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The Role of Imagination

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, imagination is the mental faculty to form images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses; as well as, the creative faculty of the mind. However, what is the purpose of imagination in our lives?

For Aristotle, the imagination – or phantasia – was a bridge between sensation and thought, supplying images (phantasms) without which thought could not occur. Kant believed that imagination was fundamental to the human mind, not only bringing together our sensory and intellectual faculties, but also acting in creative ways.

Leslie Stevenson’s paper, ‘Twelve conceptions of imagination,’ lists twelve types of imagination, one which is “the ability to appreciate things that are expressive or revelatory of the meaning of human life.” When we look at a painting, read a novel, hear a piece of music, or taste food, we bring imagination into the experience to form an appreciation of the event.

Imagination plays an essential role in motivation and accomplishments. When we imagine a future goal (e.g., promotion, weight loss) it often brings hope and moves us to goal setting. Research shows increased performance with athletes, musicians and speakers who regularly mentally imagine skills or tasks (e.g., golf swing, performing a song) being successfully accomplished. Similarly, visualization has been used with people dealing with chronic pain, cancer treatments, anxiety and addictions (e.g., visualizing abstinence from alcohol, medication attacking cells).

Jung noted that “All the works of [humans] have their origin in creative fantasy.” Indeed, imagination is essentially linked to creativity, whether artistic, scientific or otherwise. In creating something new we first have to conjure an image of what we want to create.  As William Blake observed, “What is now true was once only imagined.”

Creativity and imagination aid in problem solving.  Our intellect may wrestle with a dilemma and yet, when we imagine or widen the possibilities, often better answers arise.  When making decisions, play with the possibility of “What if?” It may be worthwhile to note what voices accompany the options. It is these fear-based and critical voices that block our ideas and limit our choices and potential.

Recent studies indicate that imagination is related to empathy (the ability to identify with others, including fictional characters, by imagining what they are feeling).  Being empathetic is regarded as crucial in accessing others, enriching our own experiences and developing our moral sense.

When we are disconnected from our imagination (locked into the intellect or left-brain thinking), we lose touch with this vital part of ourselves. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “Imagination is not a talent of some people, but is the health of every person.”

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.