It has occurred to me in the past year, when I’ve remembered a dream now and then (which I rarely do), that in fact for every dream I might have said “that was so weird”, until I realized that all dreams are weird. Sometimes when I’m lying in bed, still half awake, I’ll be just conscious enough to notice my thoughts and think “Dogs don’t drive cars. I’m falling asleep.”
Thinking about dreaming this week suddenly gave me an idea regarding imagination. Here in our real world (which I believe is actually an illusion, but I won’t go there now), it is often said that some people have good imaginations and some don’t. The people with the good imaginations occasionally use them for their profession or passion, becoming writers, musicians, architects, painters, and so on.
But maybe a strong imagination is not so limited. If we define “imagination” to mean something like an ability to conceive of variations on reality that are either extremely diverse or extremely different from reality, well…doesn’t everyone have dreams?
Everyone has a deep capacity to imagine a wildly different reality, which they do every night in dreams. Since we can all do this, why do we say that some people seem to have little imagination? Because in fact some people do seem rather dull in the daylight. Whatever vivid alternative world they live in at night, they seem a little flat in that daytime department.
It’s possible that my discussion is based on a false idea. Maybe what I’m calling “imagination” is actually two different things, and the brain’s ability to conceive of alternatives when asleep and when awake are totally unrelated mental activities. Yet somehow I don’t think so. The ability of the brain to create newness clearly exists, as our ubiquitous strange dreams show.
Or maybe everyone is born with a vivid imagination, but we somehow kill it in many cases. Maybe we do this in a hundred ways, telling each other “Get your head out of the clouds. This world is hard and we’re trying to survive here. Pay attention to the world you’re in.”
Think about how our schools operate. One of the most important things kids learn is to be quiet and sit in rows. If they don’t learn that, they won’t learn anything else, because we’ll throw that disruptive child the hell out of class. But the kind of people who become Picasso or Steve Jobs or Mahatma Ghandi probably don’t sit quietly in rows very long.
Assuming we could both encourage and allow more people to use their imaginations, would the world be a better place? Certainly the world is a hard place and we’re trying to survive here, but at one time there were people who sat watching birds, looking foolish, imagining what it might be like to fly. Now we do. Or there were people who imagined making a terrible disease simply go away. Now smallpox is eradicated. Is life better with airplanes and no smallpox?
Life is also better because some people, against the odds, get away with using their imagination to write books, compose music, and create paintings, as these things help us make sense of life and in trying to find our place in the world. Life is hard, and we need novels. The world has plenty of imagination, we’re just not using it all.
I have to end this by telling you that my own imagination got up to no good one night this week. I had just gone to bed in a large house alone, when the dog—a real dog downstairs—suddenly barked hysterically for 10 seconds and then grew silent. I wondered whether the killer, who had obviously managed to poison the dog within 10 seconds, was carrying a knife or a gun. And the bed wasn’t the kind you could get under. I think the dog ought to make up for spooking me like that and drive me to work. I’ll give him a treat every time he stops properly for a red light.