Fred Schwaller

The Origins of Imagination

Imagination is often described as the result of concentration. If you were to sit down with a cup of tea and exercise the skills of reasoning and deduction, you would bend knowledge and understanding together to create new ideas. After all, it was how we are taught to approach imaginative projects at school. But that’s not how imagination works.

Imagination is really the act of luring out the voices of your unconscious into your consciousness. That is, from the unconscious reservoir of instincts and deeper memories into the conscious mind-space of introspection. Sometimes, this unconscious expression requires a medium: the music played on a piano, the form of a clay vessel, the arrangement of furniture in your bedroom. Here, imaginations from your unconscious manifest themselves in abstract material forms. Other times, imaginative ideas and solutions burst into your consciousness in those Eureka! moments.

In both situations imagination is spontaneous. But there are tricks to produce imagination artificially. ‘Imaginative people’ are really those who are particularly adept at fabricating situations to communicate between the unconscious and the conscious. They have learned to integrate active imagination into their daily habits, sitting down with pencil and paper, at the piano, or with a set of cooking ingredients. They flow with words or scribbles or create music or dishes that manifest seemingly from nowhere.

But imagination does not come from nowhere. Something must feed your unconscious. Through exposure and interaction with imaginative works and ideas. your unconscious grows and develops to incorporate your inner self with the environment.

Learning to actively imagine is one process, but what comes next is interpreting your creations. Honest evaluation of what comes out of your unconscious means transitioning from a creative attitude to one of judgement. Only then can you better understand your deeper self.


Fred Schwaller is a neuroscientist, writer, science communicator, and artist whose expertise lies in crossing the boundaries between neuroscience and art with a particular focus on how touch sensation reaches into the creative arts.

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