The Nature of Imagination
Posted on June 18, 2011 by RY Article Team
Few words in the English language garner the level of mystic, misunderstanding, and misuse as the word imagination. Used by bards, song writers, and self-help gurus to represent an expansion of the mind beyond the limits created by perception and programming, it is bantered around both as a complement and criticism. While Albert Einstein proclaimed that it is more important than knowledge, still scientists – to include those of a medical ilk – continue to cast suspicion on the value of a vivid imagination. Yet, as it is in many ways the centerpiece of the clinical hypnotherapy, it deserves a serious explanation and exploration.
All animals are capable of misperceiving a threat. However, it is the primate who seems to be the most capable of using the frontal lobes’ ability to anticipate and simulate. This faculty of imagining helps us form mental visual, auditory, and kinesthetic illusions that are the direct creation of our abilities to convert perceptions into understanding. Our greatly enhanced capability to create an imagined “reality” merely by our thoughts is indeed a unique human characteristic.
I consider anticipation and simulation to be synonymous with imagination. We simply create an alternate reality by expecting something to happen and then understanding a process to unfold. When this is done reactively – as in the case of phobias and anxieties – the power of imagination can seem like a curse. On the other hand, once we learn to direct it through conscious thought – a process that I call “selective thinking” – it opens up doors to possibilities of self-directed control of our mind and body. When the inertia represented by a patterns resistance to change is mitigated and selective thought is enhanced, a hypnotic state is achieved. Much of what we do in the profession of hypnotherapy is to move a subject from the realm of reactive imagination – with all of its negative side effects – and develop their ability to purposefully direct their imagination so that they can resolve mental pathologies, improve physical well-being, and enhance their performance and achieve increased self-actualization.
The power of imagination resides in the reactive capacity of the human brain and body. For instance, consider the role of the bimodal and mirror neurons that are distributed throughout the brain. Essentially when sensory perception is considered, they play a critical role in the development of understanding. When we see an object, they help us quickly establish the meaning in regards to the item’s historical and potential functions. As one primary function of our neurological capabilities is to assess threat, whether a perception begets safety or danger has an immediate manifestation throughout our physiology.
On the other hand, when anticipation and simulation are afforded by such substrates which include the right prefrontal cortex, these same neurons facilitate the same neurophysiological reaction. When we anticipate that an item such as a squiggly stick might just be a snake and then simulate the potential danger that may ensue, our body reacts just the same as if the perception had actually been that of a rather ominous reptile. However, if we were to use these same abilities to imagine Mom’s apple pie, the same faculties would create a corresponding physiological reaction.
So, if we realize that our neurophysiology is primarily a reactive system awaiting input and that we have the ability – and responsibility – to choose our direction, then we quickly realize that our imaginative capacity is a blessing. While many of my colleagues focus on the “wonders of the subconscious mind” – a term that I have grave scientific and academic misgivings about – I rather focus on the power of the conscious mind to direct our imaginative abilities.
The potential results posed by the deliberate use of suggestion and imagination to direct our mind and body appear to be rooted in a very strong mind/body relationship. Going beyond merely considering the relation between the association and motor cortices and the body, modern neuroimaging also seems to show a relationship between the maps contained in our cranial cavity and the rest of our neurology and the territory of our body. When our brain function and energetic organization change – such as when perceptions or imagination triggers a sympathetic or parasympathetic response – our body is affected. Another example of this is the relatively recent exploration of site-specific somatic healing being enhanced by vivid imagery under hypnotic conditions. So while we understand that psychosomatic illnesses are caused and maintained by misdirected imagination, we are increasingly becoming aware that much of our health has a relationship to our mental functioning. Therefore, the possibilities and probabilities that consciously directed thoughts can become integral with human health and transformation is becoming increasingly realized in scientific realm in addition to the self-help and more spiritual arenas.
Another interesting aspect of imagination is its relationship with thought and creativity. Rene Descartes once declared that our ability to think defines us as humans. (His original statement was Je pense donc je suis, which roughly translates in English to “I think, therefore I am.“) But, if you really consider the nature of thoughts and memory, one would quickly realize that they are essentially historical in nature. Indeed, our ability to participate in thought processes is a characteristic that we share with the entire animal kingdom. Rather, it is our imaginative capacity – a characteristic that I previously described as being the general ability to anticipate and simulate – more accurately describes our human nature. Therefore, I would humbly disagree with Mr. Descartes by stating that it would be much more accurate to say, “I imagine, therefore I am.” (Of course, this presumes that extrinsic and intrinsic identity are a given – which could very well be the topic for a later article.)
Finally, the relationship between creativity and imagination should be considered. A strict definition of creativity involves the creation of new meaning and understanding stimulated by either perception of imaginary perception. The later factor then implies that when we perceive mental imagery we inspire a situation where the natural reactive abilities of the mind will take novel input and derive a new purpose or potential use. Seeing a coffee cup, which may previously have been understood as a device used to facilitate drinking hot beverages, as something else, such as a paper weight, a pen holder, or some other purpose, represents a creative process. Most certainly, by deliberately producing imagery, the opportunity for creativity may very well occur.
The beauty of imagination can be found in its limitlessness. Quantum physicists state very boldly that possibilities are infinite. Therefore, each can be perceived not only by mathematics, but also by the power of imagination. Like storytellers and other artists, clinical hypnotherapists are rather unique in that their profession is centered foremost on the use of purposefully imagined realities designed to inspire specific reaction
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