What is imagination?

philosophically speaking…

Reason doesn’t seem to necessarily apply to it, and while it may, usually involve past experiences, it is not experience in terms of being directly sensed as happening (or having had happened) right in front of you.

For example, we humans may share certain characteristics that allow for us to imagine ourselves in another person’s place. We can imagine another person feeling love, or terror, or hell, baking a cake.

How close are we to how they actually felt?

We can also imagine what a fish might feel as it bites a baited hook and is reeled to the surface.

Are we any closer to what the fish actually felt?

Another question, presupposing any arguments that contend that the imagination is limited or outright wrong when it apprehends the feelings of others… what purpose does the imagination serve? Is it an innate defense mechanism against future pain? Does it have an practical use? Why does it seem that creative people possess more of it than your average person? Are people termed ‘creative’ based on their imaginative abilities alone?

Well, it just so happens that I am an advocate of imagination. Imagination is the force of creativity, which is the potential for creation. I believe creation to be the most powerful force in the universe, and within it is contained all other forces. The imagination exists in the realm of thought. In the realm of thought. In this realm, there are also other people’s imaginations and thoughts. I believe that our unconscious minds are all connected, so when you imagine how another person may feel you may not be imagining it at all in some cases. It depends on how perceptive you are intuitively. I will say this about intuition, always trust your gut. Scientists have recently been doing a study on gut feeling that confirms that the stomach is most probably a thinking organ. I use my gut feelings to guide my logic all the time, and am quite perceptive of it. When reading your earlier post at the part when you said that we could imagine what a fish on a hook feels like, I tried to imagine it, and did, and found that my imagination of the feeling was incredibly vivid, and my gut feeling went off confirming this. I have also had many experiences where trusting my gut feeling has helped me avoid situations that would have ranged from very bad to tragic. Really quite interesting…

Anyway, back on subject, I think that imagination is a faculty of the human spirit, as the spirit exists only in the realm of thought (and perhaps as electric currents in the physical world). I think that maybe it is not only useful, but necessary. I think great theorists and artists probably not only have the greatest imaginations, but are also best at using them. You have to admit, for sure, that the imagination plays a vital role for both of them…

Imagination is a prediction. We think, “What may be?” What we imagine is based, in part, on what we have experienced. It is first confusing and then finding a new clarity for a pattern. Mixing old patterns to find new patterns.

We have to be somewhat close when we imagine what another person feels. The range of human emotions is fairly stable. Ancient writers don’t speak of many emotions unknown to us. They had mostly the same emotions that we do now.

Emotions can be layered in complex patterns. That is what makes a great actor. He or she is able to portray several emotions at the same time.

Our ability to accurately feel in sympathy is part of what makes characters in plays, books and movies so compelling.

There may be a problem when we come to imagining how other life forms might feel. Do fish have emotions anything like our own? Emotions seem to be tied to parts of the brain found in other animals, so it seems quite possible that animals do have emotions.

A great animal trainer learns to read the subtle body language of animals that indicate emotions. Some emotions are foundational and some are subtle. Many animals clearly give indications that they experience the emotion of fear. But does a donkey ever feel like he has made an ass out of himself?

Our imagination is fallible. We can incorrectly imagine what another person feels.

Imagination allows us to anticipate consequences. We can extrapolate from previous experience what will happen in the future. Or we can plan what has never been done. It varies as much as any natural talent or ability. Not everyone is an extraordinary athlete. I think you have to be imaginative AND productive to get labeled creative. The man full of imagination who never put it to any use is not very creative.

Great responses you two.

Another thing I was wondering about is if the imagination can serve as an unconscious expression of the will.

Wish fulfillment in other words. That seems obvious enough, and yet, can it not be that by experiencing a fantasy vicariously dampens the desire for the fantasy? or does it increase it? Or does that vary from individual to individual?

Could it be that we unconsciously use our imaginations to speak to us in areas in which our reason can not? If so, no day dream would be “simple”, anyone of them might contain a morsel of personal truth. How much energy should a person direct towards considering the feasibility of what they have imagined?

I believe something that you would day dream about you would want to pursue, or would at least have the potential to want to pursue it if you are not open to the idea. I think that your spiritual energy partially determines what kind of activities and goals you seek. I believe the imagination to be work of the spirit. The spirit is what makes the body live, and causes the mind to function. It’s true nature is imaginative and creative. In the realm of the imagination, thoughts and concepts have physical subatance. Meaning takes the place of form, and form the place of meaning.


I believe imagination can lead to creativity or destruction.
Are there not day-mares as well as day-dreams?
I think its important to differentiate between creativity and the imagination. Those with vivid imaginations may travel equal distances in thought from the line separating good and evil (or creation and destruction, or any juxtaposition you want to place here), supposing there is one.

Hitler comes to mind. I don’t think that he was the best at using his vivid imagination, for some reason.

Who is the best at using their imagination?

From: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

1.To form a mental picture or image of.
2.To think; conjecture: I imagine you’re right.
3.To have a notion of or about without adequate foundation; fancy: She imagines herself to be a true artist.

Hitler imagined himself to be a genius.

Now, what about Nightdreams?
The unconscious slumber is a breeding ground for unbridled imagination.
Do those dreams “serve as an unconscious expression of the will”?
Are those dreams affected by the proposed interconnected consciousness?
Is it a combination?

Dreams are ever-interesting. I really enjoyed Waking Life.


I would like to bring four points into this debate:

  1. Imagination - is it a priori? Are our minds rigged to percieve and extrapolate situations and further analogies to observations, in an effort to know in greater detail or predict? Or is all imagination learned from previous experience? I guess this would mean that we know nothing but for birth trauma when we enter the living world. Any comments on this? Also, you talked of three situations all of which require what I would call empathy, rather than mere imagination.

  2. Can one imagine physical pain and fear? How does one imagine the pain of another individual or another creature? What does it feel like to be hit by a bullet or electrified, heaven forbid? Is that imagined or constructed as we map on to our understanding of our bodies, the observations of some event? I have for long detested situations in which I can witness in either sight or sound, animals being tortured. I can, by conditioning, come to terms with the purpose behind such torture or killing and actually come to terms with whats in it. However, I choose not to spectate when a domesticated animal, which, it seems trusts our handling of it, is betrayed by execution. The agony of it is saddening. These are demons I can conquer but my empathy homes in on the animal’s fear each time there is something like that and I am left with saddening thoughts. Do you have any takes on how I should direct my imagination when confronted with these situations?

  3. I was reading what Einstien had written, from a book “Ideas and Opinions”, which carries a conversation of his with Jacques Hadamard (French, visiting Princeton) in 1945. The topic of their conversation was “A mathematician’s mind” and it was a survey conducted by Hadamard who was a mathematician interested in psychology. The following extract occurs in the book:

“The words or language, as they are spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The physical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.”

What I would like to draw your attention to here is that he said “more or less clear images”. Are these images which are portraits of the surroundings of the fish in our discussion? Do we imagine a wider field of view of refracted lens-like water, a small bait and a heading in that direction, crystal green-blue waters surrounding the bait? Or can we truly the non-stereoscoipic vision of the fish? Can empathy in this case be said to be perfect? It seems we do conjure up this scene from a patchy hack of our memories.

  1. He also says in that exchange:
    “There is of course a certain (logical) connection between those elements and certain logical concepts.”

Ive added “logical” for clarity.

I remember several dreams in which I would imagine a causality which only I could have explained and that I remembered features from these dreams which were logically linked, but that could have been logical only to me. There was once, a dream in which a girl I had known from school was sitting in front of me in a train and speaking to me in French. She said she was reading “Le Monde Du Theo” and I imagined Paulo Coelho for some reason; and another friend of mine who was reading his “The Alchemist” once. I remembering laughing at that, since the books were both about following your dreams, more or less. Oddly, now her face was now on the girl who was sitting there and talking to me, and she looked out of the window to say: “Don’t laugh at people’s dreams. People who dream have very little else” or something to the effect. I interpreted this statement from something I had read once and which I had identified with. Also the French speaking girl was a throwback to a long train trip on which I had met and spoken at length with a french lady, with all sorts of translation problems!

Only I could have explained this dream to myself. The imagination is too broad and personal for psychiatrists to be of help. Logical connections that only I make can explain why my brain was throwing these things at me. It seems that the brain can be controlled from a part of it - a part of it can engage in the creative processes in a detached fashion so as to enable us to juggle with concepts in our minds. Once you learn to dream lucidly, your imagination can be active. When the mind is at rest, all the objects which we have identified with physically seem to be manifested in ways that allow us to make logical connections with them, and these are sometimes based on cravings which we may have established.

Please comment.


I think a fantasy can be an end in itself. A few years ago I was dating a girl who was intense. She did everything to the extreme. At one point during our relationship we got to the point of talking about our sexual fantasies. I was reluctant to share, as some of my fantasies are rather odd. Then when she convinced me to open up I got the negative reaction from her that I had wanted to avoid. She felt quite concerned that I wanted to act out these fantasies. I had zero intention to do so. For me the fantasies were an end in and of themselves.

Japan as a country has some very “deviant” entertainment. Extreme violence and extreme sexuality are shown in their entertainment. Generally the fantasy is an end in itself. It may decrease their inclination to act out these fantasies. The country itself has overall low violent crime and low sexual crime rates.

Setting in a business meeting fantasizing about killing your boss can be a way to relieve stress. It can actually lower your stress level enough to prevent possible violent action.

Now this is not always the case. A fantasy can be a method of edging towards action. It can break down inhibitions that prevent an individual from doing a deed.

Reason differentiates. Reason sees the difference between things. Imagination sees the similarities. It sees the connections and associations.

As far as how much energy should we put into manifesting our dreams, it depends on the dream. The world can become a richer place when we find a method to share our dreams. In words, music, sculpture or picture. Through an invention or modification. An idea can change the world.

I am sure that we all know how train platforms made Einstein fantasize about relativity.

“Snozberry!?! Who ever heard of a Snoberry?!?”
“We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of the dreams.”


I hope neither you nor GateControlTheory minds if I throw in my two cents in response to your post.

  1. The capacity to imagine exists a priori. The actual connects of the imagining does not. A child has childish fantasies, not because his capacity to imagine is different but because the contents of his memory are less than the contents of an adult. (The kid with more legos can build more elaborate creations than the kid with only a few legos.)

  2. Certainly we can imagine pain and fear. I think we imagine the pain or fear of the other by references our own experiences of pain or fear. We may not be able to know every subtle sensation of getting hit by a bullet or electrified, unless we have experienced that. We recreate based on our own past kinetic experiences. If you feel sympathy for the suffering, then maintain that. Don’t try to water it down or kill the experience. Empathy is important. The loss of empathy allows us to become monsters. Apathy separates us from each other.

A great psychiatrist or psychologist doesn’t decode the imagination for the individual he helps those individuals who need help in decoding their own imagination. He is the guide in our own process of unlocking how our own mind works. Teaching us how to live with our mind. Your mind is the only roommate whom you can never move away from nor evict.

Just reading this I would have disagreed, it seems almost as if the opposite is true (and maybe it still is as applied to 'reason") but having thought about it, I do tend to agree, the imagination provides connections… pobably ones we aren’t necessarily conscious of at that moment.

Would you care to qualify that? I do recall childhopod fantasies as being far more vivid when compared against what i may imagine now… was that the brain filling a void… or the result of fewer memories then as compared to now? (expeirience teaches what the imagination would have pondered had it not the experience to tell it otherwise)?

And if I understand your last paragraph correctly Xan… you are saying that imagination is akin to the subconscious?

Thanks for the views.

I liked the way you believe that we must learn to live with our minds first. Thanks for the idea.

A psychiatrist helps us make connections between events which the imagination can readily come up with, to explain anything we have not considered or understood. His mode of doing so is questioning and suggesting. In questioning and suggesting, he brings in our uncertainties undeniably and from very obscure uncertainties arise some assumptions. It is these assumptions which fuel our dreams.

The imagination can be an instrument of different magnitudes and for different uses. It can foster existing memories, and while always never proividing the best possible picture, it does give us an idea of how things probably are, in a certain case.

However, what it also does is use previous experiences to generate purposes, causal connections and such. Since these causal connections and such aren’t necessarily based on observations, they need not apply for all cases and events. This in my view is the basis also of primal religions based on fear and control. Imagination doesnt also connect, but sees possibilities where a system may be found wanting. Convenience is usually the criterion for such judgement. Sometimes inclinations force this through also.

I agree that reason has the capacity to differentiate. However, all the reasons that we presume to be viable explanations may indeed not be so, by the non-empirocal nature of their deduction. I am in favour of instinct and a priori imagination, so called pre-programmed thought patterns, and I think specific thought patterns have this ability to turn out reasons and not all. Some are better suited to survival, some to pleasure and such.

The imagination can use these thought patterns in ways which are profitable to the senses, which help the senses work together and stuff, but that is subject to what a priori thought patterns are used where.

Xanderman, you made an interesting point about Japanese culture and how it stresses on releasing potentials rather than building them in individuals. For true balance in our lives, some things must be restricted and some others must be vented out.

On the fantasies of children: are trivial fantasies more powerful than non-trivial or forced ones for a child?


A child paints in broad strokes across a wide, white canvas, with bright primary colors. The happy fantasies of children are like happy children themselves, simple and innocent. Their fantasies are not subtle, complex or nuanced. The fantasies reflect the world in a broad way. Simplicity can be more beautiful then complexity.

A child believes that everything is still possible. What seems totally plausible for a child is different from what seems totally plausible for an adult. Children have not learned how much of what they imagine isn’t likely. An adult knows, with far more detail what they easily can and cannot do in this world.

The play Hamlet, a great adult fantasy, has complexity, subtlety and nuance.

An adult can imagine with the same vividness as a child, but it probably wont have the same emotional impact. Adults lose faith in the endless possibilities in which a child easily believes.

I think the imagination comes from the combined efforts of the conscious and the subconscious. The conscious mind rations the world into smaller manageable bits. It focuses our attention on one thing at a time. The subconscious diffuses attention. It looks for wholes, for groups, for patterns. The process of separating and recombining the world is how we experience imagination.

I also think much of the subconscious exists in the non-verbal regions of the right brain hemisphere. Wordlessly it thinks, mutely it communicates, it wants attention just as much as the talkative left hemisphere.

Children don’t have many fixed patterns. So they can recombined the world into patterns that an adult mind edits out. Adults have a database of existing patterns that we use to filter the world based on stable enduring relationships and associations. Children have a developing editor adults have a developed editor. An adult can free their creativity by restraining the editor. Forgetting what is impossible and implausible. Letting the creative process work separate from the editing process.


I am not certain how to answer your question. Could you please explain what you mean by “trivial fantasies” “non-trivial” and “forced” ?

A child’s reality is different from our own. Its imagination is hence differently oriented, I think. It leads a protected and guided life and its imagination is directed towards the many trivial things and processes it observes around it. A child’s reality is idyllic, its responsibilities are minimal and natural, and its imagination is directed at things which are not vital to its existence. I call such use of its imagination “trivial fantasies” and I called the important ones as non trivial ones. There are times when the child is forced to imagine fantasies by imposition. This is the beginning of pedagogy and conditioning, and I suppose pedagogy will influence the imagination in a significant way.

I think you have covered a lot about the child’s imagination in your post, and I second your takes on that, especially the following:

I find your analysis on the conscious and the sub conscious brain interesting, because I have held an opinion for a while - I think that the conscious and the sub conscious that you refer to imagine things at different levels. The conscious brain imagines possibilities on the conditioned ideas, from the start of pedagogy or acculturization (things we have learnt) and the subconscious mind deals with all the concepts we have understood, except, by forging links which are logically unimportant. The subconscious, I believe is a remnant from teh child’s brain, where unforced and trivial imaginings held more wonder and possibility than conditioned thoughts induced from systems.

At its core, the brain seems to function like some kind of pattern recognition engine, which draws patterns and analogies from sight, sound and tactile data from the past. Any of you happen to be biologists or psychilogists? Maybe some professional experience may help us.

I tend to agree on what you said about the hemispheres of the brain. Given that spatial imagination (which is purportedly stronger in men) is right brain based, is it possible that men are less conducive to conditioning because of their hormonal balances? What I mean to ask is that the male brain retains its right brain spatial skill because of the inherent nature of men to rebel and retain a subconscious level interaction with the world - primarily for the purposes of seeing them realized. Could this be true/plausible?

I think imagination is the key to unravelling all the mysteries regarding the universe and life. That’s true, ‘creative people possess more than the average’ as we all know and also know that creativity is not possible without pain so it’s obvious that emotional turmoil lies at the heart of imagination. And because we know that animals are not creative like us therefore it must mean that they don’t go through the emotional turmoils that we can go through and so are not as imaginative as us, but they’re nonetheless intelligent enough.