Imagination and Culture

"Imagination is more important than knowledge," declares Albert Einstein on a poster that can be found in thousands of university dormitories. The physicist's great breakthrough came from imagining what he might see if he were riding a photon through the depths of space. It made sense for him to give credit to imagination, although in everyday discourse a contrary position is taken for granted - that wise people are those realistic types who keep "their feet on the ground." We have all been warned against indulging our imaginative tendencies: we should not daydream or even speculate much about what might have been, or what may yet happen. The ability to distinguish between the two is supposedly the main difference between sanity and insanity. Sane people are those who live in the world of reality, except for rare, fleeting, and unimportant moments of escapism.

Well, it's not quite that simple. Though you and I may never entertain such a fantasy as riding a photon, we do have a rich imaginative life, whether we notice it or not. We could hardly get through the day without it. Daydreams may constitute about half of the thousands of thoughts and images we produce in a day.

In Defence of Fantasies

Here I intend to defend the imagination. Oddly, people normally feel ashamed of their daydreams. The imagination is an indispensable aspect of realistic, practical thinking, not its antithesis. Realism and fantasy depend on each other. I want to explore the influence of fantasies (both our own and those that writers and actors create for us) on the quality of our human relationships - the ethical dimension of our experience. This exploration is preliminary to a larger discussion of the social use of fictional cultural products.

Dreams and daydreams can yield practical solutions to empirical problems. Einstein said that "the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge." He was not the only scientist who used fantasy in that way. I'll illustrate by mentioning three other geniuses whose imagination gave them their greatest research insight.

The chemist Friedrich August Kekulé had been working in 1858 on the structure of organic compounds when he dozed off in front of his fireplace. He imagined atoms in

"long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis."

This image of a snake biting its own tail revealed to him the structure of the benzene ring - the basis of all organic chemistry.

Or consider Nikola Tesla, one of the greatest inventors of all time, who is best known for discovering alternating current. Tesla's fantasy life was remarkable. In his autobiography, he described visions that seemed so real that he could not always tell which ones were tangible and which ones not. Yet he was far from being mad, and indeed he put his visualizing capacities to work in the realm of physics.

"When I get an idea, I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever; the results are the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything. When I have gone so far as to embody in the invention every possible improvement I can think of and see no fault anywhere, I put into concrete form this final product of my brain. Invariably my device works as I conceived that it should, and the experiment comes out exactly as I planned it. In twenty years there has not been a single exception."

And finally, my third example is Elias Howe, who invented the sewing machine in 1845. He had been attempting to invent such an instrument for years. One night he fell asleep at his workbench and dreamed of being captured by cannibals in Africa. They carried him home on a pole and dumped him into a pot, preparing to boil him. Although he managed to loosen the ropes from his hands and tried to climb out of the pot, the cannibals kept poking him down again with their spears, which had holes in the points.

Howe awoke with a shock. "Holes in the points!" he exclaimed. "That's it!" Of course, the solution to his problem was to put the hole in the point of the needle, instead of at the back, as in needles for hand sewing.

The brilliance of Howe, Einstein, Tesla, and Kekulé can be attributed to their ability to play with fantasies and dreams in the back of their minds, yet notice the images and bring them up into consciousness, work through the practical implications, and then put the ideas into a form that others could see.

The Power of Imagining

Relatively few people have such rich fantasy lives as these scientists and I don't want to exaggerate the sheer power of thoughts. You have to do more than "wish upon a star" to make your dreams come true. Nevertheless, the imagination is often consequential for ordinary people. Let me illustrate with three factors that show the power of images: the "self-fulfilling prophecy;" the placebo effect; and the relationship between health and emotional relationships.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. A "self-fulfilling prophecy" occurs when an expectation about what others will do increases the probability that they will do exactly as predicted. Here, an image of the future influences the reality that actually takes place. The most famous example is the "Pygmalion effect" established by psychologist Robert Rosenthal. He found that teachers, by expecting high or low levels of achievement from their various students, actually make it more likely that the students will perform accordingly well or poorly. This happens even if the teacher does not tell anyone what he or she expects. Indeed, Rosenthal and his colleagues experimented by telling teachers that they had invented a new test that would predict which of their students would "bloom" that year. They told the teachers which students were likely to develop. Actually, they had randomly selected those students; they had no such test. Nevertheless, by the end of the year, the students who had been predicted to bloom actually performed better on standardized tests than the other students. Apparently the teachers had unconsciously encouraged them more.

This phenomenon of self-fulfilling prediction has been shown to be involved with other expectations, such as an employer's anticipation that some workers will be better at their jobs than others.

The placebo effect. Self-fulfilling prophecies are well understood. In contrast, no one is quite sure how the placebo effect works. Here too, a belief evidently changes physical reality. A patient is given a sugar pill or some other inert substance (placebo), but is told that it is a potent medication that will cure his disease. Whenever placebos are administered, the proportion of people who feel better is considerably higher than the proportion who spontaneously recuperate without any treatment. Positive placebo reactions have been reported as ranging from 21 percent to 58 percent. Placebos can be genuinely helpful to patients. However, for the placebo to work, the doctor has to deceive the patient. Ordinarily physicians do not resort to this kind of lying.

Health and Emotions. For at least a generation, physicians have recognized the benefits of meditative calm for the health and emotional well being of their patients - especially those with stress-related disorders such as high blood pressure. Now they know that other states of mind besides meditation also are beneficial - not just calm, but a various intense positive feelings, such as love, joy, sexual pleasure, enthusiastic excitement, religious awe, tender affection, and laughter.

One might not be surprised to find small correlations between emotional well being and physical health, but the magnitude of the association is extraordinary - larger than the statistics pharmaceutical companies seek when testing the effectiveness of new drugs. People who feel close to no one and whose lives are lacking in love are at least three to five times more likely than other people to die prematurely. I review this research in Chapter 3.

So far as Two Aspirins and a Comedy is concerned, we are interested in the relationship between the imagination and the creation of cultural products, especially fiction - which are created, not instrumentally to address a practical problem, but rather expressively, for entertainment purposes. This distinction is worth elaborating.

Instrumental and Consummatory Fantasies

The social philosopher George Herbert Mead distinguished between two kinds of acts: instrumental and expressive (or consummatory). The former type of act is a component of some other, larger-scale project. The consummatory act, on the other hand, is performed for its own sake as the direct fulfillment or expression of an impulse. For example, when I switch on my computer, that is an instrumental act - one phase of a larger act, checking my e-mail. But if my e-mail contains unexpectedly good news, I may dance around the room in joy - not as a phase of any other larger plan of action, but simply as an expression of elation. Mead would call the dance a consummatory or expressive act. Any act done for the sake of doing it, and not for some practical end, is consummatory. Religious ritual is consummatory, for instance, while magic is instrumental - done for the sake of gaining control over the forces that determine good or bad luck.

We can also distinguish between instrumental and consummatory fantasies. During some fantasies we are working out anticipated problems or attempting to interpret a situation by holding an internal debate between contrasting perspectives. These are "instrumental" imaginings that may, if they work out well, give us a new sense of clarity about, say, a moral, political, or scientific problem and enable us to act decisively. Dialogues with imaginary or internalized others about real problems or controversies are usually instrumental fantasies, whether or not they seem entirely rational or lucid.

However, many other fantasies, such as your daydream about driving a snazzy sports car, are consummatory; you think about them for the sheer pleasure of experiencing them and not because they are a phase of addressing any other realistic end. Fiction - a novel, poem, movie, or other entertainment product - is predominantly meant as a consummatory experience, enjoyable simply as a moment of diversion or wish-fulfillment. However, even a frothy little romantic comedy may occasionally strike a deep chord in a viewer, bringing to mind a troubling unresolved issue and unexpectedly serving instrumentally to bring new insights. Stories may have greater influence than the readers realize.

Popper's Three Worlds

Ideas can exist in two states - either subjectively in the privacy of one's mind or in an objective form that others may witness. Ideas - indeed, all the components of culture - can go back and forth between the two states; they originate in someone's imagination, then may be manifested in some physical state, which others in turn may perceive and mull over privately in their own minds.

Two Aspirins and a Comedy explores the movement of ideas and feelings back and forth - from subjective experience into objective, empirical reality, which in turn stimulates new subjective experiences, and so on, ad infinitum. The interaction between objectivity and subjectivity interests me.

Not all ideas ever become manifested in objective reality; most notions perish without having been shared. Those that do get expressed in an objective state may be ephemeral and obscure (a single sentence uttered in a public place, for example) or may last as long as the Sphinx.

Culture contains only those ideas that have been manifested objectively, at least in a fleeting way. Culture originates in the imagination, but its existence must also be physical, objective, so as to move from one mind to another. A writer puts words onto a page; years later, a reader harvests them. A television crew puts a tender relationship onto tape; years later, a viewer's tears and hormones flow while watching it.

Sometimes culture contains ideas that no longer exist in any living person's mind, but which remain physically present, ready to be apprehended again by another mind. Take the ancient Etruscan language, for example. Today many of the written words have been decoded and about 100 texts have been translated for the first time in millennia. The ideas encoded in Etruscan writing existed objectively, but not subjectively, since no one could read them.

When we distinguish between reality and the imagination, we are emphasizing the difference between the subjective realm of consciousness and the objective realm of physically observable phenomena, such as Etruscan inscriptions on stone monuments. But that latter realm, the physical realm, must be divided in two: natural phenomena and artifacts of human minds. An ordinary stone belongs to the former category, whereas an engraved tombstone or a diamond solitaire in a ring belongs to the latter category - physical artifacts that manifest intentions of the human mind.

We owe this distinction between two states of culture - as objective and subjective ideas - to the philosopher Karl Popper, who proposed three categories, which he called "three worlds." World One is the physical, natural world. World Two is the world of consciousness - of fantasies, emotions, and all other mental processes. World Three consists of the products of the human mind. Popper meant to include in World Three everything observable that the human mind has fashioned, such as tools, institutions, musical performances, books, heart operations, and journals. These productions are different from the minds that create them; they exist objectively and often (but not always) rather permanently, enabling us to compare them, criticize them, argue about them, and develop them further. They may survive the minds - the World Two entities - that created them and they are therefore "objective ideas." Popper explained that

"the third world, the world of objective knowledge... is man-made. But it is to be stressed that this world exists to a large extent autonomously; that it generates its own problems, especially those connected with methods of growth; and that its impact on any one of us, even on the most original of creative thinkers, vastly exceeds the impact which any of us can make upon it."

Subjectivity - human consciousness, World Two - mediates between Worlds One and Three. Popper wrote:

"The three worlds are so related that the first two can interact, and that the last two can interact. Thus the second world, the world of subjective or personal experiences, interacts with each of the other two worlds. The first world and the third world cannot interact, save through the intervention of the second world, the world of subjective or personal experiences."

An immense accumulation of culture exists as objective knowledge - concretized artifacts in such places as the Internet, museums, and magazines. This is humanity's cultural storehouse of objective knowledge.

There is a constant interplay between Worlds Two and Three - between the subjective world of the imagination and the objective world of expressed ideas. Popper's classification system is itself an example. He thought it up and wrote it down. I read his book and thought about it further. Then I drew upon it in writing a book on a topic that probably would never have interested him. And so it goes.

In receiving, using, and passing objective knowledge on, we serve as curators of our World Three heritage. Ideas that have been recorded but are no longer part of any World Two process are dormant. Live culture consists of this ongoing motion of ideas from one mind to another - always as communicated across time and space through the manifestations of World Three.