How important is an active imagination to thriving in today’s world?
Very. We are designed to want to find out about the world, but that’s not our most important gift. For human beings, the really important evolutionary advantage is our ability to create new worlds. Look around the room you’re sitting in right now: every object in it started out as an imaginary fantasy in someone’s mind. And this is even more true of people. Everything that I am -- a scientist, a philosopher, an atheist, a feminist -- all of these kinds of people started out as imaginary ideas, too. That is what our minds do best: take the imaginary and make it real. And at a time when innovation and change are so critical for our society, the ability to think of all the different ways that the world could be is more important than ever.
You are an advocate of extending our childhood phase; why?
As the world transforms from an agricultural and manufacturing economy to an information economy, people have to continue to learn more and more – and the best way to make that happen is to extend the period when we learn the most: our childhood. Humans already have a longer period of ‘protected immaturity’ — i.e., a longer childhood — than any other species. Across species, a long childhood is correlated with an evolutionary strategy that depends on flexibility, intelligence and learning. There is a developmental division of labour: children get to learn freely about their environment without having to worry about their own survival — caregivers look after that. Adults then use what they learn as children to mate, predate, and generally succeed as grown-ups. Children are basically the R & D department of the human species, and we grown-ups are production and marketing. We start out as brilliantly flexible but helpless and dependent babies, great at learning everything but terrible at doing just about anything, and we end up as much less flexible but much more efficient adults, not so good at learning but terrific at planning and acting. These changes reflect brain changes. Young brains are more connected, more flexible and more plastic, but less efficient. As we get older and experience more, our brains prune out the less-used connections and strengthen the connections that work. But recent developments in Neuroscience show that this early plasticity can be maintained and even reopened in adulthood.
Why are we so drawn -- as children and as adults -- to the world of ‘make believe’?
Three-year-olds literally spend more waking hours in imaginary worlds than in the real one. Why? Learning about the real world has obvious evolutionary advantages, and kids do it better than anyone else; so why spend so much time thinking about wildly, flagrantly unreal worlds? This mystery about pretend play is connected to a mystery about adult humans: why do we love obviously-false plays and novels and movies? I actually believe these two abilities - finding the truth about the world and creating new worlds - are two sides of the same coin. Theories, in science or childhood, don't just tell us what's true - they tell us what is possible, and how to get to those possibilities from where we are now. When children learn and when they pretend, they use their knowledge of the world to create new possibilities. And so do we -- whether we are doing science or writing novels.
How does fiction like Harry Potter exemplify the way we construct imagined worlds?
Children always start out from what might seem like wild, crazy premises, but if you watch them closely, you will see that once this occurs, they almost always follow through with some pretty strict causal logic regarding what happens next. And that’s what something like Harry Potter does. It asks, ‘What would it be like if there was a school for wizards?’ But once this is established as a premise, what has to happen next to make complete sense, given that premise?
Imagination often involves perspective shifting; is this how we develop empathy?
There is a long, complicated process for developing empathy. Some of it seems to be our intuitive sense of sharing the emotions of others. By the time babies are 18 months old, they’re already capable of taking the perspective of another person -- trying to figure out even that someone else could feel differently than they do, and to imagine how they might feel. One of the things that I’ve been studying is how it is that people in general, and children in particular, come to understand the causal structure of the world -- how it is that one thing can make something else happen. What makes causal relationships important is that once you learn them, you can imagine other ways that things could have been. So if I believe that ‘smoking causes lung cancer’, that means that I also know that it can be otherwise – that not smoking will lead to much less lung cancer. Part of the very core of understanding what causes what, is the idea of what the philosophers sometimes call ‘counterfactuals’ -- understanding that things could be different from the way they are.
From an evolutionary point of view, understanding cause and effect is extremely important is because it allows you imagine how things could have been different in the past; but more importantly, it lets you imagine how things can be different in the future.
[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]