The world-renowned developmental psychologist explains why the ability to imagine ‘possible worlds’ is so critical throughout our lives
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.
It’s been said of the events of 9/11 that they represented ‘a failure of imagination’. Talk a bit about how we can get better at imagining ‘impossibilities’.
We’re not very good at this. If you watch a science fiction film and observe its details, it’s striking to see how constrained even our ‘wildest imaginations’ are by what we know or believe about the way the world works. In most cases, we can only imagine things that are within the parameters of what we think is true about the world. On the bright side, as we learn more and more and get to more of the ‘truth’, the effect isn’t to narrow our horizons but to actually broaden them and make our imaginations more effective.
Research indicates that children learn best through the kinds of meaningful engagement and exploration found in play. Is the same true of adults?
One of the things we’ve discovered is that there is a kind of balance between two different ways of being in the world, two ways of learning and knowing. One is what people sometimes call exploiting, which means being able to take information and use it to bring about some particular end; and the other is exploring, which means being able to find new information for its own sake. Children are very devoted to exploring, to figuring out how the world works, for its own sake; whereas adults are more concerned with finding out the things that they need to do to get things done -- which is appropriate. But I think that if adults want to have the kind of flexibility and capacity for change and ability to innovate that we see in children, play is a great way to encourage that.
What else can adults do to get better at imagining possible worlds?
One way to think about the role of art in our lives is that it’s a way of giving adults opportunities to be in a different space. Whenever we read a novel or go to a play, we are presented with contexts through which we can think about how the world can be different from the way it is, and this feeds our imagination.
What are you currently working on in your research?
I’m part of a group that is trying to figure out how human cognition evolved. We know that even very young children have the ability to think broadly, to imagine other ways the world could be, to imagine ways the future could be, to take the perspective of other people. The big question is, what happened in the course of our evolution that made us able to do all of these things to an extent that no other animal, even our closest relatives, can do. Why is it that we have these abilities? We’re finding that this ability to change the physical and social world in unprecedented and unpredictable ways is deeply bound up with our extended human childhood. We change the world bit by bit, generation by generation. We pass on our own innovations and the new worlds they create to our children—who imagine new alternatives themselves. We work to imagine alternatives that will make our lives better, but, even more impressively, over generations we can revise what we mean by leading a better life. My children and their children and all the new children to be born will see the world in new ways, discover new possibilities and find new ways to make them real, in ways that I literally can't imagine right now.
Alison Gopnik is a professor of Psychology and affiliate professor of Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. Her books include The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Love, Truth and the Meaning of Life (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009) and The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind (Harper, 2000).