ON IMAGINATION – and the power to make things right.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on June 9, 2014

J. Ritter photo

Logic will get you from A to Z; but imagination will get you everywhere.”

― Albert Einstein



I have always been partial to fairytales and science fiction because they helped me explore lands that I could only dream of, until, as a young child, I realized that I often dreamed of them while awake, and that I had the power to make entire worlds come alive in my head. So I have always been interested in imagination and the internal realms that it helps to bridge. To imagine is to see beyond the limits of what reality imposes. It is to move outside of the container of our world and play with possibilities of what could be. But being a psychoanalyst, what is most interesting to me about imagination is that it allows us to make things right, or as Walt Disney said, imagination restores order. I believe he was talking about restoring a personal order, taking what has happened in our lives and might continue to be present in our internal world, and making sense of it anew. Imagination helps us to make things right in the same way that fairy tales help us in the processing of trauma: it gives us a vehicle within which we can visualize and think of a different ending and other possibilities, as well as rehearse and invent ourselves in different ways. Fairytales do this through their narrative and story, when someone else’s imagination captures ours. But with the use of imagination it can all happen inside our head, putting us in charge of the narrative, the characters, the action. I think Walt Disney must have known this, as he believed that storytellers reconstruct personal narratives into stories that reach all of us, and in the process change us. Yes, imagination has the power to mend, repair, soothe, hold and contain our internal experience, including changing it into something we can live with and move beyond. This is how we build our internal world(s) and rehearse what our external one might look like.

The OED defines imagination as:

1) the mental faculty or action of forming mental images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.

2) scheming or devising a plot with fanciful thoughts.

3) the creative faculty of the mind, the faculty of fanciful thought, the ability to frame new and striking concepts.

This definition explains why psychological theories of imagination have to do with cognition and perception –of images- but have little to do with the dynamic use of imagination. I will not bore you with these, and instead,  ask you to consider how we use our imagination.  Take for instance, what we do when we direct our attention inward, when we begin to imagine our thoughts and give them shapes, colors, narratives, as we begin to animate our internal life. The same can be said when we choose to meditate, or follow a relaxation exercise, we focus on internal sensations and play with imagery that makes it more dimensional to us. Or think of what happens when we read a novel and begin to know the characters and their lives: They become our friends or enemies, we feel about them and what they think and do, we become involved with them and their story, as if we could step into the book – and we do!

True, imagination can also help us to escape. We can think of this particular use of imagination as one of the many protective mechanisms of our mind, like a form of dissociation that retains the ability to create and is generative rather than disruptive. Imagination requires us to be active in the animation of our internal world, look beyond it and return to it restored. Perhaps this is what writers and artists do when they are most productive.

Our imaginative abilities have been there right form the beginning of time. In fact, it is unlikely that we would have evolved as a species if it was not for the use of our imagination and the ability to play outside the proverbial box. Imagination involves the ability to form internal images and sensations that are not perceived through our senses but nevertheless utilize them. It often involves memories, emotions, feelings, as well as our present and past experience and the ability to play. Our innate ability to imagine allows us to invent partial or complete personal realms within our minds- to be used as we wish.  As such, imagination is involved in creativity, and is a major player in the arts: literature, dance, painting, and music. The use of imagination also helps in problem solving, and in integrating experience and processing what we learn. It is a key to engaging in the world in an open manner, helping us to look beyond the immediacy of our own experience and step into the others shoes. It turns out to be crucial in the making of personal meaning,  the development of empathy and compassion and the ability to form relationships (think about the experience of falling in love and its use and reliance on imagination). Imagination is a powerful agent of change – for what we imagine can help us to shape the realities of our lives.

 “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

Albert Einstein


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

lily October 10, 2014 at 2:24 AM

Love your imaginative use of imagination – an ode or paean to imagination – if more psychoanalysts would play imaginatively, help their patients to dip into the colorful world of imagination, perhaps patient and analyst could grow in new and remarkable ways


Jack Wiener, LP, CMT June 10, 2014 at 10:02 AM

How enticing. Totally seductive. Compelling. The Great Escape. Then, the hard work, the mathematical proofs, the choreographic unity, the kinesthetic integration that expresses the emotional heart of imagination. Without the “ground” mayhem may follow. I know you agree.


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