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It’s time to broaden our minds

Who’d have imagined what the year 2008 would bring? If someone had predicted that we’d be witness to the first black president in American history, the collapse of the world’s financial markets, and an unprecedented

Who’d have imagined what the year 2008 would bring? If someone had predicted that we’d be witness to the first black president in American history, the collapse of the world’s financial markets, and an unprecedented parliamentary crisis in Canada, who would have believed them? And that’s leaving aside the stunning plunge in oil prices and the fact that the summertime Arctic will probably be ice-free within five years.

Maybe it just shows how limited our imaginations are. In his novel The Stone Raft, the Spanish writer Jose Saramago invents a world in which the Iberian peninsula breaks off and floats away from Europe. Most of the population, understandably enough, reacts with fear, despair and panic. For many of us, today’s accelerated changes seem equally terrifying. We can, however, choose a different response. We can choose to see these changes as opportunities — both exciting and tremendously challenging — to create new solutions, new structures, new ways of living together on our planet.

Does that sound idealistic? Perhaps, but I’m not alone in thinking that the signs of major paradigm shift are all around us. In books, on the web, in international forums, there’s a growing sense that we stand at a turning point in history and human consciousness. The American writer and social activist Arlene Goldbard says: “Right now, I can’t think of anything that says it better [than the term paradigm shift]: events have caused a large number of people to reconsider their internalized models of how the world works.”

But if many of us are doing this, how do we move from reconsideration to re-creation?

I believe we do it, in part, by using our imaginations. Imagine a world without imagination. That’s an oxymoron, of course — without imagination you can’t imagine anything — but that’s also the point. If we can’t imagine, we can’t design a table, choreograph a ballet, plan a city, discover the cure for cancer. All discovery begins — as Albert Einstein made clear — with a creative insight, an intuitive flash. In Einstein’s case, the equations to support his theory of relativity were formulated after the original insight.

Imagination, in other words, creates the world we live in — not just its physical structure but its values, its fears, its beliefs. If we want a better world, we must first be able to imagine what it might look like. At a time when old structures are collapsing, active imagining is not only more vital than ever — it’s also the perfect antidote to gloom and despair.

Canadian literary scholar Northrop Frye defined imagination as “the power of constructing possible models of human experience.” Now new neuroscientific research is providing evidence for our extraordinary ability to construct mental images that aren’t present to the senses. In her book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, neuroscientist Dr. Maryanne Wolf says: “Networks of cells that have learned to work together over a long time produce representations of visual information, even when this information isn’t in front of us.” She goes on to add that “... merely imagining letters results in activation of particular neurons in our visual cortex.”

So imagination isn’t mere daydreaming or idle fancy; it’s a productive and important function, perhaps the most important human function for adaptation and survival. Yet we live in a world that values information rather than imagination, that confuses the literal and the metaphoric, that views empirical evidence as the only kind to be trusted.

It’s an attitude epitomized by the wealthy hardware merchant Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times.

“Now, what I want is, Facts,” he thunders to a group of intimidated young students and their teacher. “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Gradgrind is a caricature, but his attitude — hard-headed, practical, “realistic” — is one we all too often subscribe to. In other words, we’ve become prisoners of the rational. Dickens described his character as “a galvanizing apparatus ... for the tender young imaginations that were to be stormed away.” Yet it was Einstein who said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

Why, then, don’t we teach imagination in school? Why don’t we have corporate imagination seminars, or offer degrees in Imagination Studies? How will we foster the imaginations of the generations who must come up with tomorrow’s solutions?

In fact, new approaches to our problems are emerging, sometimes in the unlikeliest places. A young entrepreneur I met at a recent Vancouver forum on the arts and social change told me that companies hire her to imagine their future for them in the form of a story. Those companies, at least, have understood that they need the power of imagination, not just rational planning, to create what they will become. And perhaps that’s one small piece of evidence for the kinds of changes that are underway.

In the UK, an organization called Arts & Business that promotes cultural and corporate collaboration says: “At the heart of our work is the belief that the arts have the power to transform and change lives on both an individual and corporate level.” That’s a far deeper understanding of the power of creativity and imagination than merely seeing the arts as a venue for corporate sponsorship and name recognition.

In future columns, we’ll look at organizations that are deliberately engaged in imagining new and different futures for our world than collapse and catastrophe. We’ll examine imaginative approaches to global problems from people round the world. And we’ll also discuss ways to cultivate our imaginations in our everyday lives — and have fun while doing it.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” said Einstein. “For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.” Or, as the American poet Carl Sandburg said, “Nothing happens unless first we dream.”

Stay tuned. (And yes, that’s a metaphor.)

A new monthly column by Whitehorse-based fiction writer and creative writing instructor Patricia Robertson. As an antidote to gloom-and-doom, she’ll explore the role of imagination in creating a new world. She’ll also investigate how individuals, organizations, and communities, in Canada and around the globe, are tackling today’s problems in inventive and innovative ways.

Patricia Robertson is the author

of The Goldfish Dancer.