Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Imagine That!

What Mr. Spock Can Teach Us About Imagination

Mr. Spock reveals much about our powers of imagination.

Posted Jun 21, 2009

Watching the new Star Trek movie reminds us once again that Mister Spock is a master of the imagination. How's that?! Spock, the premier exemplar of logic and reason, imaginative? Indeed! He is in full control of what may be the most important thinking skill in our creative toolbox.

That thinking tool is imaging. Imaging is the ability to recreate sensory impressions and feelings in our minds in the absence of extrinsic or direct physical stimulation from our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, hands or body. Imaging builds upon our ability to observe, explored in our previous post. Our store of imagistic memories depends on how much we have experienced and how well we have learned to perceive the subtle distinctions of life. In a nutshell, what we have observed with any of our senses, we can imagine; what we imagine, we image.

It should come as no surprise that imaging is tied to that larger web of cognitive skills we call imagination. According to the Webster's dictionary, imagination refers to our mental images and conceptions, but also what we can do with those images. The truth is, we are not stuck with our simple impressions of experience or memories of the past. We can alter, combine, synthesize and otherwise manipulate sensory images to form images and ideas of things "never before wholly perceived in reality by the imaginer." We can plan for the future. We can conjure things that do not yet exist or never will. We can make believe. We can take the creative leaps we call scientific hypotheses and artistic visions.

In another post, we made the point that physicist Albert Einstein was a world-class imager, particularly of the visual, aural and kinesthetic sort. Perhaps you've seen on a tee-shirt or a poster somewhere one of his most quoted sayings: "Imagination is more important than knowledge." When it came to his breakthrough thought experiments, this was undoubtedly true. The same reliance on our imaging abilities suffuses art.

Consider, for instance, the mentation involved when poet Stanley Kunitz tells us that "the imagination is a deep-sea diver that rakes the bottom of the poet's mind and dredges up sleeping images...." (1) In order to tell us about the writer imaging, Kunitz asks us, in effect, to image. In your mind's eye conjure these things: See a deep-sea diver. See her rake. See the sea, the bottom of the sea. See the diver raking up visual impressions, but also sounds, tastes, smells, feelings, the flicker of candlelight, the stolidity of an tree--all these and more, like so many clams or anemones. These images are the building blocks of our thoughts, before we have words to preserve them and to communicate them to others.

Most people are aware of a spoken stream of consciousness that accompanies their waking moments. Many are also aware of their non-verbal mentation, Kunitz's "sleeping images" in the mind's deep. In researching Sparks of Genius, we came across innumerable artists, writers, scientists, and inventors referring to this pre-verbal imaging as the site of insight and inspiration. It seemed reasonable to conclude that very successful thinkers access this terrain as regularly as they can: in day dreams, night dreams and other relaxed, yet meditative states. For Kunitz (left), this ocean of images is, in fact, where a poem begins, "even before it is ready to change into language...." (2)

Creative individuals rely on imaging for primary thoughts. Only later do they find other means of expression. Einstein spoke explicitly of a secondary step, which in his case involved transforming his visual, aural and kinesthetic images into mathematical descriptions of reality. That translation process can be hard work. Poets and writers spend years learning to communicate publicly what they have privately imaged, to say in words "what cannot be said in words," as the novelist Ursula LeGuin has put it. (3) LeGuin's paradox is a real one. The poet, the novelist, the physicist or, for that matter, your very best friend may search long and hard for the right words (or other symbols) to convey what they see or hear or feel in the mind. But none can ever be sure that these words (or other symbols) reconstruct the same image in your mind or the minds of others.

The imprecise nature of communication has led some individuals to yearn for a direct imaging device. Such a device would allow them to bypass the difficult translation process. The writer Margaret Drabble, for instance, has imagined a machine for recording her dream images, so that she might retrace the narratives as she first experienced them. Likewise the inventor Nikola Tesla believed that one day "it should be possible to project on a screen the image of any object one conceives and make it visible." (4) By his own admission he "devoted much thought to the solution of the problem" - presumably by imaging!

It is tempting to speculate that recent advances in virtual reality projections and other neuro-technologies may be leading us, eventually, in the direction Tesla envisioned. Consider the cutting edge research which will allow paralyzed individuals to think movements which prosthetic devices and other machines can carry out for them.

For the time being, however, we're stuck with language and other manufactured translations such as the visual and plastic arts, music, dance, scientific graphing and modeling and mathematics to pass on our imaging to others. That's not such a bad tradeoff. And we can still dream--which brings us back to Spock.

In Star Trek lore the Vulcan species of humanoid (of which Mr. Spock is, of course, a member) can directly access (most) other minds via the mind-meld, a make-believe "technique for sharing thoughts, experiences, memories and knowledge with another individual." (5) Spock strategically places his fingertips on the face of another individual and directly experiences their imagining mind as if it were his own. If only we could do the same!

In some ways we're not that far off. What is really amazing about our imaging imaginations is that we can feel-intuit-know what Mr. Spock is doing when he performs a mind-meld, even though none of us can actually do it -- at least not directly! Indirectly, of course, we are all already adept at mind-melding, to the extent that when we read, for example, we try to recreate in our minds sounds, sights, smells, tastes and feelings we sense in the minds of the characters and authors we attend to. We try to imagine. We try to understand.

What Mr. Spock and his mind-meld reminds us of is that imaging - and imagination - truly is at one with knowledge.

© Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein 2009

1. Cited in Robert Campbell. (October 1, 2000). God, Man and Whale (review of The Collected Poems by Stanley Kunitz). New York Times Book Review, p. 16.
2. Ibid.
3. Ursula LeGuin. 1976. Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books.
4. Cited in Robert & Michele Root-Bernstein. 1999. Sparks of Genius (Boston: Houghton Mifflin), pp 66-67.
5. ‘Vulcan (Star Trek)', Wikipedia, retrieved June 16, 2009 from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulcan_(Star_Trek)>.

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