Imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination.                                                                                                                   
Theseus, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare had a keen appreciation of the value of imagination, as that quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests. But what is imagination? Is it a luxury -a chance evolutionary exaptation of some otherwise less essential neural circuit- or a purpose-made system to analyse novel features in the environment? A mechanism for evaluating counterfactuals -the what-ifs?

A quirkier question, perhaps, would be to ask if it might predate language itself -be the framework, the scaffolding upon which words and thoughts are draped. Or is that merely another chicken versus egg conundrum drummed up by an overactive imagination?

I suppose what I’m really asking is why it exists at all. Does poetry or its ilk serve an evolutionary purpose? Do dreams? Does one’s Muse…? All interesting questions for sure, but perhaps the wrong ones with which to begin the quest to understand.

I doubt that there is a specific gene for imagination; it seems to me it may be far more global than could be encompassed by one set of genetic instructions. In what we would consider proto-humans it may have involved more primitive components: such non-linguistic features as emotion -fear, elation, confusion- but also encompassed bodily responses to external stimuli: a moving tickle in that interregnum between sleep and wakefulness might have been interpreted as spider and generated a muscular reaction whether or not there was an actual creature crawling on the skin.

Imagination, in other words, may not be an all-or-nothing feature unique to Homo sapiens. It may be a series of  adaptations to the exigencies of life that eventuated in what we would currently recognize as our human creativity.

I have to say, it’s interesting what you can find if you keep your mind, as well as your eyes, open. I wasn’t actively searching for an essay on imagination -although perhaps on some level, I was… At any rate, on whatever level, I happened upon an essay by Stephen T Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago and his approach fascinated me.

‘Imagination is intrinsic to our inner lives. You could even say that it makes up a ‘second universe’ inside our heads. We invent animals and events that don’t exist, we rerun history with alternative outcomes, we envision social and moral utopias, we revel in fantasy art, and we meditate both on what we could have been and on what we might become… We should think of the imagination as an archaeologist might think about a rich dig site, with layers of capacities, overlaid with one another. It emerges slowly over vast stretches of time, a punctuated equilibrium process that builds upon our shared animal inheritance.’

Interestingly, many archaeologists seem to conflate the emergence of imagination with the appearance of artistic endeavours –‘premised on the relatively late appearance of cave art in the Upper Paleolithic period (c38,000 years ago)… [and] that imagination evolves late, after language, and the cave paintings are a sign of modern minds at work.’

Asma, sees the sequence rather differently, however: ‘Thinking and communicating are vastly improved by language, it is true. But ‘thinking with imagery’ and even ‘thinking with the body’ must have preceded language by hundreds of thousands of years. It is part of our mammalian inheritance to read, store and retrieve emotionally coded representations of the world, and we do this via conditioned associations, not propositional coding.’

Further, Asma supposes that ‘Animals appear to use images (visual, auditory, olfactory memories) to navigate novel territories and problems. For early humans, a kind of cognitive gap opened up between stimulus and response – a gap that created the possibility of having multiple responses to a perception, rather than one immediate response. This gap was crucial for the imagination: it created an inner space in our minds. The next step was that early human brains began to generate information, rather than merely record and process it – we began to create representations of things that never were but might be.’ I love his idea of a ‘cognitive gap’. It imagines (sorry) a cognitive area where something novel could be developed and improved over time.

I’m not sure that I totally understand all of the evidence he cites to bolster his contention, though- for example, the view of philosopher Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon that there are ‘deep embodied metaphorical structures within language itself, and meaning is rooted in the body (not the head).’ Although, ‘Rather than being based in words, meaning stems from the actions associated with a perception or image. Even when seemingly neutral lexical terms are processed by our brains, we find a deeper simulation system of images.’ But at any rate, Asma summarizes his own thoughts more concisely, I think: ‘The imagination, then, is a layer of mind above purely behaviourist stimulus-and-response, but below linguistic metaphors and propositional meaning.’

In other words, you don’t need to have language for imagination. But the discipline of biosemantics tries to envisage how it might have developed in other animals. ‘[Primates] have a kind of task grammar for doing complex series of actions, such as processing inedible plants into edible food. Gorillas, for example, eat stinging nettles only after an elaborate harvesting and leave-folding [sic] sequence, otherwise their mouths will be lacerated by the many barbs. This is a level of problem-solving that seeks smarter moves (and ‘banks’ successes and failures) between the body and the environment. This kind of motor sequencing might be the first level of improvisational and imaginative grammar. Images and behaviour sequences could be rearranged in the mind via the task grammar, long before language emerged. Only much later did we start thinking with linguistic symbols. While increasingly abstract symbols – such as words – intensified the decoupling of representations and simulations from immediate experience, they created and carried meaning by triggering ancient embodied systems (such as emotions) in the storytellers and story audiences.’ So, as a result, ‘The imaginative musician, dancer, athlete or engineer is drawing directly on the prelinguistic reservoir of meaning.’

Imagination has been lauded as a generator of progress, and derided as idle speculation throughout our tumultuous history, but there’s no denying its power: ‘The imagination – whether pictorial or later linguistic – is especially good at emotional communication, and this might have evolved because emotional information drives action and shapes adaptive behaviour. We have to remember that the imagination itself started as an adaptation in a hostile world, among social primates, so perhaps it is not surprising that a good storyteller, painter or singer can manipulate my internal second universe by triggering counterfactual images and events in my mind that carry an intense emotional charge.’

Without imagination, we cannot hope to appreciate the Shakespeare who also wrote, in his play Richard III:

Princes have but their titles for their glories,                                                                                                      An outward honor for an inward toil,                                                                                                                And, for unfelt imaginations,                                                                                                                                They often feel a world of restless cares.

Personally, I cannot even imagine a world where imagination doesn’t play such a crucial role… Or can I…?


Beggaring All Description

Beauty is many things, I suppose, and attempts to define it are fraught. It seems to vary between societies and eras, with some cultures deciding it is appearance, and some opting for demeanour. One such view, influenced by the Greek diaspora following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Koine Greek, used an adjective for beautiful: horaios, which derives from the word hora -or hour. There was a delightful description of this in (sorry) Wikipedia: ‘In Koine Greek, beauty was thus associated with “being of one’s hour”. Thus, a ripe fruit (of its time) was considered beautiful, whereas a young woman trying to appear older or an older woman trying to appear younger would not be considered beautiful.’

I find this useful, because it suggests that beauty -at least in a person- resides in being recognized for what one actually is -not what artifice may try to disguise. Admiration, in other words lies in more than appearance. I am reminded of Shakespeare’s Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.’

And yet, whose eyes -one’s own, or that of others? How we see ourselves is almost as important as how we are seen. Think of the agony than can be inflicted by acne in the teenage years -a time when self-identity is often linked to group identity, and self-esteem is dependent on the approbation of one’s peers. It is a time when we are defined by others, because we have not yet defined ourselves.

Memories of my own speckled past were awakened, Phoenix-like, by a short article in the Conversation on the beauty -or not- of skin:

As the author, Rodney Sinclair, Professor of Dermatology, University of Melbourne observes, ‘We’re all attracted to a beautiful face. We like to look at them, we feel drawn to them and we aspire to have one. Many researchers and others have investigated what we humans identify as “beautiful”: symmetry, large evenly spaced eyes, white teeth, a well-proportioned nose and of course, a flawless complexion. The skin is of utmost importance when people judge someone as beautiful.’ There may be an unintended bias on his part, of course. A dermatologist would see the world through a lens of pores and complexions, but I suspect he is merely tapping into the current ethos -one that seems characteristic of an era of Snapchat, and Facebook posts where ‘Even the best facial structure can be unbalanced by skin that is flawed.’

I’m not certain I agree with some of his views about how much we value complexion. For example: ‘When choosing a mate, men rank female beauty more highly than women rate male appearance. Female beauty is thought to signal youth, fertility and health. Beauty can also signal high status. People with “plain looks” earn about 10% less than people who are average-looking, who in turn earn around 5% less than people who are good-looking.’ I suspect there has been a bit of cherry-picking of studies that bolster his opinions, although I suppose we all do that.

But his point about the importance of the cosmetic industry nowadays certainly seems spot on: ‘People spend a lot of money in attempts to regain their youthful appearance. The global cosmetics industry is worth about US$500 billion. Sales of skin and sun care products, make-up and colour cosmetics generate over 36% of the worldwide cosmetic market. We use foundation makeup to conceal freckles and blemishes, moisturisers and fillers to hide dryness, concealers to disguise broken capillaries and pimples.’

And yet, I find myself inexorably drawn to that Greek idea of beauty residing more in ‘being of one’s hour’, than in forcing one’s time. Accepting the ineffable allure of the moment in which each of us lives.

Many years ago, I met Dora, a woman with quite visible facial scarring from long-ago acne. She was probably in her early thirties, and was employed as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. But she was so gregarious and friendly, I had ceased to see her face whenever I had occasion to visit. A warm smile would emerge like a puppy bounding from the woods and greet me from across the room. Her eyes were alive, and sparkled even under the unremitting glare of the overhead fluorescent lights. But she would have lit a path to her desk even in a power failure.

So overwhelming was her presence that I would never have remembered what she was wearing, had I been asked. Everything was subordinate; she ruled the room like a queen and the radiance lingered even when she was on vacation, or had taken a sick day. It was as if the empty the space was holding its breath. Or so I thought.

One day, when I arrived for my appointment, the office seemed smaller. Duller. It had been more than a year since I had been there, and so I couldn’t immediately decide what had changed. Dora was not there, unfortunately -I had been looking forward to seeing her again, but I assumed she had taken a few days off.

As I approached the desk –her desk- I was tracked by a set of razored eyes as if I had inadvertently chosen the wrong door. The wrong office. There was a smile, of course, but it was cool, and applied like the makeup on the rest of the obviously impeccable face. Long blond hair fell in ringlets to her shoulders onto a dark blue silk blouse -a very attractive person to greet the entrant, I suppose. But it was not Dora.

I forced a smile onto my lips and introduced myself. The woman immediately checked her computer screen and her face marginally softened at what she found. I took this as an opportunity to ask about Dora.

I could see her pupils momentarily contract and something tensed in her cheek.

“Dora no longer works here,” she said with a forced affability, and as if she were tired of having to explain.

I couldn’t hide my disappointment, I’m afraid, and the woman noticed.

“The doctor thought she was a bad advertisement for his practice,” she said with an obviously rehearsed face.

“Oh…” was all I could think of to respond.

The face perked up briefly. “He did offer to help…” she stared across the empty room for a moment. “But she said she was happy with who she was –‘with who she’d always been’, was how she put it…”

And then, although she tried to disguise it, she rolled her eyes and sighed. “Anyway,” she said, unrolling her eyes and resting them on my cheeks, “she decided to resign.”

But when I continued to stare at her, she shrugged, as if everybody was better off with Dora gone. “He gave her a good reference, though,” she added at the persistence of my disappointed expression, and shifted her attention back to the screen in front of her with a little smile.