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. https://aeon.co/essays/imagination-is-such-an-ancient-ability-it-might-precede-language

‘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…?