Human existence perennially oscillates on two different planes, that of reality (which manifests itself through direct participation in physically tangible events) and that of subjectivity (which results from the way each individual lives his or her inner world). That is, between perception and imagination.

While there is a clear boundary between the two, we cannot deny that there are certain points of contact: what we imagine tends to come from events experienced in the past, while a host of realities were first conceived in a restless mind.

The ability to create mental scenarios is a characteristic of our species, and one that allows it to transcend the limitations imposed by nature to discover strategies from which to benefit, even though at times this has meant harm to the planet.

In this article we will go into detail about the phenomenon of imagination and its functions . Likewise, we will delve into those everyday areas in which it plays a key role, with the aim of exemplifying its scope in our lives.

Imagination: what is it and what is it for?

Imagination is the ability to create, at a cognitive level, images (or scenes) that are not present in the perceptive field of the person who articulates them , and can be spiced up by the inclusion of elements evoked in any sensory modality. In this way it is possible to reproduce situations from the past that not only involve visual content, but also the sensations that accompanied them (positive and negative). It also allows to explore intangible ideas or concepts, and even to combine them to generate new products that never existed or were not directly experienced.

In this sense, two subtypes of imagination can be distinguished, the reproductive one (simple evocation of the past, deformed by the passage of time and by the limitations of storage in the memory) and the productive one (mental construction of new contents from the amalgamation of lived experiences). This phenomenon also includes the well-known counterfactual thoughts, that is, the hypothetical formulation of alternative scenarios through which to illustrate how life could have been if a certain peak moment of it had been different (a different decision, for example).

Because imagining is a habitual activity in human beings . Thanks to it we consider possibilities and conditions (which often begin with a “what if”) that are the essence of creative or divergent thinking; from which the advance of technology, science and art is made possible.

From the very drafting of a research hypothesis to the creation of a plastic or literary work, all of them have an imaginative element of enormous magnitude that shapes the artistic and scientific legacy of humanity . Even the stories, tales and mythologies of each culture, which have a moralising objective and serve to provide the community with a substratum of identity, were born and nourished by this symbolic capacity.

Parts of the brain involved

Imagination is a very demanding function at the level of cognitive resources , and for this reason it has only been described in a very limited number of mammals (among which the human animal stands out exceptionally). When a person’s brain is observed during a task in which he or she must imagine, an intense activation of the occipital cortex (related to the visual processing of information), the parietal cortex (which integrates sensory perception), the frontal lobe (the seat of the capacity to reflect on objective/abstract things) and the pre-cuneus (also known as the "mind’s eye" and in charge of dimensions linked to self-awareness) can be appreciated.

The faculty of imagination is so powerful for the human being that it motivates a response within the brain very similar to the one that would be appreciated in the case that the fact was really happening in front of him. When it is distorted in a pathological way (e.g., generalized anxiety disorder), it becomes threatening to our ancient limbic structures, on which emotional regulation in the face of danger depends. This is why an adverse imagination bombards the physiological resources for the management of stress and affect , which is particularly harmful if metacognition (the ability to differentiate what is true from what are mental products) is diluted, as happens in psychotic disorders.

Processes involving the use of imagination

Below are the seven most important processes in which we use our imagination. Dreams will be excluded from this list, as they are considered an involuntary expression of it, in order to focus only on the cases in which it is used in a deliberate way (through the activity of the prefrontal cortex). As we will see, this is an elemental and omnipresent cognitive phenomenon in human activity.

1. Remembrance

The simple evocation of a memory implies the use of imagination , since a scene that is not present in the immediate moment is transferred to the consciousness. Such a process has a very important reconstructive component, since the information that was originally attended to loses its details with time, preserving only the general outline of the stimulus. The elements that cannot be accessed (due to the effects of conventional forgetfulness or because they were not filtered into the consciousness) are complemented by the individual’s subjective contribution; this usually leads to deformations, errors and inaccuracies.

Through the imagination it is plausible to elicit scenes and/or situations that never really happened, and for these to intrude on real memories by blurring them. This is an extreme example of how the contents that we create with our own mind can interfere with the internal experience, even to the point of living as a piece of an artificial past.

2. Predicting future events

The imagination is not only directed towards events that happened in the past, but also towards those that are about to happen . In this case, the imagination aims to create a range of potentialities based on previous experiences.

Expectations and desires, which have inescapable emotional nuances, play a role when designing a prediction; but probabilistic and logical foundations also come into play, bringing together the available information and knowledge about the variables involved in the estimate (cause/effect experience of what has already been lived).

3. Predicting your own reactions and planning what to do

Imagination participates in processes such as problem solving, planning and/or prospective memory; all associated with the activity of the prefrontal cortex. It implies a step beyond the previously mentioned and includes the performance itself within a foreseen scenario. It has the purpose of facilitating an adequate adaptation to the environment; including the anticipation of contingencies, the sequence of coping strategies to face them and the development of a method through which to respond to a threat.

4. Creativity

Creativity implies a style of reflection and unconventional thinking, which has also been coined as divergent. As its name suggests, it involves the creation of new ideas using as raw material concepts or procedures that already existed previously, but were used in a linear fashion by most individuals. As a result, a new knowledge is obtained that transcends the previous one , and that is more useful or efficient in its application to real life. This form or style of information processing has its fundamental ally in the imagination, because without it it is unviable.

Creativity has been related to patterns of thought that require a particular interhemispheric connection . The degree or level of complexity that has been observed in human beings is not reproduced in any other animal species, and may be one of the elements that have contributed to our position on this planet being (for better or worse) what it is.

5. Emotional changes

Imagination can be used, in the field of psychotherapy, as a tool with which to induce positive emotional states or soften the negatives that hold the subject back. There are a number of procedures that make use of it, and which fall under the general label of “visualization” .

For its application the therapist must use evocative words, and that these translate into the mental creation of multisensory content by the patient (visual, auditory, taste, etc.), which require modifications in the internal experience.

In general, the “instructions” offered seek to generate relaxing scenes that relieve emotional tension, facilitate experiences that contribute to overcoming a fear (exposure to fear in imagination), increase confidence with respect to a task (creative visualization of oneself practicing an action, especially in the field of sports) or coordinate diaphragmatic breathing activity using a support device (a boat that rocks gently on the horizon and helps regulate the cadence of inspiration/expiration). In case the person finds it difficult to imagine, previous training may be necessary .

6. Avoidance or enjoyment

The imagination can also be used to recreate a memory that has already happened, or to build a desired scene that (for whatever reason) is not accessible on the level of individual reality. This would translate into the colloquial expression “daydreaming” and would be fertile ground for those who yearn for a “change” in the dynamics of their daily lives. Other people resort to imagination only because through it they access moments of enormous emotional depth that were part of their lives (due to the presence of a loved one and the nostalgia of a time that will not return).

In certain cases, the imagination can be used in moments of existential difficulty, as the mechanism through which the evasion of reality is possible. The aim in such cases is to generate a positive and reinforcing experience when life itself becomes hostile or unbearable. In such a way, one resorts to imagined thoughts with a playful or compensatory purpose , enriching the memories that are treasured when the circumstances of the present do not allow full satisfaction. Finally, boys and girls also use their imagination “playfully” when interacting with their peers, and more particularly in what we know as symbolic play.

7. Creating a self-image

People use their imagination in order to forge a concrete meaning for themselves in relation to their social ties and the goals they seek to achieve. In this sense, it is perhaps the “ideal self” that holds the most notable connections with the imagination, understood as the model or guide of behavior to which we aspire. People nurture the ideal self with numerous and disparate attributes, followed by behaviour that aims to reduce the distance between this self and the “real self” (resulting in a better or worse self-esteem). It is for this reason that the imagination indirectly influences how we live and how we value ourselves , mediating its effects through the fulfillment of expectations.

Bibliographic references:

  • Gendler, T. (2002). Review: The Work of the Imagination. Mind, 111, 414-418.
  • Faranda, F. (2016). Image and Imagination: Deepening Our Experience of the Mind. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 36(8), 74-77.