There are many things that can help boost your brain power, but I’ve come to believe that imagination is the most important of them. Our imaginations are amazing things, they allow us to have thoughts that stretch not only beyond things that we’ve seen or experienced ourselves but sometimes beyond what anyone has ever seen or experienced. They are like an invisible arm that allows us to stretch out into the unknown and reach for new ideas and new ways of seeing the world. It was imagination that allowed Albert Einstein to unlock the secret of space-time, a fundamental truth about our universe that is so counter-intuitive to our everyday experience that we’d probably never have realised it through our senses alone. In fact, in one of his more famous quotations, Einstein himself said that imagination is more important than knowledge, as its infinite.
All other aspects of our thinking are finite and constrained by experience, but its imagination that allows us to reach beyond our own limited experiences. Imagination also seems to emerge out of the non-conscious part of our minds. It feeds on our memories, and all the things we’ve previously learned and mixes them up in new ways. Even if we can’t consciously recall something, its still there feeding into our imaginations. If you think about dreams, they are completely constructed from your memories, mixed up in new ways. Sometimes old memories even pop up in your dreams that you’d forgotten about. Even things you never paid much attention to at the time – a nuance in someone’s facial expression, a background detail, a pattern in someone’s behaviour or piece of music – can all be accessed by imagination, and sometimes our dreams even help draw our attention to these things. So imagination seems to have access to parts of our brains that are often out of reach to our conscious thinking.
The ability of our imaginations to see patterns in things we’ve experienced can be a crucial key to our problem-solving abilities. Many scientists have had breakthroughs in solving tough problems by paying attention to ideas that came to them in dreams or day-dreams. Obviously art of all forms comes from the imagination, but it’s surprising how often artists say that ideas simply seem to drop into their minds fully formed. It’s almost like our imagination works on creating things, or solving problems then when its finished it simply hands them over to our conscious brain to do with as we will! So when is our imagination working on these problems? Who knows, perhaps all the time. Our non-conscious imagination is like a personal assistant working on solving problems whilst we get on with our everyday tasks. We don’t have to strain to use our imaginations, its not hard work. We just need to feed them, then trust them to do the job.
So our imaginations have access to memories and are able to perceive patterns and solve problems that our conscious thinking often can’t. Our imagination has the ability to think in different ways. Whilst our everyday, non-imagination thinking can feed in information from our feelings, when you take imagination out of the picture, what you are left with is our best attempt at logical thinking, based on our always-limited knowledge. Sometimes this can lead us astray, often it is just plain inadequate. Also, much of the time it just gives us a poor attempt at the type of ‘calculations’ that computers can do way better than us. Using imagination brings in lateral thinking, going beyond logical thinking (although it can also draw upon logical thinking too).
Lastly, imagination is particularly powerful as it works with our visual sense. We Humans are very visual creatures, a large part of our brains are dedicated to visual processing. This makes visualisation – seeing images that we create in our ‘mind’s eye’ – a particularly powerful way to think. Just as imagination has great access to memory, it can also draw upon the power of our visual processing. Many of the brain-boosting techniques that I write about on this site – memory boosting, goal-setting, image-streaming – rely directly on our visual imagination. We are processing visual information continuously throughout our waking days, so it’s not surprising that our brains would be particularly powerful at this.
So what does all this mean? How can we use this information? Firstly, practising your ability to visualise things as clearly as possible can be very useful if you are using the brain-boosting techniques I just mentioned. Secondly, try bringing your imagination more into your everyday thinking. For example, try to see things from different perspectives, or try to combine ideas from areas that are usually kept completely separate from one another. Remember that the best, most surprising solutions to problems are often ones that at first sound ridiculous, so don’t be afraid if your ideas sound silly at first. Of course you still need to expose them to rational, logical thinking at some point, but let them develop a little first. Lastly, I think we can expect even more brain-boosting techniques to be invented in the future that draw upon our imaginations. So any practice you do to boost your imagination could also be great preparation for future techniques.