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How imagination shapes our lives

The two biggest forces that shape our lives are imagination and desire. We imagine things, and then we desire them. We are often driven by something we have only half-concsciously imagined, like a dream of career success, but which nevertheless has huge power over us. We might feel that if only we can reach X postion, or make X amount of money, we will have an awesome life – and this background imagination and desire can drive us to spend decades of our lives working, fighting, climbing up, etc.

So what is this capacity for imagination, that can have so much power over us? We can define imagination as “the capacity to create a mental model of something that doesn’t exist yet”. If we compare humans to goldfish, for example, goldfish use their brains to create a mental model of the fish tank they are in. They don’t try to create a picture of a fish tank that doesn’t exist, but is better. Whereas humans put together pieces of their experinece to create images of new things – a future life we might have, a city that has never existed, someone we dream of meeting…

Why do we call it image-ination? It’s becuase images are in many ways more fundamental to our brain than words. The most powerful mental models – the mental model of our career, the mental model of someone we love – are made up of images, less so words and opinions. If we think about our evolutionary ancestors, before language existed, their brains processed the world in images, linked togeher into narratives. There was seeing things, and seeing things linked together – for example, watching how things happen while hunting a mammoth, and then imagining how the hunt might go the following day. This is why we dream in images linked together into narratives: when we dream, the conscious part of our brain switches off, and the evolutionarily older parts of our brain keep going. So in fact, we are actually dreaming all throught the day. The older parts of our brain are always generating images and narratives. It’s just that our daily consciousness takes over when we are awake, and we can’t access the image-creating, imagining, parts of our brain (unless we put aside our consciousness during the day, and start daydreaming).

So images don’t often shape the conscious part of our mind, but they do shapre the less-conscious parts, because images connect with deeper, more animal-like parts of our brain. And these images that sink into the unconscious or less-conscious parts of our brain can definitely shape our motivation, our desire. This is perhaps why advertising relies on powerful images, and less and less on wordy explanations. Also perhaps why the image that politicians present (Aristotle called it the ethos) is more powerful than the arguments they present. Even when a politician presents reasoned arguments, they are appealing to people whose image of themselves deep down, is “I am a person who lives by reasoned arguments”. It is still fundamentally about capturing their imagination, in order to incite their desire.

Our personalities are made up of some key, powerful, composite images, like very personal, half-conscious dreams, that define what we care about and who we beleive we are deep down. The image-responsive, image-creating part of us, our imagination, generates or responds to images. These images then sink into our minds and form into mental models – how we imagine what we want in life, how we imagine our partner or a politician we are attached to – and these images are what shape our desire, and how we direct our effort across all the days of our life.

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