ImaginationThe word ‘imagination’ is often used interchangeably with the word ‘creativity’.  But it is useful to see them as different things.  Imagination is something done exclusively in the mind.  The end result of imagination is what I call a design.  A design is not a physical thing, but a mental construction.  But, like a blue-print, it is ready to be constructed through craft.  Here I shall discuss the inner-workings of the imagination and the formation of a design.

There are four components of the imagination: The palette, the Mind Space, the Chaos Engine, and the Reality Simulator.

The Palette

A painter creates by combining pigments from a palette.  If a hue is missing from the palette (for example, yellow pigment) then the final outcome will also be lacking that color.  The more variety the artist has on her palette, the more variety will show up in the final work.  So what is your palette for imagination?  It is everything you have ever experienced.  The sum total of your experience is the limits of what you can draw upon for creativity.  This includes your personal history (everything that has ever happened to you).  That also includes everything you have ever learned.  When people tell you to write about what you know, they are telling youto create something based on what you actually have in your palette.  The more aspects of life, science, history, culture and human experience we are exposed to, the more raw resources we have to draw upon in the imagination.

The Mind Space

The mind space (what psychologists call Working memory and its components the visuospatial sketchpad and phonological loop) is the capacity to have thoughts and visual images.  Can you picture a clown juggling baby sharks?  Of course you can (and just try not doing it now that I mentioned it!).  When you do that you are using your mind space.  When you remember that the phone number of your favorite pizza place you are calling that number into your mind space.  When you have a song stuck in your head, it is playing on repeat in your mindspace.  Our mind space is extremely important to our consciousness, and to imagination.  You can think of mind space as being the mental space in which, or stage upon which, imagination unfolds.  We know a few things about the mind space.  For one thing, it’s quite limited.  For most people it holds only a handful of things at a time.  So if you do put together something special in your mind space, you need to either carefully commit it to memory or somehow record it (such as writing it down).

The Chaos Engine

The Chaos engine is the wash-cycle of the mind that takes elements from the palette and spins them around to produce novel combinations.

Imagine a gym full of about 100 blindfolded people.  Now imagine that they are all walking in random directions.  What happens?  Well, a few of them bump into each other now and them.  Now imagine the same gym full of 100 blindfolded people, but this time they are running full speed.  Now what happens?  Mass chaos.  People are colliding and tripping all over each other.   In this metaphor, the people represent concepts or ideas.  The gym is the Mind Space, the number of people present is the palette and the speed at which they are going, and thus the number of collisions that occur, is the result of the chaos engine.

In a very imaginative mind there are collisions happening left and right.  Ideas from the palette are being combined with ideas from completely unrelated concepts.  Old ideas are used in new ways.  Due to the random nature of these connections there is no guarantee that these combinations are good, plausible, polite, attractive or sensible.  But if these unions seem to serve a purpose, they might be selected for further evaluation.

Much of creativity begins with these unexpected combinations that first occur within imagination.     The Chaos engine produces what psychologists call divergent thinking (thinking that deviates from what is typical or expected).  Divergent thinking is so important to creativity, that some discussions of creativity focus on it alone.  But I see it as just one more necessary ingredient.

The Reality Simulator 

The random combinations produced by the chaos engine are not enough to produce compelling works.  Works also need to be convincing and to suggest their own reality lest our creativity be confused with absurdity.

Thankfully our brains come equipped with a built-in reality simulator—an ability to predict what the outcome of an action is likely to be before we decide whether or not to do it.  This feature is often taken for granted, but it is, I believe, the cornerstone to human consciousness.  To be fair, our reality simulator is not exactly perfect, in fact there are a lot of bugs built into the system.  An introduction to psychology textbook will provide you with no shortage of examples of how we make a host of errors, but for the vast majority of tasks, our reality simulator provides us with highly accurate predictions.  This saves us the time (and the potential injuries) involved in actually trying every crazy impulse out to see what will really happen.

A good example of using this is what happens when we tell an impromptu joke in a social situation.  In the split second before we begin to make the statement we have analyzed the situation, judged our audience, chosen our words, evaluated the risk of offending someone and predicted that we will get the desired response of laughter.  If this all works and you do get your friends spewing out their chocolate milk in hysterics it’s because you have accurately used your reality simulator to predict the future.

Creating involves the use of the Reality Simulator (within the Mind Space).  If you are writing and you ask yourself, “How would Mary feel if she finds that John is both her lost twin brother, and a zombie?”  then you are using your reality simulator.  The reality simulator is what gives our works a sense of realism.

Our reality simulators can be improved by learning.  In fact the reality simulator draws its information from the palette. By expanding the palette, we increase the effectiveness of the Reality simulator.  Also, the Reality simulator does allow for hypothetical questions to be asked that involve situations which really vary from reality (otherwise writing fiction would be impossible).

Each of the four components operate seamlessly in the imagination.  Ideas from the palette are slammed together within the mind space and the result is evaluated by the reality simulator.  The end result is a design.  Now we as the creator have a choice. If we do nothing, than all we have is yet another design thrown onto the moldering stacks of crumbling ideas.  But, if we decide to act on it, then with the very first movement of the hand to bring forth that which has not before existed, we have leapt from the imagination and into the creative process.

by M.J.Miello

Next: The Spiral of Revision


photo credit: !anaughty! via photopin cc

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