Imagination, Creativity, and the Active Construction of Perception

"The real key is being able to imagine a new world. Once I imagine something new, then answering how to get from here to there involves steps of creativity. So I can be creative in solving today’s problems, but if I can’t imagine something new, than I’m stuck in the current situation."

[John Seely Brown]

One of the topics he talks about in the interview (do read the whole thing) as part of how context shapes content — the example of replacing music in movies is one I used to explain it, too — is listening with humility.

To understand what is going on in the other side of the conversation, you need to observe body language, and take in what is not being said. The reason why it is so hard to communicate (and much harder without non verbals) is perception.

People base perception on prior experiences and memories, so active listening, with humility, as Seely Brown puts it, allows you to draw that out, to infer it from what is happening. For example, eye contact, shifting in one's seat, other forms of body language, tone of voice, etc.

Another important point in the interview — you don't teach social intelligence, you cultivate it. This is also a product of culture. In Italy we base most of our interactions on conversation — in social environments, and in school.

So in a way we learn early on to actively construct perception — ours and that of others — by combining content (what we learn/know) and presentation (how we expose information to others and interact with the teacher and classmates).

Presentation also depends on other forms of context — where the interaction is happening (class or pizza place), who is involved (family, friends, peers), when we have the conversation (day, evening, before eating), why (is is a test? are we trying to persuade someone?), as well as under what circumstances (what else is going on with us? are we excited, scared, anxious, etc.).

You see how complex human communication is, and most of this happens without us actually deconstructing the steps or stages, mostly we feel them. Which brings me back to the importance of imagination for creative pursuits.

In a rational world, we talk about what a widget looks like, what it does, how much it costs, the features and functionality. However, when we buy it, we rely on how it makes us feel — does it provide meaning or pleasure? Imagination helps us visualize this dimension of perception, then, as Seely Brown says, we enroll creativity to make it happen.

Scientists are children on steroids — they ask questions that on the surface seem simple, yet are not easy to demonstrate: what keeps the stars up in the sky? What makes the grass green? Curiosity is a manifestation of imagination.

Learning is an adventure in imagination. (think Tigger in Calvin & Hobbes)

All this helps us innovate, connect, relate, develop communities of practice, and culture.

Why on earth would we then want to eliminate Liberal Arts from education?


[h/t Noah Brier]


Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effects on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.