Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” ― Albert Einstein
Lately, I’ve been noticing how I use my imagination. At my home, we’ve been getting a lot of snow. And for the first time in a long time, I’ve had to dig my way out just to get to work. In the last storm, the snow accumulation was a good 7–8" and some of my small plants in my front yard were completely buried. My garden boxes were completely buried. I knew I’d be digging my way out for work on Wednesday. I was already starting to imagine the depth of the snow.
But on Wednesday, the plows were late and I got my car stuck. I should have taken a walk out there to see how deep the snow really was, or at the least, I should have taken the SUV. My neighbors helped me get my car back in the driveway and I took the SUV to get to work later. I had never used it until that day, and found I that 4 wheel drive really works. I was able to track up the driveway without even any digging when I returned home.
And we had snow again all Wednesday night. That night, I found myself imagining how I was going to clear the driveway the next day. My driveway has a slope to it, so the plan was to use a shovel to push the snow down to the bottom of my driveway and then clear the driveway snow with the 2-foot berm left from the plow to one side of the driveway. Once I had a hole big enough for a vehicle to leave, I was gone.
In all of that time, I was imagining how I was going to dig it out. I had planned the process in my head. I finished early because I had used my imagination to plan the work. But there is something else. I noticed that I was using my imagination each and every time my shovel was empty. I was using my imagination to plan my next scoop. With each scoop, I imagined the next, and the next, until it was done.
Later that day, I was playing ping pong with my wife. I noticed that I was imagining how I was going to hit the ball. I was flashing on videos I’ve seen on YouTube about how to properly slice the paddle through the air. That night, I was working on my backhand. I was working on closing the face of the paddle, making it face down more, towards the table and still hitting the ball to the other side of the table.
I began refining my stroke and with each stroke, I was reviewing that video in my head, only briefly, as I tried to make my stroke match what I was seeing. I was using my imagination and memory to help my body perform better. I found that as I closed the face of my paddle down towards the table, the harder I could hit the ball and keep it on the table.
I have a mildly photographic memory, and I think we all do. Long ago, long before I met my wife, I had an interesting encounter with that part of my memory. I had chatted up a nice young lady one day, and got her phone number. In those days we didn’t have smart phones. So I wrote her number down on a scrap of paper and told her that I would call her around noon the next day.
When noon rolled around, I got to a phone booth to make the call. Then I reached into my pocket and found…no paper. I had quarters, but no paper. So I closed my eyes and recalled myself writing the number down and read what I wrote. Then I made the call. This is a part of the imagination. It’s not just creating something out of nothing, imagination is the process of simulating an alternate reality in the mind.
Here is the kicker: we are always creating reality in our own minds. Always.
There is an interesting chap down in Irvine, California. He goes by the name of Donald Hoffman, and he’s a professor at the University of California, Irvine. I can’t recall exactly how I found him, but I started watching his videos and interviews on YouTube and I found myself enamored with his ideas. He calls our perception of reality, “The Interface Model of Reality”.
According to Hoffman, we devote 1/3 of our brain to vision. Brains are expensive to build and to maintain. And our brains are “constructing reality” whenever we look “out there”. Our sensory perception of reality is limited. We only perceive just enough to live long enough to reproduce. That’s it. The rest of reality is ignored.
Now to put this in perspective. Our ears hear a tiny fraction of the sounds in a room. Our eyes see a tiny sliver of light in a room. Dogs smell things with greater sensitivity than us because they need that perception for their survival. As humans became more civilized, more “domesticated”, we lost some of our audio, visual and olfactory perception. Hoffman also notes that historical studies of skulls have shown that over the last 20,000 years, humans have lost about a fistful of brain volume.
So what are we doing with our big, beautiful brains? Hoffman says that we create “interfaces” that make it easy for us to interpret our surroundings. He draws an analogy with a computer. When you see an icon on your computer desktop that is a Word document, well, that’s not the document. The document is really a series of magnetic fields on a hard disk. To interpret those magnetic fields so that you could read the file would require years of study. From the disk format, to the file format, to the words in the file, to presentation on the screen. The computer is designed to offer a human readable “interface” that allows us to make sense of that information.
Our brains are designed to make a sort of sketch of reality. If we could see everything we’d be quickly overwhelmed and, we’d be a bit lower on the food chain. If we tried to understand everything about the face of a predator before responding, we might not live long enough to draw a conclusion. So we work something out fast, and we move faster. We ignore the rest.
Our brains construct a reality based on sensory input. Our brains are imagining what is “out there” all of the time. To the extent that our brains are right, is the extent of our survival.