The Roles Imagination and Creativity Have in Our Lives

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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]

As Chief Scientist at Xerox Corp. and director of its Palo Alo Research Lab John Seely Brown spent some time thinking about and working on innovation. He's now independent co-chairman of Deloitte Center for the Edge and a visiting scholar at USC. A self-appointed Chief of Confusion, Seely Brown “helps people ask the right questions.”

In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, Seely Brown says:

I think what’s happening in STEM education is a tragedy. Art enables us to see the world in different ways. I’m riveted by how Picasso saw the world. How does being able to imagine and see things differently work hand-in-hand? Art education, and probably music too, are more important than most things we teach. Being great at math is not that critical for science, but being great at imagination and curiosity is critical.
Yet how are we training tomorrow’s scientists? By boring the hell out of them in formulaic mathematics – and don’t forget I am trained as a theoretical mathematician.

Making the distinction between creativity and imagination is an interesting way of creating clarity in the roles each plays in our lives. Our world is the product of the ideas, beliefs and values of the human imagination and culture that have shaped it over centuries. It has been created out of our minds as much as from the natural environment says Sir Ken Robinson, “Imagination is the source of all human achievement.” 

Imagination is the source of creativity, but they are not one and the same. In Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative Robinson says:

Imagination is the ability to bring to mind things that are not present to our senses. We can imagine things that exist or things that do not exist at all. If I ask you to think of an elephant, your old school, or your best friend, you can bring to mind mental images that are drawn from real experience.

We wouldn't normally think of mental images of real experiences as imaginative. More accurately, they are imaginal. If I ask you to think of a green polar bear wearing a dress, you can imagine that too. But now you are bringing to mind something that you haven't experienced. […] These sorts of images are of possibilities composed in the mind rather than recalled to the mind. They are imaginative.

Sometimes we mistake imaginative experiences for real ones. These sorts of experiences are imaginary.

Imaginary friends inhabit our world in the formative years of childhood. Bill Watterson's adventures of Calvin and Hobbes, and the imaginative journeys of Maurice Sendak's classic picture book Where the Wild Things Are are good examples of how art expresses ideas and values.

Imagination is the primary gift of human consciousness. In imagination, we can step out of the here and now. We can revisit and review the past. We can take a different view of the present by putting ourselves in the minds of others: we can try to see with their eyes and feel with their hearts. And in imagination we can anticipate many possible futures.

We may not be able to predict the future but by acting on the ideas produced in our imagination, we can help to create it. The imagination liberates us from our immediate circumstances and holds the constant possibility of transforming the present.

So we need imagination to engage our creativity, which Robinson defines as “a process of having original ideas that have value.” It's a process, and not an event, and it can be taught.

Imagination can be an entirely private process of internal consciousness. […] Private imaginings may have no outcomes n the world at all. Creativity does. Being creative involves doing something.

[…] To call someone creative suggests they are actively producing something in a deliberate way. People are not creative in the abstract; they are creative in something: in mathematics, in engineering, in writing, in music, in business, in whatever.

Creativity involves putting your imagination to work. In a sense, creativity is applied imagination.

It is Robinson's belief that one of the roles of education is to awaken and develop the powers of creativity.  We find our creative power thought thinking and feeling, it is through both that we connect with each other and create the complex, shifting worlds of human culture, says Robinson.