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Imagination and collaboration


I was listening yesterday evening to a conversation in the Perspectiva series, (now also a video on YouTube) between my near-contemporary at school Iain McGilchrist, and Phoebe Tickell, who I've met a few times with respect and interest. They were talking a lot around the topic of imagination. What I saw positively from that conversation — though I can't be sure without re-watching it — was the sense that it is the imaginative function (of the brain's right hemisphere) that allows us to be fully experiencing what one might (inadequately) call the object of our attention, rather than analysing and reducing it to its parts. What I didn't hear about were other aspects of imagination that feel important to me. Maybe I just wasn't attentive enough!

First, I didn't hear about each person's imagination being, to start with, separate from each other person's. It's not so much the measurable facts, that you see this mug, perhaps, from a different angle, a different perspective, than me; but more that when we both experience the mug in the fullness and richness of your imagination, what emerges for each of us individually is not going to be the same. We can try to express it to each other, perhaps in words, but perhaps more fully through richer channels of communication; but we still won't have exactly the same experience.

Which brings me on to the second aspect that I didn't hear: the act, which is usually an act of will, of attempting to enter into another's experience using one's own imagination. The Quaker advice, “When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others.” speaks to me of using the imagination in this way. In NVC, we are encouraged to guess, or even to sense, what the feelings and needs are of the other person, lying behind even loose and ill-considered words and actions.

Thirdly, they didn't talk much about the kind of imagination that is actively and consciously imagining something that does not currently exist. This is sometimes called “fantasy” and connects to my piece written 2023-01-07 on Meta-fantasies. I see this capacity for fantasy as one of the defining characteristics of being conscious and human, rather than animal, and as such is has great power, which can be used positively or negatively.

Let's deal with the negative first. I've been clear for a long time that when faced with any complex challenge (like just living) people do it in their own ways, for their own reasons. This is fine in itself. But the more someone develops their own ideas, in isolation, the more I have seen their conceptual structures become more rigid. The growth points may still be supple, but the supporting branches cannot bend. They dig themselves into a ditch, or paint themselves into a corner, perhaps, by building more and more superstructures on top of structures that are not shared. If someone has power over others, this can turn sour, with the person in power imposing their way of thinking on the people subject to them. Sure, you have a nice, uniform culture around you, but no one else's ways of thinking are respected or taken into account.

When there is no power over, still a huge problem arises. The thinker settles on their own mental structures, which probably do not fit with those of others. If they are lucky, a few followers come along, recognising their intellectual prowess, and that consolidates the mental structures still further. But it becomes more and more difficult to collaborate with peers, because the peers have their own ways of thinking, and those are different.

Let's turn to the positive. This is the point at which what I have called ontological commoning is needed. If this doesn't happen, then the outlook is for misunderstanding, frustration, competition and conflict. But if the different parties can enter into the process of commoning, then collaboration can become possible again. The only thing is, the later this happens, the more challenging is this ontological commoning task, of finding the common (under)ground; a set of concepts adequate for dialogue that includes both (or more) of the thinkers' conceptual structures. Note that ontological commoning does not mean that all the concepts need to be reconciled; but only that there needs to be a common language for dialogue about the differences.

I see a syndrome here that has sometimes been thought of as the “lone genius” problem. (Oh, and just in case you're wondering, I see plenty of genius in Iain and Phoebe, but they are absolutely not “lone”!) It's not hard to understand, with a bit of imagination. A young person has insights, intuitions, revelations perhaps, that are not shared with the people immediately surrounding them. Maybe they don't even get to find “their tribe” in educational institutions. After attempts to share their ideas, their feelings, their sensing, their experiences, and those attempts failing, they may develop a self-protective sense of superiority, that no one else can understand them because they are specially endowed with insight, more than others. They may find themselves trying desperately to convince others of what they have conceived, because the alternative is a sense of desolate isolation, of being effectively in a world of their own. They may become that weird eccentric with very odd ideas, maybe a social misfit. My guess is that people on the autism spectrum are more prone to this syndrome, though it is my no means limited to them.

But this can be prevented, I am sure, partly from my own experience, if as a young person they mix with others who have similarly unusual ideas; where individuals interact without the need for exact validation of their own particularities, but rather with openness to other ideas. I suspect this is easier, the younger you are. Iain (above) and I had the good fortune to have something approaching this in our formative school years. But at a later stage of life, I still believe there is a similar healing narrative for this syndrome, though it takes more time, effort and patience. Naturally, people will need to overcome our normal societal separation and disconnectedness. But if, for example, living in a community where mutual respect can develop, perhaps a slow process of unblocking can occur. Each person can have chances to be heard, deeply, by people who both have the capacity to understand more deeply than average, and also have the experience of that intellectual isolation, so they know something of the feelings that the other is experiencing.

This is the way that I see towards healing of this kind of damaged separation. And with that healing, I can see a vast expanse of creativity opening up, which is not just individual creativity, vital spark though that is, but the kind of co-creativity realised in regenerative collaboration.

If we put this into practice, maybe we could indeed do something about the world's dire problems.

see also

d/2023-04-13.txt · Last modified: 2023-10-31 17:05 by simongrant