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Does Vivid Imagination Help “Explain” Consciousness?

A popular science magazine struggles to make the case

Vivid imagination makes creative people lively:

“because when you are imagining you might as well imagine something worth while” – from the “fiercely imaginative” Anne in Anne of Green Gables

Some neuroscientists think that people like Anne have “hyperphantasia” and that they are helping to explain consciousness:

To summon an image in your mind’s eye is to evoke the appearance of something that isn’t there. That is an amazing ability, when you think about it. If our consciousness of the world around us is one of the most astonishing phenomena under scientific investigation, then our ability to imagine the world in the absence of any external stimuli is equally, if not more, impressive.

Arguably, our powers of imagination explain above all else why our species has come to dominate the planet. And although there is more to imagination than imagery, it is a significant component of our internal experiences, giving us a nifty way to recall the past and simulate the future.

Daniel Cossins, “People with extreme imagination are helping explain consciousness” at New Scientist

Imagination is a power of abstraction, sometimes turned to the task of taking observations from the existing world and constructing and conveying a story in words and images—or an entire world that exists only in the imagination (for example, Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings). To understand imagination, we need to understand the origin of abstraction, a uniquely human quality, as Michael Egnor observes,

What animals cannot do is communicate using abstractions. They cannot use designators,—words employed abstractly as language. For example, a dog can be trained, by reward and punishment, to stay when told, “Stay!” He associates the sound “s-t-a-y” with a behavior and performs the behavior. But he doesn’t know what you mean when you say “Let’s stay a bit longer on the beach,” “He extended his stay in Peru,” or “The judge issued a stay of the eviction order.”

Animals can only think concretely. Their thought is of particulars—the particular bowl of food, thrown stick, or warm bed. They don’t contemplate nutrition, exercise, or rest. Humans can think abstractly, without any particular physical object in mind. For example, a vet might tell her client during an office visit, “Tuffy here needs to lose about 1.5 kg. I suggest a lower calorie kibble and more exercise—if possible, before bedtime.” She can explain it to her client but not to the dog because it’s all abstractions about times, places, things, and concepts. Of course, he might recognize his name, “Tuffy,” and raise his ears slightly to see if he is being told to do something concrete.

The real reason why only human beings speak” at Mind Matters News

It is no dispraise of Tuffy to say that he does not have imagination or the power to abstract. To understand why human beings do have such a power, we must accept the existence of abstract thought as a unique, actual quality of the human mind, or as Egnor puts it, an “immaterial aspect of the human soul.”

Vivid imaginations don’t explain human consciousness (or the ability to abstract); they are one of its characteristics.

Although that explanation sheds light, it goes against everything that New Scientist, a representative example of popular science culture, stands for. It is much safer to propose that objects are somehow conscious or that human consciousness doesn’t really exist, that it is a material thing, or that its qualities are widespread in the animal kingdom (for example, we are told that wasps can reason). This approach is pervasive, even though such propositions are most unpromising in a materialist setting, as is the whole field of consciousness studies in general.

The second short film in the Science Uprising series, “No, You’re Not Robot made of Meat,” mocks this prejudice explicitly:

Chances are, we will see many more attempts to pin human consciousness, including the power of abstraction, on one of its many aspects, like imagination. So many theories await their turn in the brief limelight because, as philosopher Jerry Fodor (1935–2017) put it, “the alternatives seem even worse.” Worse, that is for materialism; not for the facts about the human mind.

See also: Science Uprising: Stop ignoring evidence for the existence of the human mind! Materialism enables irrational ideas about ourselves to compete with rational ones on an equal basis. It won’t work


Does brain stimulation research challenge free will? Michael Egnor looks at immaterial qualities of the human mind.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Toronto, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist'€™s Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Does Vivid Imagination Help “Explain” Consciousness?