Light Shows of the Mind

Einstein was right when he said that imagination is more important than knowledge

Quick, what's the cube root of 487? Now, what door would you use to get out of the room you're sitting in? If your brain were a computer, you could answer the first question almost instantaneously but you would stumble around for minutes and minutes trying to solve the second one. As technologists have programmed computers and robots, they've learned that although computers can do some mental tasks well, they cannot do others that we thought were easy but turn out to be incredibly complex. Even sophisticated computers have trouble drawing analogies between the door in one room and the doors in all the other rooms they've encountered. Moreover, they have trouble with questions like What is this thing called a "door"? and What does it mean to go "out"?

When we human beings encounter a door, we recognize many of its aspects—its color, its shape, its heft, its texture, the dividing line between the door and the doorframe—but in different parts of our brain. There is no single spot where the brain brings all these apprehensions together. Yet through some intricate backstage process it does bind them. We have only the vaguest idea of how this happens.

And if a door is complicated for the brain, imagine how complex many analogies, metaphors, and concepts are. When we use the phrase "American dream," we blend all the things we mean by the word "America" and all the associations we have with dreaming, and we feel we know what we're talking about. Impressive.

We call this process the imagination. It turns out that imagination is not some airy-fairy quality that artists use to paint pictures. It's a faculty that's at work every second of every day. Without our permission, our imaginations range around connecting one set of perceptions to another. The imagination builds fantasy landscapes and experiences and then moves into them to see what they're like. Some blends are nice: being alone together with Elle MacPherson on a tropical island. Some are horrible: my kids' being kidnapped. Regardless, what we imagine can arouse strong emotions and can powerfully shape the way we think and behave. This is the point made effectively by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner in their fascinating new book, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Com-plexities. "The next step in the study of mind," they write, "is the scientific study of the nature and mechanisms of the imagination."

I came upon this book through my semi-professional hobby of examining consumer behavior. Anybody who watches people as they shop quickly perceives that the economist's model of human behavior—in which we are rational actors calculating costs and benefits—doesn't really explain much. (Why do some people fall in love with Jaguars but not Corvettes?) Nor does Thorstein Veblen's model—in which consumers are involved in a status race to keep up with the Joneses. (Do you really think that's how you select your purchases? And if you don't, what makes you think everyone else is shallower and more status-crazed than you are?)

The key to consumption is not calculation or emulation. It's aspiration. The minds of shoppers relentlessly race ahead of reality. People tend to buy the things that set off light shows in their imaginations. But once an item ceases to fire their visions (because it no longer seems to provide a pathway to some idyllic future), they lose interest in it, and their imaginations go off in search of something new and exciting. Kids go through this process with dispiriting speed, as any parent can tell you on Christmas afternoon.

Reading Fauconnier and Turner as they summarize the literature on imagination and offer their own theories (Fauconnier is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California at San Diego, and Turner is a University Professor and a behavioral scientist at the University of Maryland), one realizes that we are only beginning to understand how imagination works. Still, they do offer a few significant insights. For example, they suggest that the culture we inhabit creates templates that they call "entrenched integration networks." In response to certain stimuli, people from the same culture tend to have similar responses. It took tens of thousands of years for language to develop, for instance, but children can learn it in a few years—and once the template is embedded in their brains, it is stubbornly entrenched. If you had seen the word "chair" when you were eighteen months old, you would have seen just a bunch of shapes. But now when you see those shapes you think of something to sit on. It is nearly impossible to go back and see the word "chair" as just shapes again. You cannot prevent your brain from making that blend.

From the archives:

"Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" (October 2001)
Interviews with a paramedic, a social worker, an undertaker, and a mother about their experiences with death and dying. By Studs Terkel

"The Hollywood Forever Way of Death" (March 2001)
Digital immortality—and not just for the stars. By Ed Leibowitz

"The Time Has Come" (September 1998)
Thinking about the logical next step in the funeral industry's evolution. By Cullen Murphy

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Language of Life and Death" (October 12)
Studs Terkel, the author of Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, talks about hope, September 11, and why Americans must think anew.

"Cultures work hard," Fauconnier and Turner write, "to develop integration resources that can then be handed on with relative ease." Death is a terrifying prospect, but each culture comes up with a set of rituals to help the imagination get a handle on it. The figure of the Grim Reaper is a blend of several aspects of death—darkness, the harvest, bones, afterlife, and so on—put into graspable form. We treat corpses as sacred objects and develop rituals for their disposal because we need some physical way to organize our responses to the death of a loved one.

A crucial point here is that imagination is amphibious. It lives in the worlds of both reason and fantasy. It always seems to be pushing us toward some product or benefit. But it also ventures forth into make-believe landscapes and into the future, places where logic and calculation don't really help us.

For example, our imaginations trick us into undertaking difficult tasks. We decide to learn a language, renovate our house, move to a new town, have children, or begin writing a book. We envision the pleasure and satisfaction we will feel and the success we will achieve. Then those tasks turn out to be hard, and the difficulties we encounter bring out our best exertions and make us better people. If our imaginations hadn't deceived us with glorious visions, we might never have started that book or that renovation, made that move, or begun that language course in the first place.

Imagination is also amphibious because it blends the material and the spiritual. Sometimes people say they are going to renounce materialism in order to lead more spiritual lives. That's not actually what they're doing. Most of them are really trading in a set of material objects (with the imaginative sparks those objects inspire) for another set of objects (which inspire, one hopes, more-profound imaginative sparks). Shopping, like living, is an imaginative activity in which it isn't possible to draw a sensible distinction between the spiritual and the material.

Fauconnier and Turner, and the other scientists whose work they summarize, expend the vast bulk of their energy trying to trace the pathways that imagination uses to perform its functions. I confess I find some of their intricate dissections baffling. But what they have done is to uncover a function of the brain and show its remarkable richness and complexity. After reading their book I'm more convinced than ever that Einstein was right when he said imagination is more important than knowledge—and I'm also more convinced that imagination is not the foggy New Age gift from the spirits that pottery instructors describe.

Imagination is a propelling and sometimes cruel force. Entrepreneurs launch high-risk enterprises because their imaginations urge them on with rich fantasies of future companies and their contributions to the world. Very often the enterprises fail. Immigrants often come to this country woefully unprepared for what they will find here. Yet their imaginations have held up the dream of life in America, and they can't bear to lead lives that are unenlivened by anticipation, so off they go. I suspect that many Americans, including George W. Bush, are irritated by the fact that whole stretches of the planet are not democratic. The American imagination envisions an empire of liberty, and the current state of the world seems radically unfulfilled.

When the great American historian Francis Parkman was a young man, he was inflamed by a mystical longing for the West. Writing from middle age about his young self, he observed, "His thoughts were always in the forest, whose features possessed his waking and sleeping dreams, filling him with vague cravings impossible to satisfy." In fact, we all live with our thoughts always in the forest of the future; we are filled with vague cravings, and are finally impelled to wander amid the trees to find our destiny there.