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…?



Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be, For my unconquerable soul.  This may be how we choose to think about ourselves as we screw our courage to the sticking place. And yet, much as we hate to admit it, there is something a little frightening about things that surround us which we cannot see. Clouds that, had we not been made aware of them, would have drifted as unseen and unregarded as smoke on a moonless night.

Bacteria, at least in popular culture, have usually been associated with filth, contamination, and especially, illness. The Germ Theory, which postulates that some diseases are caused by agents (microorganisms), was first proposed in the mid-1500s and later substantiated with the advent of microscopes and public sanitation advances. The recognition of microorganisms as causes of disease supplanted the previously held disease theory of Miasma –bad air- as propounded by Galen, a Greek physician and philosopher in the mid second century CE Roman empire.

As counter intuitive as it might sound nowadays, new discoveries have lately suggested that he may well have been on to something: I suppose this shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, though. As the news article observes: ‘Studies have already shown that our microbiome – the collection of bacteria, viruses and fungi that live on our skin and in our bodies – outnumbers our own cells 10 to one. These can be spread through direct contact, airborne emissions and shed skin cells in dust.’ Or, perhaps more disturbing, ‘Walk through someone else’s cloud, and it will “rain” bacteria on your skin and be breathed into your lungs.’ The study, from scientists at the University of Oregon, was published in the Sept. 2015 edition of Peer J: -a fascinating read, to be sure.

I suppose I found this article a timely reminder that we all approach the idea of ‘cleanliness’ in different ways, and to different degrees. Not everybody who pays attention to it has OCD.

Lisa was a good example, I think. A beautifully coiffed, tall woman in an almost obsessively ironed white, frilly blouse and perfectly pleated black skirt, she sat primly, but in isolation in the fully packed waiting room. Trying not to seem rude, she had managed to negotiate the chaos of hyperactive children and their large-tummied mothers, by contracting herself into the smallest possible dimensions in a corner. She wasn’t obvious about it, nor did she seem at all uncomfortable –just careful to avoid undue and unnecessary contact. As if everyone around her had the flu –or something else of which they might not even be aware. Yet.

As I led her down the corridor to my office I noticed she stopped at the front desk for a quick dab of alcohol hand rub from the dispenser the secretaries had placed there, probably for their own protection. Good, I thought, she’s getting her hands ready so she won’t contaminate me when we shake. Then it occurred to me in kind of uncomfortable shiver, that we had already shaken hands. So, to make her feel that it was indeed an appropriate thing to do after touching, I helped myself to a dollop from the same container. I don’t think she noticed; she was too engaged in straightening the sleeves of her blouse and then making sure no hair was out of place to ruin the effect. I put it down to nervousness.

Once she had settled into the chair across from my desk and examined my office with what seemed like polite curiosity, I asked her why she had been sent to see me in consultation. Her expression immediately changed. Her initially benign and neutral face suddenly wrinkled suspiciously, and her eyes wandered over my face for a moment searching for a safe place to stand. Or were they looking for reasons –any excuse- to terminate the visit and seek help elsewhere?

I thought I’d make it easier for her. “Well, your family doctor seems to feel you have… issues in the vaginal area that he can’t resolve. Would you like to tell me about them..?”

Her face gradually hardened. “I told him I wanted to see a female gynaecologist! But he never listens. He’s too busy to listen, I think.” She stared at a painting on the wall beside her, for a moment. “And your waiting room looks even fuller than his, I have to say.” Her eyes migrated slowly around the room stopping to feed on the eclectic tidbits I had scattered almost randomly throughout: the wooden statue of an Ethiopian woman holding a child and seeming to hide behind a plant on my desk; the terracotta woman sitting on a flimsy oak table holding a begging bowel filled with shiny coins that require constant vigilance from every mother who visits with her children; the jade apple on my desk; the multicoloured painting of a peasant woman leading a horse…

Interestingly, it was to the painting that her eyes continually returned. “But he never had pictures on his wall. Nothing at all interesting about his office except a window with a tree right outside it…” She lowered her eyes for a moment and then they flew back to my face and settled there. “So, what did you want me to tell you?”

“Dr. Grossac seemed concerned about your vaginal issues, as he put it.” I couldn’t suppress a smile at his turn of phrase and she noticed it.

“He just got fed up with not finding anything. He seemed to be a one-trick-pony: if his swabs and cultures didn’t show anything abnormal, then of course nothing was abnormal. A standoff.

“There is an odour, however –but like describing the taste of wine, words sometimes fail to capture it -or validate it… I don’t expect most family doctors will have a gas chromatograph in their offices, but I do think most noses are able to detect differences, don’t you? I mean, isn’t that what they’re for?”

She had a point.

She hesitated a moment, and then continued with a guilty expression. “I don’t mean to imply that Dr. Grossac doesn’t know his medicine -he told me he could smell something, but he didn’t know what. I guess he thought you would…”

“What have you tried so far?”

“I’ve tried scented oils in the bathwater; I’ve tried different laundry soaps, different personal products, but they only seem to help for an hour or two…”

“How long has this been going on, Lisa?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know –maybe a couple of weeks now.”

“And has this ever happened to you before?”

She shook her head, thought better of it, and then looked at me with caged eyes. “I suppose maybe something similar when I was a teenager…” She stopped, no doubt hoping I wouldn’t demand a fuller description. Sometimes you’re just not supposed to ask.

I smiled expectantly. “Oh, and what did your doctor find then?”

She blushed and looked at the horse painting once again. “Actually, I found it…”

I pretended to look at something on my desk. “And what did you find?” Sometimes I’m merciless.

She looked down at her lap, embarrassed beyond words. “I… I left something inside.” Her head snapped back upright and she unleashed her eyes on my face, daring me to pursue it. “I mean I was really young –just starting my periods, really…” Her voice trailed off in distress. This was a woman’s issue after all; she didn’t really expect me to understand.

“And this time?”

“Nope,” she mumbled to her knees. “Couldn’t find anything…”

“And your doctor?

“He never really looked in there…”

I tried not to show surprise. “Do you mind if I look?”

She shook her head –with relief, I think.

After I’d examined her and dealt with the issue, she came back into the office with an awkward smile on her face. “So,” she said, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire, eh?”

I had to smile again. “Ever heard of the Miasma Theory?”

She returned my smile. “Galen?”

I nodded. “He wasn’t entirely wrong was he?”