I’ve been giving a lot of deep thought on the true purpose of the imagination. I don’t think human beings have an imagination just to amuse ourselves or others. I don’t think your imagination is meant to be used to create art which is not pertinent to your life. What got me thinking this is my research on creativity as evolutionary psychology has tried to explain it. I should have probably done a blog post on evolutionary psychology first, but I’m jumping right into this topic.
I have read two books on art from an evolutionary psychology perspective; On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction by Brian Boyd and The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton. The first book is more pertinent to playwriting and attempts to explain why human beings love to hear stories. If you think about it, human beings should not be placing such a high value on stories. A story is fiction and does not appear to contain any factual information which could be useful to you. I sometimes feel guilty about the amount of time I have spent reading books and watching movies. It seems like a waste of time because consuming that much fiction has never done me a bit of good. But according to neuroscientists human beings crave stories because we are social beings and stories are accounts of how other people have handled unusual situations or hypothetical considerations of how to deal with unexpected situations. From stories we learn strategies for dealing with situations which we have not personally experienced. Every story contains information on how some other person dealt with a difficult or unusual series of events. According to Brian Boyd this is vital information or strategic information which we crave to learn from the experiences of others. The reason we accept fictional accounts is because we are interested in extremely unusual situations even if they are completely hypothetical. However, we are displeased by ridiculous or silly stories which contain unlikely resolutions because that story is useless for us. If a story has a deus ex machina ending we annoyed because it has zero predictive value.
So according to narrative theory we have an imagination to run through scenarios which we can ponder to decide on a course of action which will have an optimal outcome. In other words, our imagination has a serious purpose and should not be used to amuse ourselves or others. People get pleasure out of hearing stories but the pleasure is just an emotion to encourage us to attend to the story. A story in and of itself will not lead to pleasure. A story is only truly satisfying if it shows potential for offering a solution to a real world problem.
This theory can be tested by considering a few examples. Take the story of the Poseidon Adventure for example. This is a story about a cruise ship that capsizes and how a group of people managed to survive. That is all the information you need to anticipate a great story, one that you really want to hear. But why? There is very little in those two sentences to promise a good story. It seems like it will be a great story because it concerns a highly unusual but not completely improbable event. Imagine you had never read the book or seen the movie. You would have no idea of what to do if you were on a cruise ship which capsizes. It probably would have never occurred to you that such a thing could happen. So basically you have no idea of what to do in that situation and that worries you. You would have no plan of action. What you need is to hear some other people tell you what they think they would do in such circumstances. This is precisely what a story is, a narrative of actions taken in response to a series of trying events. The story of the Poseidon Adventure could literally save your life if that ever happens to you, which is unlikely but not entirely improbable. A story that is highly improbable is just less interesting and won’t be valued as much as this story.
You might think the story of the Poseidon Adventure could be replaced by a pamphlet from the cruise line giving detailed instructions on what you should do if the ship capsizes. But think about it. Would that really cover the situation? What if your loved one were trapped under a table and the water was rising? Should you stay with them and comfort them at the risk of your own life? Or should you say goodbye tearfully and join the group that is going to attempt to reach the hull of the ship which is still above water? This is the kind of dilemma that a factual pamphlet will not cover. That is why you feel you need to read a story which goes into more details and considers the sticky situation. What the pamphlet lacks is any consideration for human nature. It does not consider how other people might react to the crisis or what you can be expected to do given a feeling of panic.
The other book, The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton is a little bit different in that it asks us to think about why we find something beautiful and are filled with longing for great beauty. On page the author gives a famous explanation for why we find landscape paintings beautiful:
Responses to landscape also depend on possibilities for exploration and orientation, “reading” a terrain. Experimental work by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan shows that the most desirable landscapes have a moderate degree of complexity. Extremes of intricacy, such as an impenetrable forest or jungle, or boring simplicity, such as a flat, open plain, are undesirable extremes. Preferred landscapes are characterized by coherence and legibility: terrain that provides orientation and invites exploration. A sense of natural or man-made path is the most common cue for exploration, along with a surface that is even enough for walking. Appealing landscapes frequently center attention, therefore, on a riverbank that disappears around a bend or a walking path that leads into hills or down to a fertile valley. Provision of a focal point or glimpse of a horizon increases the intelligibility of a scene, and hence visual appeal.
In other words, we find landscapes appealing if they speak to our animal instincts. The world is a dangerous place and the safest thing to do is to huddle in our cave. But there was no pizza delivery while man was evolving. You would starve if you did not venture out of the cave to find food and drink. So we need to be enticed to venture out and brave the dangers. It is our imagination which suggests that we might find something good to eat or clean water to drink if we explore our surroundings and investigate new territory. For a man, the prospect of finding a mate will also entice him to venture out.
So according to this theory the true purpose of your imagination is to entice you to take action. You dream of meeting a beautiful woman but of course you never will if you never go out. It is imperative for you to explore new territory just like any other animal. It is not just an instinct, but an actual logical imperative since your situation will not change until you change your circumstances by putting yourself in new surroundings. Instead of beauty residing in an image, beauty lies in possibilities. It is the possibility of encountering something of value in an exotic location that makes paintings of the Orient beautiful.
When we speak of making our dreams come true, this is literally what we long to do. We want a vaguely conceived possibility to became a reality. The dream itself is just the conception of what might be possible. Unless the possibility is realized the dream will never bring satisfaction. Your imagination is not to be enjoyed for its own sake. Instead try to see what you are being enticed to seek and seek that instead.