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The Daily Sabbatical/Rotman | Nov 29, 2011 | 8707 views

Use Of Imagination

The world-renowned developmental psychologist explains why the ability to imagine ‘possible worlds’ is so critical throughout our lives

From an evolutionary point of view, understanding cause and effect is extremely important is because it allows you imagine how things could have been different in the past; but more importantly, it lets you imagine how things can be different in the future.

It’s been said of the events of 9/11 that they represented ‘a failure of imagination’. Talk a bit about how we can get better at imagining ‘impossibilities’.
We’re not very good at this. If you watch a science fiction film and observe its details, it’s striking to see how constrained even our ‘wildest imaginations’ are by what we know or believe about the way the world works. In most cases, we can only imagine things that are within the parameters of what we think is true about the world. On the bright side, as we learn more and more and get to more of the ‘truth’, the effect isn’t to narrow our horizons but to actually broaden them and make our imaginations more effective.

Research indicates that children learn best through the kinds of meaningful engagement and exploration found in play. Is the same true of adults?

One of the things we’ve discovered is that there is a kind of balance between two different ways of being in the world, two ways of learning and knowing. One is what people sometimes call exploiting, which means being able to take information and use it to bring about some particular end; and the other is exploring, which means being able to find new information for its own sake. Children are very devoted to exploring, to figuring out how the world works, for its own sake; whereas adults are more concerned with finding out the things that they need to do to get things done -- which is appropriate. But I think that if adults want to have the kind of flexibility and capacity for change and ability to innovate that we see in children, play is a great way to encourage that.

What else can adults do to get better at imagining possible worlds?
One way to think about the role of art in our lives is that it’s a way of giving adults opportunities to be in a different space. Whenever we read a novel or go to a play, we are presented with contexts through which we can think about how the world can be different from the way it is, and this feeds our imagination.

What are you currently working on in your research?
I’m part of a group that is trying to figure out how human cognition evolved. We know that even very young children have the ability to think broadly, to imagine other ways the world could be, to imagine ways the future could be, to take the perspective of other people. The big question is, what happened in the course of our evolution that made us able to do all of these things to an extent that no other animal, even our closest relatives, can do. Why is it that we have these abilities? We’re finding that this ability to change the physical and social world in unprecedented and unpredictable ways is deeply bound up with our extended human childhood. We change the world bit by bit, generation by generation. We pass on our own innovations and the new worlds they create to our children—who imagine new alternatives themselves. We work to imagine alternatives that will make our lives better, but, even more impressively, over generations we can revise what we mean by leading a better life.  My children and their children and all the new children to be born will see the world in new ways, discover new possibilities and find new ways to make them real, in ways that I literally can't imagine right now.

Alison Gopnik is a professor of Psychology and affiliate professor of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. Her books include The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Love, Truth and the Meaning of Life (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009) and The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind (Harper, 2000).

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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