Tom Cochrane

Imagination is the Power of Voluntary Thought

The more that I investigate the imagination, the more it seems to me that there is no such thing. The imagination is implicated in a wide array of capacities: creative thought, empathy, planning, reasoning about possibilities, inner speech, and episodic memory (this last one is controversial- but undoubtedly there is a close connection). We can certainly say that the imagination is not a module- that is, a mechanism in the brain that takes in certain kinds of information, performs a discrete function upon it, and then spits out a result. The imagination takes in everything, outputs everything. Moreover, I cannot alienate myself from my imagination the way I might alienate myself from a more specific function such as my capacity to smell or recognize faces. Those things I could lose or regain without losing who I am. Not so the imagination. It is too central to who I am as a thinking, feeling, acting person.

So instead of talking about the imagination in quasi-mechanical terms, I prefer to think of it as my general capacity to control my thoughts. This respects the centrality of the imagination to who I am, and its involvement in our various voluntary cognitions.

But in this respect, the imagination is only vaguely distinct from my capacity to pay attention to things- endogenous attention. Imagination is ‘internally’ directed, but not always. Sometimes we project our imaginings into the world. Attention is ‘externally’ directed, but not always, as when we attend to the thoughts passing through our minds. And the similarities between these two capacities are considerable. I can search my mind as I search a room. I can screen off certain ideas, as I screen off external stimuli. What about creativity? Well, when I shift around materials where does imagination end and voluntary attention begin? I contend that there is no clear distinction because there is only one thing here: my mental agency.


Tom Cochrane is a Senior lecturer in philosophy at Flinders University, Adelaide, who specializes in aesthetics and the philosophy of mind, and is the author of books including The Emotional Mind: A Control Theory of Affective States and The Aesthetic Value of the World.

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