People generally feel they are creative or uncreative. But all of us use our imaginations all the time. So what are these things and can science explain them? Recently I've come to realize that there are things that I take for granted that religious people find completely mysterious, and therefore only God could make them happen. A lot of these mysteries are about the mind. Some examples are morality, love, compassion and imagination, among many others.
(as an aside, and if you're interested, a topic for later could be justice and fairness. I have found a huge difference between how I see them and how religious people see them.)
As a naturalist/atheist/skeptic/science lover, while I don't understand the physics, mechanics, biochemistry and biology of the workings of the brain, I understand that the mind is what is active in the brain. That's not the best wording, but basically the mind is just the brain, but I think of it as RAM whereas the physical structure of the brain is more like the Hard Drive. If you have a better analogy, please share it. They are one and the same, essentially. Your mind is not separate from your brain.
Imagination: the ability of forming mental images, sensations and concepts, in a moment when they are not perceived through sight, hearing or other senses. Imagination is the work of the mind that helps create. Imagination helps provide meaning to experience and understanding to knowledge; it is a fundamental facility through which people make sense of the world, and it also plays a key role in the learning process.
Creativity: 1. having the ability to create. 2. characterized by originality of thought; having or showing imagination. 3. designed to or tending to stimulate the imagination.
So we all use our imaginations every time we have a thought that creates something in our minds that is not perceived through our senses. Like pink elephants with emerald green polka dots. If you can see them standing on top of each other in your head right now, you are using your imagination.
Are we the only animals on the planet to have imagination? I can think of a few that might actually use creativity to solve problems, but not imagination like we have. At least I don't know of any research that has uncovered evidence of that.
I watched a video of a black bird (I think a crow) in the wild who fashioned a tool out of part of a leaf to get grubs out of a log. It was amazing! Chimps and crows can definitely problem-solve and use tools, which seems like a form of creativity. Also, can't gorillas who know sign language lie?
But we have imagination in ways that are unique in the animal kingdom. We can imagine and create in our minds complex ideas, like numbers, zero, math, physics, fiction, stories, myths, religion, etc. The list goes on and on. What is even more amazing is that we can take the products of our imagination and make real changes in the world from them. We can communicate those thoughts to others who then understand what we have shared, or we can create something tangible that can be interacted with, etc.
That just shows how we humans are on a continuum of cognition and brain power. Dolphins, elephants and chimps can recognize themselves in a mirror, so they are more advanced than a puppy who can't seem to figure out that their mirror image isn't another puppy, or a guppy who only has the attention span of about 3 seconds, from what I recall.
But dogs have morals in the sense that they can feel cheated if not rewarded equally. A study was done a couple years ago where two dogs were asked to do tricks at the same time. One dog was told "good dog" and the other was given a treat for doing the tricks. After a short time the dog that didn't get the treats stopped doing his tricks and laid down. He refused to listen. He knew he was being treated unfairly and he stopped participating.
One of my favorite uses of imagination is something that Albert Einstein said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” This is true, but it's how we use that imagination, to turn it into real change in the world. Imagination spurs science and technology onward. But the mundane aspects of science are just as crucial for affecting true progress.
My friend's granddaughter who is 3 sees dinosaurs in her garden. She talks to them. Her imagination is wonderful and rich and doing exactly what it's supposed to do in a healthy little girl. But if I were to imagine dinosaurs in my garden and talk to them, I'd be labeled insane. Also, just having a rich imagination doesn't mean it's based in reality. Many people have imagined perpetual motion machines, but they break the laws of physics and can not be realized in the real world no matter how much creative thought goes into the design.
A lot of research goes into how the mind works, and has for a long time. Every day we understand more about the mind. As our tools get better (through creative thinking of engineers and scientists imagining new technology and then building that equipment) and our information builds "on the shoulders of giants", our understanding about the mind blossoms.
Yesterday I heard an interview with Peter Atkins on Science Weekly. Atkins just wrote a book called On Being: A Scientist's Exploration of the Great Questions of Existence which sounds fascinating. It will be released soon and I really want to read it. It's about the limits of science. The interview touches on the mind and the Big Bang, how we don't really know anything about either, but eventually we just might get to the answers.
The first sentence of the book: "The scientific method can shed light on every and any concept, even those that have troubled humans since the earliest stirrings of consciousness." Interesting! And after reading The Moral Landscape, I think I might agree, but I'll reserve my opinion. The book isn't available on the Kindle but that might be just because it's not released yet. If you can, follow the link and tell the publisher you want to read the book on the Kindle! I sure do! :D
So what's ticking in your mind right now? What spurs your imagination? Have you heard of any fascinating studies recently on the mind and on imagination or creativity?