The Embodiment of Your Imagination
How peak creativity requires your heart & body, not just your mind
Any time I’m stuck for ideas, I go out for a walk. I have friends whose preferred incubators are a warm tub, a sink full of dishes, or a lawn that needs mowing. Most people consider the imagination a function of our minds — so why are our bodies so indispensable to igniting our creativity?
In the scheme of human history, even the concept of the imagination is new. Only in about the last 300 years have people gotten serious about identifying the source of human creativity. Before then, it was taken for granted that ideas and inspiration came directly from the gods, and our heads were virtually uninvolved.
In fact, the word inspiration comes from the Latin word inspīrāre, which means to breathe in or on. Until the Middle Ages, inspiration was what happened when a god or other divine being breathed an idea into you[i]. This was true whether inspiration was scripture and prophecies or poetry or other arts.
Socrates, for instance, was quoted by Plato as saying, “I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.”[ii]
Even practical innovations that today we call inventions — from writing and musical instruments to weaving or how to work metal — were credited to the gods.[iii] One breath of inspiration might’ve told an oracle who’d win a pending battle, and another might suggest a way to harden iron into steel. The imagination was seen largely as the ability to catch that divine breath, the equivalent of an ear that catches sounds.
The imagination was rarely seen as within our control.
Where was this receptive organ?
While ears that hear are pretty obvious, where, in the human body was the imagination? Even today, artists and innovators often experience ideas as being received, like anonymous texts, from outside. The ancients assumed that, as with our usual five senses, the imagination was based in some particularly active organ. Where was it?
This question wasn’t simple to answer in part because it took humans so long to develop a theory of mind at all. For centuries, religious scholars, philosophers, and the earliest medical doctors struggled to define the imagination or separate it from other ways to think, such as remembering, solving a puzzle, making a decision, or longing for a distant love. Arguments about such mental capacities were hugely complicated by the difficulties of translating words with meanings and associations that varied from one language and culture to the next.[iv]
For instance, the ancient Greeks had at least a half-dozen different words we might translate now as “mind” but also could represent concepts such as spirit or soul. Sometimes they used these words in discussing human reactions or motivations that today we’d associate with emotions or willpower, desires, or even character traits like honesty or loyalty.[v] The Greeks didn’t seem to distinguish clearly between these faculties, which today we separate and understand very differently. They didn’t even use their terms consistently themselves.[vi]
This makes it harder for us to be sure that, when we talk about historical concepts of the imagination, we’re all talking about the same thing. It’s clear, though, that at first all the ways our minds work were lumped together. Cognitive activities were only gradually segregated and labelled.
Artists and innovators often experience ideas as being received, like anonymous texts, from outside.
Honing in on the mind- wherever that was
One of the first divisions was the distinction between “base” desires or impulses and more lofty capacities such as loyalty or intelligent problem-solving. These latter abilities were viewed as a critical distinction between animals and humans (and frequently between dullards and heroes, too). Since most of these capacities seemed to be missing from our animal friends, they were attributed mainly to another key difference — our conscious minds.
Both the ancient Hebrews and Greek philosopher Aristotle located the thinking part of us near our hearts.[vii] Aristotle thought the brain was “a mere cooling organ,” a sort of air-conditioner for our bodies. [viii] Just before him, Plato had argued that what we today might consider our imaginations was located somewhere in our abdomens — where our feelings and desires churned during the day and, in particular, where the gods planted dreams at night.[ix]
Others argued that the mysterious ability to think, defy our animal instincts, or imagine had something to do with our livers, lungs, spleens, or other internal organs.[x] You can see relics of this thinking in phrases we still use today, such as when describing someone brave who has “guts” or someone cowardly as “lily-livered.” Despite the primacy of images in imagining, however, nobody seems to have placed this ability in our eyes. That’s probably because most people didn’t believe animals, who also have eyes, could think or imagine.
Aristotle located the thinking part of us near our hearts.
The brain as a catch-all
As a result, Western notions about human minds began fuzzy. Once we’d narrowed it down to our unusually big brains, philosophers and early doctors began separating different ways of thinking, such as reason, memory, emotion, speculation, and creativity. They attempted to locate each separately in the brain. Still, the definitions were often blurred (and sometimes still are). The Latin root word for imagination, for instance, imāginātiō, was once used broadly to include memory or any activity that summoned mental images.
Sensory memories are a critical raw material for the imagination, but we can typically summon memories at will. Up until about 500 years ago, on the other hand, the imagination was rarely seen as within our control. If it wasn’t a tuning fork for the gods, it was the workshop of demons.
Only as the grip of Western theocracies waned, with science and secular governments slowly taking their place, have humans largely (though not entirely) abandoned the idea of divine or demonic inspiration to take credit for innovations ourselves. Accordingly, it’s only in the last century or so that scientists — mainly psychologists and neurologists — have given the imagination much specific attention and tried to separate creative thought from other cognitive functions.
Developing brain science
Frankly, those experts haven’t gotten very far, but we’ve identified some hallmarks of the imaginative frame of mind. These include a relaxed mind or one lulled into a mildly altered state by activities such as meditation, repetitive motions such as walking, or the slide into sleep. Without getting into the intricacies, this frame of mind is often associated with theta brainwaves.
Creative bursts associated with brain illnesses such as frontotemporal dementia also provide tantalizing clues. So does dream research, which suggests that calming the analytical censorship of our prefrontal lobes helps to unleash the imagination. Alternate theories abound.
The heart’s passion is a key ingredient in innovation.
Get out of your head and into your heart, guts, and skin
We do know that the kind of analytical thinking that tries to slip the imagination under a microscope is antithetical to engaging it. So there’s practical value in thinking less about the imagination and embracing older perspectives that instead placed it in the body.
The heart’s passion, for instance, is a crucial ingredient in artistic and scientific innovation. The courage to be wrong but persist is often required. Courage, as its etymology implies, also has long been placed in the heart, which thus helps power the imagination.
Similarly, creativity often demands dedication. Whether you place determination in a strong stomach, girded loins, or nerves of steel, these other bodily locations can also have a role in imaginative work.
Finally, imagination depends on the senses, even for the most abstract scientific insights. It would be challenging to spawn new ideas and theories without the memory of sensations or the ability to draw analogies to bodily experience. So you could say the imagination also has an outpost in the ears, nose, taste buds, and skin.
A more holistic approach
Western society has spent roughly the last 400 years dividing and segregating our world, and our sense of ourselves, into parts (and increasingly dismissing nonmaterial elements such as the spirituality that once took dictation from gods). The imagination, however, is by nature, integrative. One fundamental way it functions is by recombining disparate elements to create something new. Perhaps it’s time we honored that holistic operation.
Effective creativity is a full-body activity.
Want to stimulate your imagination? Feed your senses instead. Get out of your head, stir your emotions, engage your muscles to do something brave. Most of the latest research indicates that creativity flourishes when a period of determined preparation is followed by a break in which the brain can freely make new connections among the raw materials it’s stored. That’s the time to go out for a walk, take a hot shower, whack at weeds in the garden, or engage in whatever similar activity does it for you. It’s then, while our bodies are mildly occupied and our minds can wander that the “Eureka!” moments come.
Typically, such insights have to be followed with more work refining and executing the new idea — when a bold heart and girded loins prove useful. So at least two of these three stages of creativity draw heavily on our whole selves.
In short, imagination may be based mostly in our brains, but effective creativity is a full-body activity. A brain in a jar might still have ideas but wouldn’t do much with them. Give due credit to your imagination’s supporting organs to better realize your creative potential.
Joni Sensel writes for Fortune 100 companies, young readers, and you amid work on a social history of the imagination. Read more from her on Medium:
Tug on Your Reader’s Instincts
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[i] Smith 112, among many
[ii] Plato, Apology, Sec. 21
[iii] Moon 24
[iv] Egan 5, Dhivan 51
[v] Jaynes 257
[vi] Bundy 13–14, Jaynes 259–260
[vii] Schechter 255–256, Jaynes 45
[vii] Jaynes 45
[ix] Quincy 522
[x] Jaynes 257–260, Snell 137, 301, Kearney 103–106
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__. “Ion.” Plato Unmasked: The Dialogues Made New. Trans. By Keith Quincy. Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington U Press, 2003.
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