Visualization and Imagination

Recently, I’ve done a little bit of philosophical hedge-trimming, and I found one key concept that gives our lives a sense of magic. It imbues life with a creative spark, and its application is the difference between understanding and ignorance. The ability to use your imagination, to envision a possible object or scenario, is the key to increasing your understanding, and helps lead to a life full of vibrancy and fulfillment. First I want to discuss visualization, the visual form the imagination takes, because it is the easiest example to grasp. Have you ever driven somewhere in a trance, and not even realized you took any turns before you arrived at your destination? Or you’re walking down the street with your head in the clouds, and you nearly run into a telephone pole? You were on autopilot; your eyes were still watching, of course, but your conscious brain wasn’t picking up on any data from the outside world. It was just a movie reel that you weren’t paying attention to. On the other hand, if you are visualizing, if your brain and your imagination are at work deciphering the information that your eyes send, then you’re better off; you’re in it. This is the way that artists see: they focus in on something with a blank mind in order to take it in, absorbing it. When they render the image with their hands, the end result depends (largely) on the way they looked.

The ability to visualize, to create a visual model in your mind, is fully removed from what you see in any given moment. It is not dependent on your eyes at all. At work I have to reach down into a sink full of dishes, where I can’t see anything because of all the suds, and pull the stopper out. Along the way my hand will navigate patches of scaldingly hot water, solid walls of pastry trays, and sharp tong-edges. When I’m digging down there, I’m completely in the dark, and yet I can pull the plug out because I’m able to create a mental image based on the data I’ve gathered by touch.

Picture another example: it’s night time; you wake up after your phone rings and falls off the nightstand with a big THUNK. It probably landed somewhere in the ditch between the dresser and the wall. You reach down, feeling the rough paint of the wall, and crawl your hand around down by the carpet. Here’s a quarter, here there seems to be a dirty, forlorn article of clothing, your phone charger… Aha! You brush up against the smooth plastic of the phone’s side and wrap your fingers around it to pick it up. Here, your hand is like a tiny submarine diving into the depths of the ocean; if there was nobody back at mission control on the surface, none of the data would be collected. You couldn’t have grabbed your phone if your brain wasn’t paying attention. It would just be random feelings, your hand banging around aimlessly in the dark.

In both of these examples, even though you actually had no VISUAL input in your investigation, you used your imagination to build a model of the way that these objects might be arranged. Boom, visualization. What’s more, you were actually using the exact same faculties while you were reading just now—you used your imagination to envision a potential scenario. In your mind’s eye you saw an image of a hand writhing its way around in a hot sink and behind a dusty dresser.

Another one of my favorite examples is from videogames. When you play a puzzle game, you must consciously imagine the next step to take in order to solve the puzzle. Visual imagination at its finest. The better your ability to look ahead, the better your score will be. Simple, no?

But there are other, non-visual ways the imagination acts in your life. You use it when you listen to people in everyday conversation—and again, the more you can utilize it, the better your communication will be. I like to imagine that when two people talk, they have a model or a hologram of a huge castle floating right above their head. This is the idea they wish to convey, in all its complexity. Here are the hallways, nooks and crannies, spiral staircases… they want to share it all. Each word that they utter is a blueprint, part of the floorplan. The one who’s talking verbalizes their idea, handing over the blueprints sheet by sheet, word by word, and then the second person takes them in and starts imagining his own version of the castle, which is his own interpretation of the idea. When people talk in phase this way, they are using their imagination—the ability to create a model of an object that isn’t there—to interpret and craft the conversation, coming to a mutual understanding. When you finish another person’s sentences, it’s because your imagination suddenly filled in the gaps in the idea they were trying to convey. I love this phenomenon, because it points to a shared experience greater than the words we use.

When you go through life without looking where you’re going, without using the imagination, that’s when accidents happen. This is when you pull a mug out of the cupboard and bring out two more, shattering them on the ground. You didn’t realize that the path of one was blocked by the other, because either you didn’t look or you weren’t seeing. You’re talking to your mom, or your significant other, and suddenly they snap: “You never listen to me!” It’s because your mind was in another place, thinking about chores you need to do, or what that person meant in that Facebook comment, or that leftover pizza in the refrigerator which sounds really good right now. He who walks through life without heeding the imagination walks blindly, and is lost indeed.

The imagination is your focus, and without it you are remiss. But aligning and actualizing your imagination yields astonishing results. If you live by it, you will reap the rewards.

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