Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Simply Speaking: Seeing, imagining, and envisioning

Genius often manifests itself in feats of visualisation. Nikola Tesla, inventor of the electric motor, designed in his head and was able to instruct his machinists with such accuracy that the components, once assembled, fit perfectly

Published: Apr 25, 2022 03:30:14 PM IST
Updated: Apr 25, 2022 05:53:49 PM IST

Simply Speaking: Seeing, imagining, and envisioningImagination is an active ingredient of thinking. Image: Shutterstock 

To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower

 hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour." - William Blake

Anything that is now proved was once only imagined.

Imagination is the active ingredient of thinking. It jumps from present facts to future possibilities and forms mental pictures of things not present. It conceives of situations not yet in existence and conjures up correspondences and analogies.

Einstein, struck with the thought of riding on a shaft of light in outer space while looking at himself in the mirror, interpreted the imagery to come up with the principles of his theory of relativity. Imagination is rarely nurtured by circumstances. In fact, circumstances in the routine sense dull our ability to imagine. Fantasy and make-believe flourish in childhood but, starting with school, our world enforces the adult's grey consensus of reality. Every imaginative kid soon gets told there is no Santa Claus. A unicorn or a mermaid is banned from reality. Such a mind grows up to see the world in the matter-of-fact way and eventually forgets it ever imagined freely.

But, 'consolation from imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation' said Roger Scruton.

How nice it would be to have enough imagination to live in a dream world. That reality may soon be delivered via technology. Amen.

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Imagination has been described as a warehouse managed by a poet and liar. As G.K. Chesterton explained, the function of the imagination is 'not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange'.

Tibetan monks pray before their mandalas to transform them into three-dimensional floating palaces of light. Now something like it may be a technologically enabled reality thanks to AR/VR. With it, mental impulses can transform into a digitalised doppelgänger.

Cyberspace will become a world of controllable illusion. The brain, hungry for illusory sensations, grants them the credibility normally reserved for real experience. In due course, using the software of universal knowledge one could conduct a symphony orchestra, jog on Mars, become of gold or ride a meteor.

Max Frisch felt technology was the knack of so arranging the world that we don't have to experience it. Kierkegaard once asked “What are any of us doing here?" Imagination gives that answer. Reality is an imaginary construct. Realism is in fact a corruption of reality.

"The man who can't visualise a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot,” said André Breton.

In William Golding's novel—The Inheritors—the Neanderthals always say, 'I had a picture.'

The terms 'Show me', ‘You see’ or ‘I see what you mean' indicate a connection between sight and subject. After all, the highest compliment to intellect is for it to be called visionary.

Unless we can visualise something we are unable to think about it. Thoreau said "you can't say more than you see!” Visual thinking is a mental graphic system that operates by rotating, scanning, zooming, panning, dislocating and filling in patterns and contours.

What we really see is actually an upside-down image flipped left to right on the back of our retina, an electrochemical hallucination in the head. Actually visualisation occurs not in the eye but in the theater of the mind.

The following description by Steven Pinker gives us a sense of the triumph of imagination over medium. "When you telephone your mother in another city, the message stays the same as it goes from your lips to her ears even as it physically changes its form, from vibrating air, to electricity in a wire, to charges in silicon, to flickering light in a fibre optic cable, to electromagnetic waves, and then back again in reverse order. In a similar sense, the message stays the same when she repeats it to your father at the other end of the couch after it has changed its form inside her head into a cascade of neurons firing and chemicals diffusing across synapses.”

An extension of visualising is pictorial thinking or imaging which is the ability to conjure up something in the mind's eye, move it around, change it, and make judgements. A capacity which can be externalised by models, drawings, diagrams, and more.

Genius often manifests itself in feats of visualisation. Henry Moore visualised solid shapes and then mentally looked around them to assess weight and volume. Beethoven composed in his imagination even as he was turning deaf. Hans von Bülow, travelling by train from Hamburg to Berlin, read Stanford's Irish Symphony, previously unknown to him, and then conducted it that evening without a score. Nikola Tesla, inventor of the electric motor, designed in his head and was able to instruct his machinists with such accuracy that the components, once assembled, fitted perfectly.

Films of well-loved books are often criticised for altering the storyline and faulty casting.

‘Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes’ is how John le Carre put it. The images seldom match the idealistic pictures in the mind.

Actually, visualisation in such a case is a comment. In his novel Anna Karenina, Tolstoy never actually described what Anna looked like. After establishing that she was beautiful, Tolstoy left the reader to create their own notion of how she was.

Visualisation of ideas is experienced, not deduced. Often, the mental picture arrives fully formed, not by a sequence of thoughts, or analysis and conclusion, but instantly.

Let me list for you a few profound quotes on the subject:

Benoit Mandelbrot - The most important instrument of thought is the eye.

Joseph Joubert - Images have had a great influence on realities.

Arthur Schopenhauer - Every man mistakes the limits of his vision for the limits of the world.

Salvador Dali -To gaze is to think.

Paul Gauguin - I shut my eyes in order to see.

Pad Valery -There is a difference if we see something with a pencil in our hand or without one.

Pablo Picasso - I paint what I know, not what I see.

John Ruskin - Among a hundred men there is one who can think, but only one among a thousand can see.

Jonathan Swift - Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.

Robert Pirsig - Seeing is not believing. Believing is seeing.

Andy Warhol - Isn't life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?

Otis Aicher - Man is a seeing creature who sees with his thoughts and thinks while seeing.

René Descartes - The entire course of our life depends on our senses, of which sight is the most universal and most noble.

Italo Calvino - We live in an unending rainfall of images. The most powerful media transform the world into images and multiply it by means of the phantasmagoric play of minors. Much of this cloud of visual images fades at once, like the dreams that leave no trace in the memory.

Stephen Jay Gould - Primates are visual animals. No other group of mammals relies so strongly on sight. Our attraction to images as a source of understanding is both primal and pervasive.

Claude Monet - Whenever you go out to paint try to forget what objects you have in front of you - a true, a field, or whatever... Merely think, here is a little squeeze of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks the exact colour and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene before you."

I share with you my joy in learning about envisioning, visualisation and by listing several forms that the French have named for us.

Here they are:

Ecremage: Float pigment over an oily liquid and draw a shape on the surface with a stick, or whatever. Drop a sheet of paper on top, and lift off to expose the image it has picked up. A technique which exploits chance to create unpredictable effects.

Decalcomania: Spread ink or paint over a non-absorbent material, such as acetate, porcelain or glass. Cover with paper, massage or rub or draw on the back of the paper, lift to reveal an unpredictable transfer as with ecremage.

Fumage: Create residual and unimaginable effects by passing paper or canvas or a plate over a smoking candle. You could also try a firework!

Froissage: Crumple up paper, smooth it out and immerse in colour inks. The creases absorb the ink and generate haphazard wrinkles, tracks, threads, webs and gossamer.

Coulage: Pour molten metal or hot wax or chocolate into cold water. Watch it solidify into fantastic shapes.

Collage: Assemble and stick down miscellaneous bits and pieces of printed ephemera like tickets or labels, or excerpts cut out of newspapers, magazines and books. The chance factor creates art beyond what you have in hand.

Frottage: Place a sheet of paper on a textured surface, say a plank of wood. Rub over the surface with crayon, pencil or charcoal to achieve bizarre effects.

Montage: Compose scenarios using photographs to create new and unforeseen situations.
Decoupage. Decorate a wall or screen by papering with printed pages. As the patterns created by the juxtaposed subjects are largely random, there is a vague degree of chance involved in the outcome of the overall appearance.

Grattage: Scrape or scratch wet or dry paint to conjure up a magical image.

Au Revoir. Visualise freely.

Shubhranshu Singh is vice president, marketing - domestic & IB, CVBU, Tata Motors. He writes Simply Speaking, a weekly column on Storyboard18. Views expressed are personal.

Note to readers: I'm intrigued by information such as that eight percent of the population is left-handed, that giraffes only sleep five minutes every twenty-four hours and so on which is useless but important! In the eighteenth century, German aristocrats kept glass-fronted cabinets which displayed curios. They called it Wunderkammern. This column is some such thing. In an unmarked field it is easy to wander… I want to open windows to glimpse views rather than a whodunnit or a how-to-do-it. I have a licence to be long or short. To be structured or abrupt. This column has no beginning, middle or end. It's a journey without a destination. Simply speaking...