How Imagination Literally Created Civilisation as we Know It

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When you hear the word imagination you probably think of kids lazing around daydreaming of talking cats in outer-space (or whatever kids daydream about these days). You probably think of it as a waste of time, certainly nothing any working adult has time to do.

But imagination is actually essential to our existence, and it’s something we all practice multiple times daily. In fact, it was the evolution of human imagination that created civilisation as we know it.

“Large societies and the glue that holds them together are completely made up. Nations, tribes, religion, marriage, money and the law-enforcing powers of a judge are arbitrary products of our creative thought. So to create them, our ancestors must have had fantastic powers of imagination.” (Maurice Bloch, London School of Economics)

Yes, our entire world is made up. Every social structure, every man-made object, every song and piece of art—they all started as figments of someone’s imagination.

Our propensity for imagination seems to have appeared when humans became bipedal. To walk on two legs requires a narrow pelvis, “which means infants must be born with flexible skulls and small brains, which grow to full size during childhood.” (New Scientist, issue 2987)

As our brains grow during childhood, they develop under cultural influences. And this is where our imaginations begin to take hold.

Of course, we know children have huge capacities for imagination. They play make-believe, have imaginary friends, create entire made-up worlds and societies—all in their heads. As we grow older this tendency to live in the imagination wears off.

Or does it?

The Adult Imagination

While some adults continue to have thriving mental worlds, many feel they grow up and straighten out, leaving their imaginations behind. Yet we never actually leave them behind—because much of our human experience is caught up in them.

The type of imagination most of us use every day is called Counterfactual Thinking—”our ability to consider possibilities that we know aren’t true in the here and now, a kind of imagination that treads a fine line between the real and the unreal.” (New Scientist, issue 2987)

For many of us, Counterfactual Thinking makes up a large part of what goes on in our conscious brain. As opposed to straight remembering of events, when we go counterfactual we consider future outcomes, and use them to help us make decisions.

If you’ve ever had to make an important phone call and spent ten minutes thinking about all the ways it could go before picking up the phone, you’ve used Counterfactual Thinking. If you’ve ever thought of all the different options for dinner tonight, you’ve used Counterfactual Thinking. If you’ve ever pictured what life would be like if you won the lottery, you’ve used Counterfactual Thinking.

It’s a way for us to “explore our emotional reactions to various outcomes without having to actually experience them”.  (New Scientist, issue 2987)

The important thing is this: we use our imaginations, all the time. We’re always creating stories in our head, related to our lives and the decisions we have to make. That’s how the human brain is wired.

Nurturing the Imagination

If you’re someone who has ever said that you’re “just not creative” or “don’t have any imagination”—science says you’re wrong. Imagination is a skill you’re using all day, without even realising. And if it’s there, it means you can harness it.

To help you, we’ve created a special 5-Day Imagination Booster, with a new exercise each day to help you cultivate an awesome imagination. Simply enter your details below and we’ll email you the Booster straight away!


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