Imaginology | Aeon

Mythopoetic; a man dressed as a bear representing evil, during La Vijanera, a winter masquerade in Silió, northern Spain, 8 January 2017. Photo by Vincent West/Reuters



We need a new kind of approach to learning that shifts imagination from the periphery to the foundation of all knowledge

by Stephen T Asma + BIO

Mythopoetic; a man dressed as a bear representing evil, during La Vijanera, a winter masquerade in Silió, northern Spain, 8 January 2017. Photo by Vincent West/Reuters

A chasm divides our view of human knowledge and human nature. According to the logic of the chasm, facts are the province of experimental science, while values are the domain of religion and art; the body (and brain) is the machinery studied by scientists, while the mind is a quasi-mystical reality to be understood by direct subjective experience; reason is the faculty that produces knowledge, while emotion generates art; STEM is one kind of education, and the liberal arts are wholly other.

These are no longer productive ways to organise knowledge in the 21st century.

Within the logic of the chasm, one way of thinking tends to be viewed as more capable of producing meaning: the scientific mind. But the literal, logical, scientific mind is the outlier – the weird, exceptional mode of cognition. It is not, I would argue, the dominant paradigm of human sense-making activity and yet it remains the exemplar of cognition itself and finds pride of place in our educational systems.

From the time of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and to our present System 1 theory of fast, instinctual cognition, psychology has acknowledged and explored the submerged irrational aspects of mind. But this has had little impact on education. The pre-rational mind is treated as a liability rather than a resource to be cultivated. Philosophy has also had its champions of the irrational or prerational mind, including David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, William James and more, but analytic philosophy (the dominant Anglo-American approach) and positivist science have treated the mind as a linguistic or propositional meaning-machine, not as an embodied agent or actor in the world.

After years of working on the problem, and countless conversations, it seems to me that what is required is a third path: to enter the chasm itself, or descend deeper into a submerged mythopoetic cognition, and develop an entirely new way of understanding learning that embraces the true engine of the mind – imagination.

It is time to initiate Imagination Studies at every level of education, primary school through university. Studying the imagination – its creations, its processes (creativity), and its underlying cognitive structures – is the most exciting and accurate way to heal the terminal divide between the sciences and the humanities. But, more importantly, Imagination Studies, or imaginology, also promises to reunite the body and the mind, reintegrate emotion and reason, and tesselate facts and values.

This will not be easy. The divide between the sciences (or ‘STEM’ more broadly) and the arts (the ‘liberal arts’ or ‘humanities’) is not only entrenched, it’s huge. I began to understand that distance better when, in 2018, I began participating in a three-year experiment that tried to build a bridge across the chasm. The experiment was called ‘Public Theologies of Technology and Presence’, and held at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California.

The experiment brought together two groups: first, religious scholars, philosophers and journalists (from The Atlantic, Vox and CBS News); and, second, designers, programmers and technologists from Silicon Valley. Our goal was to open a dialogue on the ways that technologies are reshaping human relationships, and how we might surmount the usual humanities-sciences divide. But the chasm is vast.

For example, I spoke with technologists involved in Elon Musk’s company Neuralink who are implanting brain-machine interface chips into monkeys but had not given much thought to the Frankensteinian ethical implications. On the other side were participants from the humanities and social sciences who became histrionically outraged when a scientist suggested that some male and female human behaviours were built up by natural selection during evolution. It wasn’t just disagreement or even confusion across the divide – that is old news. Rather, there is a new hostility and condemnation, fuelled by political extremism and suspicion. The political Left sees biology as a form of determinism and political repression, especially as it touches on sacrosanct and somewhat magical ideas of identity. And the Right thinks unfettered markets and tech innovation will automatically ameliorate every social ill and injustice. Rhetorically, both sides want to claim the mantle of real science to justify their melodramatic intuitions and policies. University students who are tracked early into one path – whether it’s STEM or liberal arts – imbibe these hostilities and graduate into their professions with axes ready to grind.

Imagination is part of the organism’s pragmatic attempt to get maximum grip on its changing environment

What is needed is a way to integrate our biological roots and our cultural fruits. Scholars in the humanities would benefit from study of our shared human mind-brain inheritance. Researchers in STEM need to make room for arational forms of exploration and creativity.

In the same way that the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky revealed the hidden unconscious biases of our minds, and indirectly ushered in the entirely new field of bias studies, it is time to acknowledge the vast mythopoetic or imaginative aspects of mind that shape our thinking and sense-making processes. Like Kahneman and other researchers interested in decision-making and judgment, we imaginologists seek the arational or prerational dimensions of mind that constantly contribute to human cognition. However, unlike bias studies, which focuses on errors and glitches in rational thinking, Imagination Studies can reveal the adaptive ways that our virtual headspace helps us navigate real life.

But what is imagination? Imagination is as imagination does. If we treat the imagination as merely a faculty of the mind, then we will miss the dynamic action-oriented aspect: it is part of the organism’s pragmatic attempt to get maximum grip on its changing environment. We are also likely to misunderstand the way it recruits from many brain-processing areas, such as perception, emotions, motivational/conative areas, memory, image representation, executive planning, and so on – ie, it is distributed. But though it would be wrong to view imagination as only a faculty of the mind, it is indeed a brain-based (embodied) system of capacities and applications. It has an involuntary mode (ie, mind-wandering and dreaming) and a voluntary mode (governed by conscious goal-direction).

Broadly stated, the imagination has five steps: mimicry; abstraction/decoupling; recombination; expression; and social feedback. First, our neural mirror-system generates embodied mimicry of our perceptions. Then representational techniques such as drawing or language decouple those mimicked experiences from their original contexts. Next, our combinatory cognition blends and mashes novelty (involuntary or voluntary), and then – in the final two stages – those novel combinations are expressed and read against social feedback. In this way, imagination does not just redescribe a world, but regularly makes a new world. This world-making ability of imagination – its ability to generate Umwelten (perceptual worlds) – is why it should stand as the interdisciplinary foundation underlying both art and science. The more we understand imagination as core cognition, the more we recognise the artificiality of the ‘two cultures’ divide.

From birth, our minds are awash in stories and images, but we also view ‘real life’ largely through imaginative constructions that are rarely acknowledged. Imaginative cognitions can happen in parallel with real-time perception (forming a co-present) or they can decouple and run offline before and after real-time perception. This mean that humans simultaneously experience a real ‘now’ and an imaginal ‘second universe’ but, phenomenologically, they are combined in present experience. Occasionally, this leads to epistemic slippage and confusion, like conspiracy thinking, but usually imagination makes humans more awake to the potentials in lived experience. Popular culture recognises only the fantasy version of artistic imagination and fails to appreciate that everyday conversation, daydreaming, map navigation, political strategising, scientific hypothesising, moral reflection, field surgery, cooking, reading and lovemaking are all imaginative activities, too.

Imagination has had a modicum of formal recognition in academic circles, notably in arts education, yet a whiff of illegitimacy still surrounds the academic study of imagination. Perhaps ‘illegitimacy’ is too strong; rather, imagination is relegated to a branch of aesthetics where it can stay segregated from the ‘serious’ business of epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind and cognitive psychology. In The Evolution of Imagination (2017), I argue instead that imagination needs to be moved from the periphery to the centre. Whenever budget constraints occur, art teachers and departments are the first on the chopping block. But once art teachers are better equipped with some cognitive psychology and life sciences (easily done with adult education workshops), they should be the last rather than the first teachers cut.

Art should not be taught as a self-referential contained history, nor should artmaking be reduced to therapeutic self-expression (no disrespect to that excellent function). Rather, art is one productive branch of the imaginative mind, science being another, politics another.

Recently, I hiked up a small mountain in New Mexico to see the Three Rivers petroglyphs. These images – including a smirking face, an arrow-stricken bighorn sheep, a bird figure with geometrical innards, and thousands of other designs – are astounding because they are aesthetically beautiful, but also because they allow us to peek into the gears and springs, as it were, of the human mind. Thought to be created by the Native American Jornada Mogollon people, these petroglyphs date back to well before Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas. In these petroglyphs, we have a powerful argument for the innateness of a visual grammar. Yes, much of drawing is culturally learned, but not the fundamentals.

Developmental research on children’s drawings reveals a clear pattern. Children across diverse cultures and geographic regions begin by ‘shape making’, which is a kind of random scribble of zigzag lines, circles, dots – an instinctive motor exercise. Then they start to engage in more controlled shape-making, repeating forms and geometric marks. This is followed by a phase of drawing ‘tadpole humans’: circle blobs with faces, and some appendages such as arms and legs emerging out of the circle. However, it’s unclear whether these representational drawings are an attempt at realism or iconic representation. Many people’s drawing ability does not advance beyond this stage, but not because of a cognitive or motor deficit. Rather, once language becomes a more efficient communication tool, advancing can require practice and training. For those who do continue image-making, we see many stages of increased representational ability – a dance of perceptual and conceptual imaginative power, well mixed with sociocultural learning. The shape-making that lies under art involves aesthetics, but it comprises something more: the hidden structures of mind, the mental filters/categories that dictate how we experience the world. That is as crucial as it gets.

These root templates of imagination are hard to see and examine

These imaginative capacities are built up in the interactions between gene-culture coevolution. We can reveal these hidden structures of mind through systematic study of imaginative objects and processes. Imagination, understood as the mind’s ur-operating system – the system within the system – generates our human biases, our visual communication grammar (also music, dance, etc), our political tribalism, our search for meaning, our scientific research programmes, and our virtual rehearsal space for social life.

The core cognition of imagination is quite different from propositional cognition, that is, the ways we manipulate linguistic representations. It’s also distinct from the affective or emotional springs of mind that have been tracked by those studying embodied cognition or, more recently, affordances. Linguistic philosophers and computationalists have been moving from the top down, while affective neuroscience has been moving from the bottom up. A huge middle layer of cognition is missing between the lower conditioned associational mind and the upper symbolic representational mind. That middle layer is the imagination.

The imagination is where our cognitive architecture of imitation (eg, mirror neuron simulations, and matching vertical associations) is structured by narrative and image-based templates. These templates are sense-making tools that are imperatively (rather than indicatively) oriented, they are action-oriented representations. They do not just represent an historic event long ago. Nor are they symbolic in the way that mathematics signifies concepts. And they are not even like words that signify through denotative reference to people, places, things, events. Rather, these templates are imperative enactive symbols, demanding attention and action of us, or otherwise intervening in a causal fashion. A compelling character in a story or painting might inspire me – even if this inspiration is only just on the cusp of conscious awareness – to act differently by emulating or avoiding their behaviour. As such, these root templates of imagination are hard to see and examine. They are active in involuntary imaginings in dreams and mind-wandering (where agency and executive control are low), but they are also deeply embedded in the cultural forms we produce and consume, including folklore, religion, literature and film.

Imperatively oriented hot cognition is ancient, predating the rise of language, logic and even the expanded neocortex. It is closer to how animals get around in the world. It’s the limbic life of gut feelings and rapid responses, helping us detect quickly who is a friend, an enemy, a sexual partner, and more subtle social relations: who is a good hunter, who is reliable, who owes me, and how I should treat this approaching person right now. The mind, from this perspective, evolved to be a so-called ‘hedonic sharpener’ rather than an information processor. A hedonic sharpener reduces experiential noise, bringing each repetition of trial-and-error learning closer to pleasure or satisfaction (or, more broadly, homeostasis). The mind tries to maximise positive affect and reduce negative affect.

In my view, this is also the core of sense-making or meaning-making activity and, once recognised, we can see that imaginative work such as storytelling, image-making, song, dance and so on are some of the earliest and continually powerful forms of knowledge. An epistemology that cannot recognise this and pushes imagination to the peripheral territory of aesthetics has failed to understand the biological mind. The cognitive sciences that followed a propositional view of epistemology (eg, David Rumelhart’s approach to cognition, which followed the Boolean formal linguistic approach) produced great artificial intelligence (AI), but no understanding of real biological sense-making. Subsequently, the imagination has remained terra incognita for algorithmic sciences.

This submerged mythopoetic cognition is the engine of mind

An AI can be taught to identify and manipulate images, patterns or sentences, and then recombine them in random and novel ways, which is why we now have apps that ‘compose’ paintings, songs and even poetry. But our imaginations are more than combinatory mashup machines. Our mashups are always motivated. They are purposive and teleological because our emotional lives are at stake. Unlike AI, we always have skin in the game. One might object that 20th-century art movements such as surrealism and Dada are non-sensical and non-purposive, but that just misses the retaliatory or rebellious purposiveness of work that seeks to critique, or seeks to celebrate the ugly, or seeks to call attention to the design within mundane objects, or seeks to play in the unconscious. This seeking, which is lacking in AI mashups, is a kind of biological intentionality or motivation in imagination, whether human or animal.

This submerged mythopoetic cognition is, in my view, the engine of mind, pulsing through many other forms of cognition, including perception below and reasoning above. Humans shape reality through image and story schemas, but I have argued that these schemas are so deeply embodied that they cannot be derived from literal descriptive sense-making. Descriptive sense-making is based on a correspondence theory of truth. A proposition – a statement, a sentence, a word – is epistemically valuable if it corresponds accurately with a factual state of affairs. But imagination produces meaningful counterfactuals, rather than mirroring facts about the world. The common mistake, then, is asking how well imaginative schemas correspond with external referents. It would be better to examine the imagination’s sense-making ability to adaptively manage our emotional, somatic, affordance-rich world. The bio-semantic view that I’m suggesting (where meaning comes through the body directly) underlies linguistic, visual and motor-system sense-making processes, and provides the conditioning pathways by which art can help us handle the vagaries of the real world.

Most of what we know about the bio-semantic view, action-oriented representations and embodied cognition – the justifications for Imagination Studies – has emerged only recently. And yet, Imagination Studies is not an entirely novel idea. Earlier humanities and social science scholars grasped the value of artistic education, but primarily as a bulwark against scientific reductionism, which they considered dehumanising. We can now take up their insights and fold them into a more salubrious integrated imagination education.

We almost had an emergence of imaginology in the middle of the 20th century, but it was quickly quashed. The importance of imaginative cognition was grasped and articulated in the postwar period before disappearing again, buried under the successes of experimental behaviourism and then computationalism. The empirical behaviourists were not able to see the internal activity of the imagination as they confined their observations to stimulus-and-response mechanisms. And when cognitive science embraced the computational model in the 1990s (down to the present), cognition was reconceived as algorithmic processing. Both behaviourism and computationalism missed the imagination altogether, but they had such other clear successes (eg, in animal behaviour and AI) that most research careers and departments copied their methodologies.

Before the great quash, archaeologists like Henri and Henriette Frankfort argued that the early human mind was mythopoetic. A mythopoetic paradigm or perspective sees the world primarily as a dramatic story of competing personal intentions, rather than as a system of objective impersonal laws. The cognitive difference between modern and ancient humans was that ‘for modern, scientific man the phenomenal world is primarily an “It”; for ancient – and also for primitive – man it is a “Thou”.’

Philosophers like Ernst Cassirer and psychologists like Jung focused on the ritual or visual symbol (rather than literal language) as a way of enacting meaning. Images, objects and rituals of mythopoetic cognition are imperative rather than indicative. If we’re immersed, then a dance performance, novel, film drama or religious ritual does not need decoding because our emotional entanglement makes us immediately angry, melancholy, hopeful, resigned, confused, and so on. Emotional contagion (and motor cortex contagion) means the representation is also the thing itself. We can see this most clearly perhaps in first-person gaming and VR immersion scenarios, but also in plays such as Euripides’ The Bacchae or Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) – or, better yet, the time-honoured tradition of hearing a ghost story around a campfire. Stories and images don’t just describe the world, they inspire action in the world. They depict but also push our emotions in specific directions. They motivate us, rather than just label, organise and model the world. On this view, a factual description of the world comes after our embodied imaginative interaction with the social world.

How do we continue the mythopoetic work of Jung, Cassirer and the Frankforts to reconnect with an earlier, quashed branch of mythopoetic studies? In part, we become more systematic and organised about the products, processes, structures and functions of imagination. In what follows, I want to sketch some of the pragmatic pathways that would bring more rigour to future research and pedagogy. I see five directions of future research: develop more precise categories; harness the possibilities of consciousness-altering drugs; understand constraints and limits on the imagination; develop better ways of assessing imagination; and develop better tolerance for provisional ambiguity.

1. Classifying the imagination

First: categories. We’ll need, for example, a much more precise taxonomy of imaginative processes – we’re still using Aristotle to categorise and analyse narrative arc. As it stands now, we carve up our investigations of imagination along arbitrary recognitions of the products of imaginative activity: literature is treated separately from painting, and film, and dance, but the underlying processes for some of these are very similar. It may be convenient to carve poetry from painting, but we could be missing the opportunity to classify natural kinds of imagination because we are distracted by more conventional categories.

In terms of understanding imagination, we are in a pre-Linnaean phase. Recall that the 18th-century botanist Carl Linnaeus unified natural history by creating a universal binomial nomenclature and patiently applying it to flora and fauna until we had a table of agreed-upon terminology based on essential characters or traits. We need a common nomenclature, but we also need to decide on a physiological, morphological or evolutionary criterion for essential character. In the case of imagination, what should our taxonomy try to capture? Should it name sets of phenomenological feelings of creativity, or the underlying neurological systems, or the adaptational advantages of such activity?

This seems daunting but the situation was arguably worse for 18th-century biologists, and yet categories started snowballing rapidly once names were agreed upon. We are currently at the stage of folk taxonomy for imagination. After we generate a provisional serviceable natural classification, we can submit it to phylogenetic or evolutionary analysis (reinforcing and destroying some of our kinds) and then move toward more fine-grained natural kinds, refining taxonomy and theory together in light of each other. This is starting to happen now, but it is early days.

Psychedelics research is having a renaissance, and it could be a boon for imagination science

For example, researchers are slowly zeroing in on the importance of the default mode network (DMN) as a possible neurological system of imagination or some significant aspect of imagination. And Patrick Colm Hogan’s promising recent taxonomy of stories breaks them into universal (cross-cultural) patterns that reflect specific emotional trajectories. The typical romantic plot – found all over the world – is a narrative expression of the ‘lust’ system described by affective neuroscience. The typical horror plot is a narrative expression of the ‘fear’ system. Tragedies are expressions of the ‘grief (separation distress) system, while mysteries and hero stories enact the ‘seeking’ system, and so on. Any good story is usually a mix of several affective trajectories within the overarching arc, but these affective systems are natural kinds.

2. Adaptive psychedelics and cognitive mashups?

The brief historical spark of serious thinking about imagination in the mid-20th century could not catch fire then, but we now have other ways of reigniting the search. Psychedelics research is having a renaissance currently, and it could be a boon for imagination science. Psychedelic substances engender psychological and philosophical states that reveal important features of imaginative structure and function. Psychedelics, for example, seem to activate transient hypofrontality and loosen the tyranny of the task positive network, which also suspends the usual subject/object distinction in consciousness. Phenomenologically speaking, LSD, psilocybin and DMT users report hyper-associative unconstrained thoughts, images and stories – in other words, magical and poetic experience. Such substances may help us find universal or common hidden cognitive grammars of imagination.

Altered states (and imagination more generally) were probably selected for in evolution because they present us with novel perspectives and virtual rehearsals of possible futures, which can mash up previously disparate elements in productive ways. The imagination is adaptive in a changing and challenging environment. Routinised behaviours (eg, hunting, tool-making, mating strategies, etc) are a great way to free up cognitive load by making useful behaviours less cognitively demanding and placing them instead in the realm of embodied habit. But sometimes (given changing environments) we need access to alternative thoughts, behaviours and strategies – we need to think and behave ‘outside the box’.

Recent advances in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are also gradually reigniting interest in imagination, by asking difficult questions: are there recognisable cognitive and cultural patterns in imaginative mashups? Evolutionary psychology, for example, eventually took up imagination (see the journal Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture), but still needs to explore the causal mechanisms that tether adaptive stories to hereditary transmission mechanisms.

3. Finding the boundaries of imagination

We must begin a systematic search for and articulation of the constraints on imagination. Many imaginative thinkers submit themselves to rule-based constraints (eg, alternative physics, etc) or even material constraints to force novel creativity, and that is a worthy area for future study. But we need a better understanding of the limits, boundaries and failures of the whole operating system that we call imagination. Imagination is multimodal – operating across many types of human activity – and it is seemingly infinite in its ability to generate possibilities. Where does it break down, fail, diminish or run dry? Where do imagination and critical thinking overlap, if both are forms of sense-making?

It’s very challenging to study the myriad forms of imaginative templates as they are historically, culturally and individually idiosyncratic. Because of neural neoteny (brain development ex utero), Homo sapiens have a unique ability to soft-wire story formats and imaginative templates into their early consciousness. Ontogenetic programming in childhood development is very diverse, and the developing human mind is a sponge of various informational streams, resulting in a staggering profusion of possible mythopoetic templates. But, presumably, there’s a limit.

Just as psychology learned significant facts about typical minds by studying pathology (eg, face perception became clearer through the study of prosopagnosia or ‘face blindness’), imagination could come into clearer focus by looking at places where imagination fails to develop in individuals and groups. This is not about making normative judgments, but about taking a clear-eyed look at neural diversity, including cases where people do not appear to access imagination. Some of this work is starting to happen in, for example, recent studies of aphantasia – a neural atypicality in which the subject does not form visual imagery in the mind’s eye.

Aphantasia may well be a genetic variant, but cultural inculcation plays a huge role in imaginative development. One way to study the constraint and actualisation of imagination via inculcation is to do empirical work on subjects who have had ostensibly high imagination-based educations (eg, Montessori and Waldorf systems) versus rote-memorisation systems, and all points in between.

4. Demystifying imagination and creativity

Besides looking for breakdowns in imagination, we need better empirical measures of diverse creative potential. More phenomenology of creative experience is needed. More thick description by artists and imaginative practitioners would be very valuable. We need ethnographic participant observers who are willing and able to do phenomenology, rather than facile reductions to tired theories. Anecdotally, it is remarkable how many people do academic work on creativity or imagination but do not themselves make anything or engage in creative practices. This skews the research in unhelpful directions. For example, if one thinks of imagination as autobiographical creativity (like mind-wandering) and this is facilitated by the DMN, then one is surprised when flow-state improvisation (a paradigm of creativity) is also facilitated by DMN but has little to no autobiographical awareness.

We need to accept stages of confusion as potentially enjoyable, playful, resources

Our paradigms cannot be allowed to blind us as we search for the contours of imagination. We need more types of empirical assessment. If, as I’ve argued, imagination is a heavily embodied form of problem-solving and composing, we need assessments that do not privilege disembodied forms of cognition.

5. Stay weird

Lastly, we need to accept the fundamental trippy weirdness of imagination, the sheer play of it, and not always reduce it to functional adaptation. There must be room for the surreal, the fantastic, the idealistic and even the nonsensical. Even in the full bloom of the scientific revolution, thinkers of all stripes – Emanuel Swedenborg, William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James and the pataphysical shaman Alfred Jarry – called for a reassertion of imagination to the core of human life.

Imaginology must cultivate a certain tolerance for ambiguity. Sense-making emerges out of nonsense, to be blunt. We need to accept stages of confusion as potentially enjoyable, playful, resources. William James called this generative grey area between sense and nonsense the ‘unclassified residuum’ – anomalous stuff that doesn’t fit in anywhere. Accepting this liminal zone of ambiguity and possibility is important for epistemic virtues such as open-mindedness and humility, providing cognitive and cultural resources for generating novel ideas and behaviours.

It’s time to give imagination its due as a core cognitive power, epistemic workhorse, therapeutic wellspring and maker of adventures. In the end, the institutionalised ‘chasm’ between forms of education is entirely of our own making and, ironically, a creation of our outdated imaginations. The yawning gulf resembles the fictional schism of the human into dualistic parts.

The chasm metaphor is no longer helpful as we consider new forms of education, but geological imagery is still valuable. Consider a different metaphor: imagination as the ‘plate tectonics’ of mind and culture. From this submerged mythopoetic perspective, the divisions between traditional disciplines shrink. Fractured territories on either side of a great divide become mere continents riding on the hidden motions of creativity below. Imaginology beckons us deeper.

KnowledgeConsciousness and altered statesCognition and intelligence

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