Imagination is the ability to generate ideas, images, or concepts that are not necessarily present in reality. It enables us to think beyond our immediate surroundings, envisioning alternate possibilities and potential futures. Imagination has long been a subject of intrigue for philosophers, psychologists, and artists alike and by chance, I stumbled across an unlikely book by the thriller writer Lee Child which perfectly encapsulated the psychological benefits of imagination. In his book ‘The Hero’ (2019), best-selling author Lee Child argues that imagination and storytelling were essential for the survival and evolution of our prehistoric ancestors.
Imagination as a Survival Tool
Child (2019), provides a compelling argument that imagination and storytelling played a pivotal role in the survival and evolution of homosapiens. He asserts that prehistoric humans used their imaginative capacities to make the impossible seem possible, thus providing hope and instilling valuable lessons that ensured the continuity of the species. These lessons were passed down from generation to generation, allowing humans to adapt and overcome various challenges.
The ability to imagine potential threats and develop strategies to mitigate them has been essential in human evolution. This concept is supported by the Social Brain Hypothesis, which posits that the human brain evolved primarily to navigate complex social environments (Dunbar, 1998). Imagination enabled early humans to anticipate the actions and intentions of others, forming the basis for cooperation and competition within social groups (Dunbar, 1998). Furthermore, it allowed them to learn from past experiences and envision potential future scenarios, enhancing their ability to plan and adapt.
Imagination and the Development of Empathy
Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is a critical aspect of human social interaction. Engaging the imagination through storytelling and role-playing can foster empathy by allowing individuals to put themselves in another person’s shoes (Mar & Oatley, 2008). This process, known as ‘mental simulation,’ enables us to gain insight into the emotions, thoughts, and perspectives of others, fostering a greater sense of compassion and understanding.
In turn, empathy contributes to stronger social bonds, reduced aggression, and increased prosocial behavior (Eisenberg & Miller, 1987). Thus, the cultivation of imagination serves to promote a more harmonious and supportive society.
Imagination and Innovation
Imagination fuels creativity and innovation, driving progress and advancements in various fields, from science and technology to art and literature. The ability to think beyond the confines of the known and the familiar allows individuals to generate novel ideas, pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and achievement.
Many transformative inventions and discoveries in history have been the product of imaginative thinking. For example, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity was inspired by his thought experiments, where he imagined riding a beam of light and observing the consequences (Isaacson, 2007). Similarly, technological innovations such as the internet, smartphones, and renewable energy sources can be traced back to the creative minds that dared to imagine a different future.
Innovation and creativity, driven by imagination, contribute to economic growth, job creation, and overall societal wellbeing. These advancements help to address pressing global issues, such as climate change, healthcare, and poverty alleviation (Florida, 2002).
Imagination and Psychological Wellbeing
Engaging the imagination through activities such as reading, writing, art, and play has been linked to improved psychological well-being. These creative pursuits can provide a sense of purpose, increase self-esteem, and enhance coping skills (Stuckey & Nobel, 2010).
Furthermore, imaginative activities can act as a form of emotional regulation, allowing individuals to express and process complex emotions in a healthy manner (Djikic et al., 2013). This emotional catharsis can lead to reduced stress, anxiety, and depression, ultimately promoting mental health and resilience.
Imagination has been an essential component of human evolution, contributing to our survival and adaptation. The societal benefits of engaging the imagination are multifaceted, including the development of empathy, the promotion of innovation, and the enhancement of psychological well-being. By cultivating and nurturing our imaginative capacities, we can create a more compassionate, creative, and mentally healthy society. Encouraging individuals to engage in imaginative activities, whether through storytelling, art, or play, can have lasting positive effects on both personal well-being and collective progress. By recognizing and fostering the power of imagination, we can strive to build a better future for generations to come.
Child, L. (2019). The Hero. Penguin Books.
Dunbar, R. I. M. (1998). The social brain hypothesis. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 6(5), 178-190.
Eisenberg, N., & Miller, P. A. (1987). The relation of empathy to prosocial and related behaviors. Psychological Bulletin, 101(1), 91-119.
Florida, R. (2002). The rise of the creative class: And how it’s transforming work, leisure, community, and everyday life. Basic Books.
Isaacson, W. (2007). Einstein: His Life and Universe. Simon & Schuster.
Mar, R. A., & Oatley, K. (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(3), 173-192.
Djikic, M., Oatley, K., & Carland, M. (2013). Genre or artistic merit: The effect of literature on personality. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(1), 38-46.
Stuckey, H. L., & Nobel, J. (2010). The connection between art, healing, and public health: A review of current literature. American Journal of Public Health, 100(2), 254-263.