How the Imagination Works

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

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Creativity as a bridge between two worlds

NeuronsCreativity is a product of the human mind.  Along with consciousness, reason, and love, it is among the highest order of functions of the human mind does.  In order to understand creativity then, we have to say a little bit about the mind, and the paradox that the mind brings with it.

Each of us lives in two worlds. There is the world behind our eyes—our inner world of thoughts and day dreams—our private consciousness.  We can call this the subjective world.  Then there is the outer world—the real world.  When we create something, we bring it from our inner world to the outer world.  There is no art within the mind.  But any work of creativity must have its origins in the inner world.  When we create, I believe that our true task is to produce something that will illicit in others an experience that will  approach what we experienced in our inner world.  We must create  because there is no other way to go about sharing our inner world.  So all works of art, and all instances of creativity arise from our private mind, but manifest in the outer world where they can be shared.

The creative process, therefore, bridges these two worlds.  It begins in the inner world and ends in the outer world as a piece of creative work.  You cannot be creative in a vacuum.  You cannot be creative only in your own mind.  To be sure, there are things akin to creativity that go on in the mind.  We can have thoughts that are original, novel, strange, freakish, and amusing.  But as long as these remain only mental activity, they are not yet creativity.  For this reason I will use the words imaginative and imagination to refer to the part of the creative process that takes place within the mind.  When we say that a writer is imaginative, we mean that his creative works surely come from a quite imaginative mind.

One cannot be creative without being imaginative.  But imagination is necessary but not sufficient to be creative.   The Creative process relies on both the imagination to produce a design and then skill to bring that design to life, thereby filling a piece of the void.

by M.J.Miello

Next: How the Imagination Works

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What is not creativity?

small_6974372I suppose most people, when asked for what creativity is not, would say something like, “unimaginative”, “something derivative”, or  “lacking in originality.”  I think this typical way of thinking misses the point.  Something that is derivative is a flawed, and poor example of creativity.  But the absence of creativity is the void.   It is the state of the world in which the thing that might have been, is not.  Michelangelo was living in a world without his statue of David.  And to him, this non-Davidish  characteristic of the world eventually became unacceptable.  It was a problem which he solved through creativity.

To think of what this is like for the artist, imagine going back in time about a hundred years.  Once you had made your fortune betting on sporting events and the like and you looked around at the world around you, there would be many things you missed about your own time.  How many movies, songs, stories, art works, or even scientific theories that were part of your world would be gone?  You wouldn’t be able to make a single Star Wars joke or listen to a Sinatra song.  The words ‘the Beatles’ would simply be a typo.  Your world would be lacking in those things.  That is what it is like for a creative person once they have experienced the void and the problem that it represents.

The musician getting on a train hears a song in his head that does not yet exist.  This is a flaw in reality that only he can solve.  A graphics artist has an assignment:  Create a new logo for Product X.  The logo does not yet exist, or exists in a form that is no longer sufficient.  As she settles into the work her creative process is solving that problem.  The Novelist sitting in a coffee shop thinks of a concept for a new story.  No such story exists, at least not with the particular characteristics that this novelist would bring to it.  Creativity is the solution to these problems.  Creativity is the spark that lights the darkness of the void.

by M.J.Miello

Next: Creativity as a bridge between two worlds

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What is creativity?

BirdcageWe all know creativity when we see it, yet it has proved an elusive concept to study.  Creativity is difficult to define and nightmarish to measure.  It overlaps with subjects such as originality, imagination, and lets face it, strangeness of thought.  I have been interested in the science behind creativity since I took my first psychology course.  But it was never merely an abstract topic of study for me.  Growing up I was surrounded by creative people—poets, scholars, graphic artists, story tellers, and songsmiths.  All these people seemed to be constantly and generously filling the world with unique experiences for others to share.  Through the combination of my experiences and my study of the theories that deal with it, I began to form a system of thought that models creativity.

I’ve had many conversations about creativity with a person who, for me, embodies it.  I spent over ten years having weekly meetings with James Li in the East Village where we wandered rather aimlessly and pondered all things kick-ass and artistic.  These talks ultimately culminated in what I glibly call the Miello-Li Model of creativity, which I will describe through this blog.

So what is creativity? In a nutshell it’s the identification of a problem (a void in reality) and carrying out a multi-stage process that results in the creation of a piece of work (which solves the problem and fills the void).  That progression involves the combination of previously unconnected ideas in the imagination and the construction of the resulting design in reality using a skill or craft.  The end result is a piece of work that has a sense of completeness about it and which allows one to experience something that was previously only present in the mind of the creator.  In this blog I will unpack that definition as well as share my own insight on how creativity can be improved.

Next: What is not creativity

by M.J.Miello

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