Sunday, October 19


“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world”- Albert Einstein

Imagination according to my Oxford dictionary refers (1) the process of forming mental images or concepts of external objects not present in the senses, the result of this process, (2) the process of forming mental images or concepts of external objects not present in the senses, and of their relations to each other or to the subject (3) scheming or devising a plot or a fanciful project, expectation or anticipation (4) The faculty of fanciful thought. The creative faculty of the mind, the ability to frame new and striking concepts. (5) The mind thinking, thought and opinion.
Philosophical enquiry has retreated from the view imagination is a discrete function of the mind to one that covers the full gambit of human experience, as is evident in this definition.
Hence philosophical discussion ranges from debates over how the imagined mental images are represented in our minds; whether they pictorial or descriptive or in combinations -for what is mostly analysed as visual imagery distinct to the sensory modalities. Others posit the interaction between imagination and mental images is a function of consciousness that just presents possibilities. But as the elegant quote from Einstein concludes I think we can say imagination has no boundaries and applies across the full spectrum of our rich human experience.
Evidence for the wider reach of imagination can be found in many expressionist forms; to underpin artful expression across all genres, in enhanced learning, in prompting or acting as a catalyst for new discoveries or in providing a bridge between nature and culture and so the list goes on.  In this essay I will attempt to shed some thoughts on (1) How is imagination formed in the mind (2) How imagination becomes intertwined inextricably into a culture and (3) the downside where images can become a paradigm to erroneous conclusions that can persist for centuries. Finally I ask the question can we imagine the possibility of intergenerational cellular development in biological traits that generate images from one generation to another.  
How is imagination formed in the mind? 
Imagination allows us to engage in the creation of many and varied types of mental images which are prompted from stimuli. The stimuli in turn references what is already known to construct existing or new or altered images in the mind in many different ways. Our curiosity can be the stimuli to ignite our imagination, so if I was to imagine what life was like on say a corral island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which I had never visited, what comes to mind is: a limited local food supply, scarcity of water, possible bathing in the ocean, reliance on imports, exposure to global warming etc. That imagined view of life on the island comes from memory stored in the outer regions of the brain, which came from what I read in books, newspapers, TV, video and so on. The stimuli in curiosity over life on the island activates the search in memory, for those  images or material which will be disseminated into imagined life experiences in that far off unvisited location.  So that image will be dependent upon the quality of the information previously stored versus the actual experience, say if we were to visit to view the position first hand so to speak.  Even so, we may still be caught up in the paradigm created previously to only see what we expect, rather than to be open to change or spot the nuances that may be important in avoiding superficiality. 
But our imagination can also rescue us from difficult situations or be our downfall when we fail to imagine opportunities. Nowhere is this more evident in relation to some of the early explorers who perished when engagement with the aborigines would have saved their lives; to introduce them to bush tucker.

An indication as to how imagination is intertwined inextricably into a culture
Imagination is thought to be one of the key drivers in our evolution since it gives us the power to imagine differing landscapes and lands from others to facilitate our survival. In other words to be able to imagine where we had been, in stored images in memory and what resources were associated with those regions. This in turn enhanced our ability to survive and spread out over ever wider geographical areas.

Aborigines were thought to have migrated to Australia possibly up to 60, 000 years ago when the climate became very dry. This meant that survival was  even more dependent upon travel to and fro to territories according to the availability of food and resources which became predictable with the changing patterns in climate.
This requires even more imagination, to spot the landscape patterns, the seasonal influences and so forth which then became integral to their culture. The landscape, the hunts and so forth stimulated imaginative enquiry, to become integral to their customs, social behaviour and creative expression, since all were in tune with that of nature. Hence the celebration of that changing landscape was enshrined in the images in song and dance ceremonies across the nations, to transcend language differences. Opinions differ on the dreamtime creation stories, which some suggest might relate back to blurred images of the original migratory journeys. A good description can be found in: The dreamtime was central to their rich spiritual life; in mythical creation stories, ceremonial art, music, ritualistic practice; initiation rites into adulthood; and in the repository of knowledge of the law handed down from one generation to another. Within the tribal system adolescents were isolated away from the rest of the tribe under the control of elders who provided tutelage on all matters of their law until they were sufficiently aware to make the positive transition to adulthood which carried with it the responsibility towards their tribe and the environment upon which they were dependant - Charles P Mountford – The Dawn of Time.

The downside where images can become a paradigm to erroneous conclusions that can persist for centuries-as was the case for the Australin aboriginal.
The absence of a written language, combined with the embedded visual idea that civilisation was indicative of ownership and cultivation of land, helped obscure the reality of advanced nation representative of the Australian aborigines. The distorted image that has persisted from the early days of the colonisers is only recently being replaced by a better understanding of their rich culture, underpinned by science, a rigid system of education, farming and a deep spiritual affinity to the land.  Notwithstanding some notable exceptions the paradigm of the distorted image of the primitive nomadic native tribes has persisted. This paradigm, confirmed in the images and in superficial enquiry In contrast they lived as a society united under an incredibly complex kinship system, under groups responsible for the custody of the land, and their languages and philosophies. Evidence exists of an advanced knowledge of astronomy, enabling them to very accurately predict the tides, guide their travel and understand the seasons. There are many examples which suggest there were groups of astronomers who understood lunar eclipses which adorned cave walls. There is evidence of agriculture, grain storage and trade agreements between the nations including the trade of water rights commensurate of any advanced civilizations.

Herein this evidence was largely undiscovered by the colonisers because first early images became the paradigm of what was expected in the future.  Such a superficiality was even embedded in the erroneously described textbooks I studied as a child of a nomadic highly primitive people. Hence this leads me to conclude how easy it is for us to retain images in the brain which at times, in isolation can so easily be assimilated with other information to form erroneous conclusions that remain unchallenged for centuries.
A final thought  
Finally I return to where I began to ask can we imagine the possibility of intergenerational cellular development in biological traits that generate images from the time of our entry out of the womb. Certainly there is some evidence of severe trauma encountered by one generation can be transmitted to a child, possibly due to a hereditary factors which are unconnected  to the direct behaviours of a parent towards that child.  But I am afraid, for the time being, my imagination on this topic is temporarily exhausted so I hope to re-evaluate this question in more depth sometime in the future.


Halle said...

This post has stimulated my imagination Lindsay! It occurs to me that it is the way we are taught the mythology of our culture that matters in the individual's ability to use imagination. For example, a myth that has the weight of religious belief is quite different from the myth that stands alone for its moral or entertainment value.

Thanks for waking me up thinking today!

susan said...

Without a doubt, our ability to imagine is essential to human survival, for all purposive behavior implies a capacity to imagine something otherwise not present (or even existing) as a final cause of human action. For thousands of generations, people, whether nomadic or not, practiced ancestor worship, basing their actions on what had been done previously while accommodating to new realities through active imagination and experiment. But at no time in history has humanity lived in this very real and physically tangible world with so enormous a reliance on the human brain’s capacity for imagination.

I believe the great problem of our time is that this imaginary world has gradually evolved to a condition where what we imagine is rapidly losing connection with the real physical world in which we live.

Lindsay Byrnes said...

Hi Halle
Thanks for your comment and I am pleased to hear this somewhat long post has still managed to stimulate your imagination.

Myths can be very much part of our moral teaching, culture and in the way we attempt to experience a transcendent GOD.
All the best to you on your journey!!
Hi Susan
Thanks for your interesting comment. I am not so familiar with other religious cultures but I daresay the Australian Aboriginals religion is not too far off other indigenous groups.
It envisaged a GOD(s) who created people in tune with the environment during differing times. Deities are recognisable by various plants, animals or rock formations to which the various clans belong in the complicated kinship system. They believed ancestral beings taught the first peoples to make tools, hunt and laid down the law; to become the embodiment of their culture.

Today we are certainly bombarded by so many different images, many of which are unwanted.

But I also do think we are privy to some of the most majestic images ever imaginable , such as those beamed to us from “Voyager 1 “as her bids farewell in her journey of exploration into deep space.

I don't think there can be any doubt the ancient astronomers of yesteryear, whose rock paintings of eclipses signify an understanding and passion for astronomy, would surely be green with envy!
Best wishes