Imagination is intrinsic to our inner lives. You could even say that it makes up a ‘second universe’ inside our heads.
Contrary to this interpretation, I want to suggest that imagination, properly understood, is one of the earliest human abilities, not a recent arrival. Thinking and communicating are vastly improved by language, it is true. But ‘thinking with imagery’ and even ‘thinking with the body’ must have preceded language by hundreds of thousands of years. It is part of our mammalian inheritance to read, store and retrieve emotionally coded representations of the world, and we do this via conditioned associations, not propositional coding.
Lions on the savanna, for example, learn and make predictions because experience forges strong associations between perception and feeling. Animals appear to use images (visual, auditory, olfactory memories) to navigate novel territories and problems. For early humans, a kind of cognitive gap opened up between stimulus and response – a gap that created the possibility of having multiple responses to a perception, rather than one immediate response. This gap was crucial for the imagination: it created an inner space in our minds. The next step was that early human brains began to generate information, rather than merely record and process it – we began to create representations of things that never were but might be. On this view, imagination extends back into the Pleistocene, at least, and likely emerged slowly in our Homo erectus cousins.
The imagination, then, is a layer of mind above purely behaviourist stimulus-and-response, but below linguistic metaphors and propositional meaning.
The imagination – whether pictorial or later linguistic – is especially good at emotional communication, and this might have evolved because emotional information drives action and shapes adaptive behaviour. We have to remember that the imagination itself started as an adaptation in a hostile world, among social primates, so perhaps it is not surprising that a good storyteller, painter or singer can manipulate my internal second universe by triggering counterfactual images and events in my mind that carry an intense emotional charge. Fantasy that really moves us – whether it is high or low culture – tends to resonate with our ancient fears and hopes. The associational mind of hot cognition – located more in the limbic system – acts as a reservoir for imaginative artists. Artists such as Edgar Allan Poe, Salvador Dalí, Edvard Munch and H R Giger can take controlled voyages to their primitive brain (an uncontrolled voyage is madness), and then bring these unconscious forces into their subsequent images or stories.
Similarly, evolution built a crude imaginative faculty before language and culture refined it into a sophisticated one. The raw system (dominated by emotional and perceptual associations) is still alive and well in the basement of our psychology.