – the role it should have not just in dealing with the future but also in shaping it. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.