What Hope Is: A Defense of the Imagination

“O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.”

— Robert Burns

“So take a good look at my face
You’ll see my smile looks out of place
If you look closer, it’s easy to trace
The tracks of my tears.”
— Smokey Robinson

Physics shows us that it is in the ambiguous, interstitial spaces that hold the most profound secrets of the universe, that no knowledge is absolute, and that every perceived and proclaimed certainty is in fact, only an interpretation. What we see in the mirror is not what *is*, but what *seems*. For many, what can be measured and counted comprises the real world, while for others, what cannot be seen is as real as the ground they walk on.

While the world would have us believe that information – data and algorithms – holds the most value, new research shows that  following our instincts, going with our “guts”, leads us to faster, more accurate decisions That our intuition is a superpower is a relatively new approach to success-making. But, before there were words, our language-less ancestors lived instinctively, experientially. As they moved through forests, jungles, prairies, deserts, steppes, they sensed, intuited. They didn’t think with words, they grasped, “The clouds are dark, lightning follows.” 

Research shows, that  we learn more efficiently through metaphor than we do when provided with facts. Metaphors stimulate our thinking on a subconscious level, tapping into a primal, vestigial realm which, in eons passed, processed and made sense of the world not through information, but association, e.g. “That fur keeps the bear warm, therefore it will keep me warm.” Metaphor illuminates not what *is*, but what something is *like*, that is, what is *imagined*. To be a master of metaphor, to glean what a thing is *like* — not simply what it is designated or designed to be — one must master the imagination, e.g., “The clouds are dark, like angry Gods.” 

The ancients would weave stories around events they had no words for, in part, to help explain them, but, also, because stories can be passed along orally, communicating lessons learned, warnings, mortal and moral, hazards, i.e. very practical concerns. Counterintuitively, it is by mastering the imagination, not information, that we, as humans, have been able to navigate, elucidate, *see* and *sense* reality more clearly. Like our ancestors, as infants, lacking language, feeling comes first for us. We live by touch, tactilely, by sight, sound, and smell: that is, experientially

As children, we spend much of our time dwelling in our imaginations, where anything is possible. As we grow into adulthood, we are inculcated with the belief that imagination is a thing we should indulge in only during our off-hours, at the movies: that the imagination is in some nether realm in our minds we can only access on drugs or alcohol. We quickly learn, we must defend our right to imagine what we will, when we will. But it has been shown that what we’re once considered “mindless” activities, such as doodling, positively affect brain (i.e., mental) health, and that our imaginations protect us as children when reality fails us most. Beyond simply allowing us to enjoy life more, our imaginations serve a very practical purpose of enabling us, in some circumstances, to survive. It is only through the window of our imaginations that we are able to articulate why a caged bird sings, identify what’s beautiful in a landscape of bleakness, what hope is.

In a post-COVID world, we’re beginning to, collectively, recognize that beyond the pursuit of happiness, it is the pursuit of hope in the bleakest of times that keeps us going, that, in defense of that pursuit, the imagination needs to be exercised as well as our muscles because the fitness of our imagination is fundamental to our very survival. It is, perhaps, not a lack of information, but an absence of imagination that has convinced a large swath of society that masks, social distancing, and ventilation do not help  prevent the spread of Coronavirus because they fundamentally cannot fathom its airborne transmission. 

Because we are a data-driven society, the purpose of creativity, of art and expression, needs to be quantified in order for it to be justified by institutions, especially in times of financial and ideological turmoil. Perhaps this time of isolation, loss, and grief, will lead to enough statistical *proof* that the imagination is not simply a “frivolous luxury in a crisis”, but a necessity. Exciting new research in the convergence of arts and medicine is shining light on the fact that our imagination, as much as medication, help us not only cope, but, carry on, in crisis.

Perhaps it is because our imaginations tap into the farthest reaches of our earliest, incipient minds, and later, our subconscious, and in so doing, access the deepest reaches of our hearts, souls, and desires, where no machine can monitor or measure. It is our imaginations that enable us to not simply distill perfume from the rose, but sense that it’s what love is *like*. It is here, in this invisible, intrinsically personal and private realm, that we begin to sense our truest, most nuanced, numinous selves, where we see not the shadows, but the shades, not the blue or the green, but the blue in green: see not the tears that fall, but sense the tracks they leave behind.

Quotes & References:

“20th-Century physics is not about how individual entities are by themselves. It is about how entities manifest themselves to one another. It is about relations.” — Horgan, John, “Is There a Thing, or a Relationship between Things, at the Bottom of Things?”, September 2021, Scientific American, quote from Carlo Rovelli, in a volume of essays on panpsychism to be published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies

““We’ve made a lot of progress understanding what happens when we’re in the here and now… We have focused less on what people spend a lot of time doing: thinking about things that aren’t in front of our faces.” — Avril, Tom, “These Penn scientists discovered how the brain engages in imagination”, June 1, 2021, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Pandemics, wars, and other social crises often create new attitudes, needs, and behaviors, which need to be managed. We believe imagination — the capacity to create, evolve, and exploit mental models of things or situations that don’t yet exist — is the crucial factor in seizing and creating new opportunities, and finding new paths to growth.” — Reeves, Martin, and Fuller, “We Need Imagination Now More Than Ever”, Jack, April 10, 2020, Harvard Business Review

New research reports artists who had particularly difficult childhoods are more likely to fully immerse themselves in the creative process—a practice that can lead to artistic breakthroughs.” — Jacobs, Tom, “For Artists, Traumatic Childhoods Can Lead to More Intense Creative Experiences Performing can be a way of letting go of one’s sense of self”, April 27, 2018, Pacific Standard

Vanessa Daou is an American singer, songwriter, poet, visual artist and dancer. Most notably a musician, her work is known among nu jazz, trip hop and electronic music circles for her trademark spoken word and aspirated singing style as well as its erotic and literary subtexts. Daou believes social emotional arts is a “multiverse, a new way of simultaneously sensing, perceiving, discerning, and speaking” and is exploring the intersection of art and health with older adults. (Read more)