How Imagination Shapes Your Reality
A growing body of research supports what spiritual contemplatives have known for Millennia—that the human capacity for imagination not only shapes our minds but also weaves the fabric of reality itself.
Do you have a lemon in your kitchen? Put this magazine down for a moment, go cut the fruit in half, and squeeze some juice into your mouth. Notice how you react.
Don’t have a lemon? Try this little thought experiment: Imagine that you have one. Picture yourself slicing through the bright yellow rind, exposing the translucent fruit inside. See yourself holding it up, squeezing it, and letting a stream of tart juice splash onto your tongue. Can you feel yourself puckering and salivating—not in your mind’s eye, but in “real life”?
Western thinkers have tended to draw a line between reality—that which we “actually” experience—and imagination, seen as a frivolous, dreamlike diversion. For millennia, though, spiritual contemplatives and artists have taken flights of fancy much more seriously and challenged the firmness of that line. And surprising recent advances in neuroscience, particularly in the field of brain scanning, have added support to their conviction that our imagination and sense of reality are closely intertwined.
In some ways this is obvious. Back in 1928, the sociologists W. I. Thomas and D. S. Thomas conceived of what became known as the Thomas theorem, which states, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” My college sociology professor put it this way: If we believe that little green goblins are hiding in the woods and we change our route to avoid them, then our fantasy has affected our experience.
That may seem like an extreme example, but imagination plays a very real role in our decision making. Just look at the last two US presidential elections, in which one big chunk of the electorate managed to view Barack Obama as a radical socialist, while another saw him as a moderate saint. Both views are heavily based on myth, but they had a real-life effect on how people voted.
Political races are hardly the only arena in which we project goblins into our daily lives. Too often humanity is ruled by superstitions, stereotypes, and tribal prejudices—resulting in all-too-real suffering, violence, and war. The folly of these antagonisms became especially clear when human beings made the first journey into space and saw that the supposedly entrenched divisions between countries were just imaginary lines on a map. As Frank Borman, commander of the Apollo 8 mission, put it, “When you’re finally up at the moon looking back on Earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend, and you’re going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world, and why the hell can’t we learn to live together like decent people?”
YOUR BRAIN ON IMAGINATION
Our mind can run away with us, leading us to act through suspicion or fear, but we can also use our imagination as a tool to change our life—a process we’re beginning to understand through advances in neuroscience.
For centuries, we have envisioned two separate areas of the brain: one that processes the evidence gathered by our senses, and one that spins off into gauzy daydreams. Functional magnetic resonance imaging has helped us understand that these two functions are not as distinct as they seem.
Using fMRI scans, researchers like V. S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, have found that the same cells in the brain light up whether we perform an action ourselves or watch someone else do it—which might explain why some of us find action movies so exciting. But these “mirror neurons” aren’t activated just by the things we see. The effect also occurs when we simply imagine ourselves performing the action.
As a novelist and writing teacher, I have long told my students that vivid writing lights up the brain. Recently, I was excited to learn that this is not just a metaphor. In a New York Times article titled “Your Brain on Fiction,” the science writer Annie Murphy Paul surveyed fMRI studies that show that reading about sensory stimuli or physical actions activates the same brain areas that process real-life experiences.
When you read about that lemon at the beginning of this essay, you were activating the same region that would have been turned on if you had actually tasted the juice. There’s more. “There is evidence,” continues Paul, “that just as the