The Incredible Human Imagination

I believe the imagination is the thing that launched humans into their place of dominance over the Earth. Surely, much of our success came from our shape. Our ability to hold things is pretty integral to our ability to make things, etc. But it’s not unique to us. What’s unique is our imaginations. They are responsible for everything we can do mentally that allowed us to manipulate our surroundings in a way that no other creature has.

It started with changing the shapes of rocks. Pretty basic. But it required imagination to think a rock might be more useful for its job if it were pointier. It required imagination to think a long, straight stick with a pointy rock at the end might fly through the air just so. To think another animal’s hide might keep a human warm, too.

Early on in human history we see evidence of counting using tally marks. This is imaginative! How does a tally mark represent anything but a line unless you use your imagination?

Most of math is imaginative. Anything creative must be – art, music, literature, comedy, theater. Most of what we teach in schools requires the use of the imagination. In History we have to imagine the experiences of people long dead. In Science we have to stretch our imaginations to their limits by considering something as small as an atom or as large as the Sun.

Furthermore, the imagination helps us make decisions and plans by presenting possible outcomes. We use it to set goals and motivate our actions. We use it to entertain ourselves and others. And we use it, most importantly to me, to empathize.

Empathy is an imaginative effort. The more effective an imagination is, the better it can perceive from alternative perspectives. The emotional function of empathy is a result of an accurate and meaningful grasp of another person’s situation and circumstances.

To summarize: The imagination is completely awesome, literally, and one of our most useful tools as humans. It has a central role in our cognitive lives, mediating intellectual and social pursuits alike.

In light of these facts, I believe education needs to aim itself, at least partly, at developing the imaginations of its students and teachers. I’m still working on how to do that. It will surely be the topic of future posts.

For now, let us simply bask in awe and gratitude for the power of our own imaginations.

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