Human brains have the ability to be imaginative and creative. This ability is used, for example, when you imagine that a flat tire could happen and then, after checking the spare tire for soundness, you creatively pack the car so that if you do have a flat you don’t need to remove all of your luggage to get to the spare. Imagination and creativity are used in any “if this then that” kind of thinking. Of course not every person uses their ability to imagine or be creative and some use it constructively and others destructively. More on that in a sec.
When I say all humans are creative I mean that human brains experience the real world and then we process it, we make it make sense to us as best we know how, via our use of language and our cognitive system. That’s just part of being human. It’s what human brains do as automatically as breathing. Humans make symbolic sense of what we experience in the real world via figments of our imagination. How well we’re able to use symbols in response to the external world correlates to the qualities of our inner life. But this concept is not rigid. Sometimes poop just happens in life and there’s no symbolic sense to be made of it we just have to cope.
Even so, frequently exercising your imagination is like exercising any other part of your body, it helps keep it in working condition so it has a better chance to be helpful when it’s needed. Fine tuning your cognitive system coping skills is like practicing an exercise with a trainer to make sure things are working well and skill is improving. This falls under the category of cultivating your inner life or the life of the mind.
Writing, drawing, cooking, gardening, singing, dancing, wood furniture making, rug weaving are all learnable skills. Culturally we call these “creative arts” and tend to speak of people who do those skills well (because they practice a heck of a lot) “creative” or “talented”. But even if someone doesn’t cultivate specific skills like any of those they still have an inner life, they’re still imaginative and creative simply because they have a human brain and need to process, make sense of whatever happens or might happen using both their physical body and their symbol making mind. For example even someone who doesn’t consider themselves a writer can get a mental health benefit from processing their daily life events by writing in a journal by hand.
Okay, let me back up. What’s inspired these thoughts is this blog post by my friend Audrey Driscoll and the comments there about AI, Artificial Intelligence being used for writing.
Also inspirational was a conversation I had with one of my college aged great nephews. We were talking about a video in which an older artist advises younger artists (and I’m paraphrasing) to ignore the people who just want to tear down whatever you’ve created by doing a version of the ‘no true Scotsman’ argument fallacy saying that your art “isn’t real art because it (fill in the blank)”. They are attempting to set themselves up as the one and only arbiter of what is/isn’t “real art” instead of you, the artist, deciding for yourself. You don’t have to accept anyone else’s definition of what art is. You can stay with your own feelings about your own art. My nephew said the video reminded him of a phrase he heard somewhere “obsession with hyper realism kills art”. That in turn reminded me of one of my adopted Dad’s favorite sayings “knowledge without imagination can be deadly.”
It’s nearly Father’s day so I’m going overboard on the Dad quotes – thank you for bearing with me.
Anyhoo, to be rigidly fixed on an idea (an imaginary notion), to think you “know” and to refuse to adjust or imagine that you might be wrong or that your ideas might not apply in a new situation or to fail to imagine that there could be anything bigger than what you think you know, well, that can be extremely harmful to yourself and everyone else around you. Misapplied cognition and rigid “knowledge” without some constructive imagination is woefully lacking in creativity, humility and humanity. It’s rather machine like really.
Which brings me to why I’m writing about this topic today. We care about our inner life because imagination and creativity are human attributes and we’re all we’ve got. Outsourcing human attributes, like letting someone else do your thinking for you, or letting someone (or something else) write your school essay for you doesn’t usually work out happily.
We’re here, we’re human, get used to being human, be the most fully human and the best human you can be!
Computers tend to have fixed ideas about many things like language, as anyone who has interacted with auto-correct or predictive text has experienced, and this often interrupts or even inhibits the flow of the human writer’s words. Have you ever tried to, on purpose, write a silly nonsense word using a computer? Yes, there’s a reason there are so many cartoons of a human frustrated with a computer!
As with the above mentioned mean art-troll “critics” you don’t have to accept or be bound by a computer’s preferences either! A human is an emotional being from the era of Homer (either Homer the Greek or Homer Simpson) while the computer is more rigidly pedantic and more literal and much less caring than the Vulcan Spock in Star Trek ever was.
It is okay to be human!
Human brains when they’re working well (no organic diseases) are constantly – and I do mean all the time – using imagination to make sense of the world. We experience with our 5 senses the external world then we have internal conversations with ourselves about “what it means”. Sometimes these internal conversations are helpful and sometimes they aren’t. (We can learn to direct that!) Then our inner conversation, whatever it is, runs through our cognitive processes: our organic body, how we feel, whether we slept well, if we’re hungry, our habitual ways of responding to the world or to certain words, our past experiences, things we’ve learned etc. In a nutshell we apply to the event that happened in the external real world multiple layers of our feelings-based inner life, and then we react for better or worse. This is just what human brains do often in lightning fast ways without us realizing we’re doing it.
Now we’re living with Star Trek level, more or less, technology while using the emotional brains of the Homeric era. If we’re smart we are still learning and practicing how to deal well with our personal Homeric brains because life continually happens whatever the available technology. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a constant need for all humans at all ages and SEL is a vital ongoing aspect of our interior lives.
Troubles happen, to quote my Dad, when we forget that “feelings are guides not gods to be obeyed”. If you’ve ever gone to school or work when you didn’t feel like it you know what that quote means. But first we had to learn, somehow, that we could acknowledge the feelings and still do the hard stuff that we didn’t feel like doing. We developed coping strategies to help ourselves do that hard stuff… even if it’s an “ice cream afterwards” kind of deal. Even so sometimes due to events in life our emotions loom as large as a god… and in such times our cultivated inner life can be a solace.
My point is that even with the advanced computers in our daily lives the physical human brains we have in our skulls constantly go back and forth, by degrees, from the pole of what happens in the external world and the pole of our imaginations. The trick, according to my Dad, is to remember that our imagination and inner life, i.e. language and our cognitive coping skills, are adjustable tools for dealing with stuff that happens in the real world. If your tools aren’t helping you cope with the real world then the tools may need adjusting or maybe repair.
The importance of language and our inner life is, I think, reflected in the fact that in most human groups it’s considered rude to finish people’s sentences for them, to put words in their mouth, to interrupt or talk over someone. Many groups use some variation of passing around a talking stick or some physical device by which we know who is to speak and for what duration of time. These devices signal who is speaking even if the speaker has paused quietly for a time to think.
Similarly, because language accuracy matters to the creating of shared meanings between people, it is considered rude to assume you know for certain (without double checking) what someone meant when they said that. Or to definitively declare – in the fashion of colonialism – that you and only you know what is/isn’t good and that your personal standards *should* be adopted by everyone everywhere instantly.
To quote my Dad again “Put the words should and shouldn’t on a 50 pound brick and carry it with you at all times”.
Cultivating your inner life, being careful, gentle, flexible and aware of your own connections between matter (the world) and your mind (imagination) can help your own mental health and aid with the stressors of being alive. Including giving you the mental strength to stand by your own thoughts about things.
Additionally it can be useful to be generally aware of real-life people or, nowadays the technologies, that may try to insert themselves, constructively or destructively, between the external world and your own inner life. Such awareness can inspire a focus on whoever or whatever that might help you make better (not worse) connections between the world and your imagination.
This awareness of matter/mind external world/inner world technique can even be a useful tool for the practicing writer or visual artist as I map out here.
True, within the matter/mind continuum there’s no shortage of people who will tell you what to think, what to feel, who will finish your sentences for you, who will try to colonize your inner life, who will claim to “know what you need” and otherwise try to affect your personal relationship between the world and your own imagination.
Sometimes such people do harmful things – the abuser who is gaslighting and manipulating a victim.
Sometimes such people do helpful things – the teacher who is enlightening and encouraging a student.
Mostly the people we typically encounter are somewhere between these two harmful/helpful extremes.
Each of us have to figure out for ourselves ways to decide who or what is helpful, relevant or trustworthy.
Yes, your family, friends, a guru, a book, a politician, a cult leader may all queue up to give you the “correct” answers for this too. And you might or might not like the results. And you’ll still have to figure out some ways – apply imagination and creativity here – to decide what the results are, whether or not you like them, how you’ll respond and what you’ll do next. At the end of the day it’s up to you, it’s your choice of what kind of inner world you want to create and how it can help you deal with the external world.
And yet we are social beings. We need each other and we do learn from each other, all of our lives, various things about living. There’s a lot of trial and error involved. To quote dear Dad again…👇
For most things other people tell you about the world asking yourself the question “which wolf does it feed” is a useful guide. Also useful is the question “who benefits if I believe this?”. It can help to simply write regularly, daily, weekly, what happened, what so-and-so said, how that makes you feel, what it reminds you of, what you need or want or hope. It can help to watch both what someone says and what they do over time and evaluate for consistency and effects. (The CRAAP test is useful too)
Since processing the connections between the external world and our imaginations is reliant on our physical brains/bodies it also behooves us to eat well, to get enough sleep, to walk/exercise and to give ourselves the downtime needed to process our thoughts and feelings. It simply takes time to do something with our bodies that is expressive of our emotions.
To quote Dad again “Having feelings/thoughts? Write about it, draw about it, talk about it, make music or poetry about it…and by doing that with feelings you can name it, claim it and tame it.” There’s really no substitute for doing this yourself with your own hands and voice. Making these physical expressions of imagination and creativity is not about being perfect any more than playing tennis has to always be about becoming a professional tennis player. It is possible to practice an art form just for the fun, playful, inner life exercise in it.
Because I really do believe everyone has the capability to constructively use imagination and be creative – and that having a lively connection to your imagination is essential to good mental health – I’m beginning a series of tutorials for Storyberries.com like this one, Thumb Birds, that I shared on my email newsletter recently. Here’s a still photo of it.
Anyhoo, please play with your imagination often and keep it in good working condition. Carefully cultivate and care for your own inner life. You need you. This world needs you. I need you.
See you next Monday.