Humanity practices both science and art, two incredibly unique and imaginative processes where we attempt to make sense of the world and our relationship to it. Both science and art rely on imagination and vision. Jacob Bronowski highlighted to me something in our language that is very illuminating about imagination when he says, “I want you to think of the following words: visual, vision, and visionary; and image, imagery and imagination….Almost all the words we use about experiences of the kind that go into visions or images are words connected with the sense of sight.” (Bronowski, 1978, p. 10) That somehow there is something to the way we visually interact with our world is an important part of imagination, since the word image is the root of the word. It is a word that comes from crafting and shaping and playing with images in our own mind. The way we interact with our world is, of course, mediated by our senses: vision, sound, touch, taste and smell and certainly for most of our interactions we rely heavily on vision and sound. Bronowski argues that there are essentially two types of art: those dominated by sight (painting and sculpture for example) and those dominated by sound (music for example) and I would argue that there are some that are reliant on the interaction of both senses (drama, movies, etc.). Science on the other hand is dominated by the visual sense, so we can speak of observations, which refers back to the art of seeing. So perhaps one of the most critical things to imagination is the ability to see, or to interpret the senses in a way that allows the person to make sense of their world and to see alternatives and interpret interactions with it.
The visual process itself is a process of decoding, since our eyes on their own apparently don’t just take a picture and project it into the brain like an old style camera projecting onto film, but rather if Bronowski is correct (and I’m now curious since this is an older work) it would be more like the process that goes on in a digital camera where individual rods and cones in our eyes develop a level of stimulation to the light it receives and sends all the signals back to our brain which then interprets all these signals and assembles the picture in a way that is far more accurate than the individual cellular receptors in the eyes are capable of making. The very process of seeing relies upon the visual part of the brain making inferences about the world it is seeing to make up for the shortcomings in the visual organs, and that compared to most other animals we have a phenomenal portion of our brain dedicated to the process of interpreting visual input.
Combined with this process of interpreting the visual input we receive from our eyes, our brains also allow us to imagine differently-to see alternatives and to attempt to predict based what we currently see and what we have seen before. Part of what makes us such curious animals is our ability to take the images we have and to imagine possible futures, alternatives if you will. In one sense the idea of free will goes back to the idea of “visualizing alternatives and making a choice between them.” (Bronowski, 1978, p. 18) There is a lot to unpack with this revelation that imagination is a function of the process of seeing and interpreting our world and imagining other possible worlds, and that will come but perhaps part of learning to imagine is learning to pay close attention to sight (as well as sound and the other senses) and attend to the images and the possibilities.