What Is Imagination?

What is imagining? What are the functions of the imagination? Let’s see.

What is imagination?

Human existence perennially oscillates on two different planes, that of reality (which manifests itself through its direct participation in physically tangible events) and that of subjectivity (which results from the way in which each individual lives their internal world). That is, between perception and imagination.

Although there is a clear border between the two, we cannot deny that there are certain points of contact: what we imagine tends to come from events experienced in the past, while endless realities were first conceived in a restless mind.

The ability to create mental scenarios is a characteristic of our species, and it allows it to transcend the limitations imposed by nature to discover strategies from which to benefit, despite the fact that at times this has been harmful to the planet.

In this article we will delve into the detail of what the phenomenon of imagination is and its functions. Likewise, we will delve into those everyday areas in which it plays a key role, with the aim of exemplifying its scope in our lives.

Imagination: what is it and what is it for?

Imagination is the ability to create, at a cognitive level, images (or scenes) that are not present in the perceptual field of the person who articulates them, and can be spiced by the inclusion of elements evoked in any sensory modality. In such a way, it is possible to reproduce situations from the past that not only involve visual content, but also the sensations that accompanied them (positive and negative). It also allows you to explore intangible ideas or concepts, and even combine them to generate innovative products that never existed or were not directly experienced.

In this sense, two subtypes of imagination are distinguished, the reproductive (simple evocation of the past, deformed by the passage of time and by storage limitations in memory) and the productive (mental construction of new content from the amalgamation of life experiences). This phenomenon also includes the well-known counterfactual thoughts, that is, the formulation at the hypothetical level of alternative scenarios through which to illustrate how life could have been if a certain peak of life had been different (a different decision, eg. ).

And it is that imagining is a habitual activity in the human being. Thanks to it, we consider possibilities and conditions (which often begin with a “what if”) that are the essence of creative or divergent thinking; from which the advancement of technology, science and art is possible.

From the very writing of a research hypothesis to the creation of a plastic or literary work, all of them have an imaginative element of enormous magnitude that shapes the artistic and scientific legacy of humanity. Even the stories, tales and mythologies of each culture, which have a moralizing objective and serve to endow the community with an identity substrate, were born and nurtured by this symbolic capacity.

Parts of the brain involved

Imagination is a very demanding function at the level of cognitive resources, and for this reason it has only been described in a very limited number of mammals (among which the human animal stands out exceptionally). When the brain of a person is observed during a task in which he must imagine, an intense activation of his occipital cortex (related to the visual processing of information), the parietal cortex (which integrates sensory perception), the lobe frontal (the seat of the ability to reflect on objective / abstract things) and the pre-wedge or precuneus (also known as the “mind’s eye” and in charge of dimensions related to self-awareness).

The faculty of imagining is so powerful for the human being that it motivates a response within the brain very similar to the one that would be appreciated if the event were actually happening in front of him. When it is distorted in a pathological way (generalized anxiety disorder, for example), it becomes threatening to our ancient limbic structures, on which emotional regulation depends upon danger. That is why an imagination of an adverse nature bombards the physiological resources for stress and affect management without quarter, which is particularly harmful if metacognition (the ability to differentiate what is true from what are mental products) is diluted. , as in psychotic disorders.

Processes in which the use of imagination is involved

Here are the seven most important processes in which we resort to the use of imagination. Dreams will be excluded from such a list, since they are considered an involuntary expression of it, to focus only on the assumptions in which it is used deliberately (through the activity of the prefrontal cortex). As will be appreciated, it is an elemental and omnipresent cognitive phenomenon in human activity.

1. Remembrance

The simple evocation of a memory supposes the use of the imagination, since a scene that is not present in the immediate moment is transferred to consciousness. Such a process has a very important reconstructive component, since the information that was originally attended loses its details over time, preserving only the general outline of the stimulus. The elements to which it is not possible to access (due to the effects of conventional forgetting or because they were not filtered into consciousness) are complemented by the subjective contribution of the individual; which usually leads to deformations, mistakes, errors and inaccuracies.

Through the imagination it is plausible to elicit scenes and / or situations that never really happened, and that these interfere with the real memories and become confused in them. It is an extreme example of the way in which the content we create with our own mind can interfere with internal experience, even to the point of being experienced as a piece of an artificial past.

2. Prediction of future events

The imagination is not only directed towards events that occurred in the past, but also towards those that are about to happen. In this case, the imagination aims to create a range of potentialities based on previous experiences.

Expectations and wishes, which have inescapable emotional nuances, play a role when designing a prediction; But probabilistic and logical foundations also come into play that combine the available information and knowledge about the variables involved in the estimation (experience of cause / effect of what has already been lived).

3. Predicting your own reactions and planning what to do

The imagination participates in processes such as problem solving, planning and / or prospective memory; all associated with the activity of the prefrontal cortex. It implies a step further with respect to the aforementioned and includes the performance itself within a planned scenario. It is intended to facilitate an adequate adaptation to the environment; including the anticipation of contingencies, the sequence of coping strategies to deal with them and the development of a method by which to respond to a threat.

4. Creativity

Creativity involves an unconventional style of reflection and thinking, which has also been coined as divergent. As its name suggests, it involves the creation of new ideas using concepts or procedures that previously existed as raw material, but which were used in a linear way by most individuals. As a result, a new knowledge is obtained that transcends the previous one, and that is more useful or efficient in its application to real life. This form or style of information processing has its fundamental ally in the imagination, since without it it is unviable.

Creativity has been linked to thought patterns that require a particular interhemispheric connection. The degree or level of complexity that has been observed in humans is not reproduced in any other animal species, and may be one of the elements that have contributed to our position on this planet being (for better or for worse) which is.

5. Emotional changes

Imagination can be used, in the field of psychotherapy, as a tool with which to induce positive emotional states or to soften the negative ones that grip the subject. There are endless procedures that make use of it, and that are included under the general label of “visualization”.

For its application, the therapist must use evocative words, and that these translate into the mental creation of multisensory content by the patient (visual, auditory, taste, etc.), which merits modifications in the internal experience.

In general, the “instructions” offered seek to generate relaxing scenes that alleviate emotional tension, facilitate experiences that help overcome a fear (exposure to fear in imagination), increase confidence regarding a task (creative visualization of oneself practicing an action, especially in the sports field) or coordinate diaphragmatic respiratory activity using a means of support (a boat that rocks gently on the horizon and helps to regulate the inspiration / expiration rate). In case it is difficult for the person to imagine, prior training may be needed.

6. Escape or enjoyment

The imagination can also be used to recreate a memory that has already passed, or with the aim of constructing a desired scene and that (for whatever reason) is not accessible on the plane of individual reality. It would be translated by the colloquial expression of “daydreaming” and would be fertile ground for those who yearn for a “change” in the dynamics of their daily lives. Other people resort to imagination only because through it they access moments of enormous affective depth that were part of their lives (due to the presence of a loved one and the nostalgia for a time that will not return).

In certain cases, the imagination can be used in moments of existential difficulty, as the mechanism through which the evasion of reality is possible. What is intended in such a case is to generate a positive and reinforcing experience when life itself becomes hostile or unbearable. In this way, imagined thoughts are used for playful or compensatory purposes, enriching the memories that are treasured when present circumstances do not allow full satisfaction. Finally, boys and girls also use their imagination “playfully” when interacting with classmates, and more particularly in what we know as symbolic play.

7. Creating a self-image

People turn to imagination in order to forge concrete meaning for themselves in relation to their social ties and the goals they aim to achieve. In this sense, perhaps it is the “ideal self” that harbors the most notable connections with the imagination, understood as the model or guide of conduct to which we aspire. People nurture the ideal self with numerous and disparate attributes, followed by behavior aimed at reducing the distance between it and the “real self” (resulting in better or worse self-esteem). It is for this reason that imagination indirectly influences how we live and how we value ourselves, mediating its effects through the fulfillment of expectations.

Bibliographic references:

  • Gendler, T. (2002). Review: The Work of the Imagination. Mind, 111, 414-418.
  • Faranda, F. (2016). Image and Imagination: Deepening Our Experience of the Mind. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 36 (8), 74-77.

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