“Plato and Aristotle disagreed about the imagination. As the philosopher Stephen Asma and the actor Paul Giamatti pointed out in an essay in March, Plato gave the impression that imagination is a somewhat airy-fairy luxury good. It deals with illusions and make-believe and distracts us from reality and our capacity to coolly reason about it. Aristotle countered that imagination is one of the foundations of all knowledge.
One tragedy of our day is that our culture hasn’t fully realized how much Aristotle was correct. Our society isn’t good at cultivating the faculty that we may need the most.
What is imagination? Well, one way of looking at it is that every waking second your brain is bombarded with a buzzing, blooming confusion of colors, shapes and movements. Imagination is the capacity to make associations among all these bits of information and to synthesize them into patterns and concepts. When you walk, say, into a coffee shop you don’t see an array of surfaces, lights and angles. Your imagination instantly coalesces all that into an image: “coffee shop.”
Neuroscientists have come to appreciate how fantastically complicated and subjective this process of creating mental images really is. You may think perception is a simple “objective” process of taking in the world and cognition is a complicated process of thinking about it. But that’s wrong.
Perception — the fast process of selecting, putting together, interpreting and experiencing facts, thoughts and emotions — is the essential poetic act that makes you you.