Imagination and self

Considering the cognitive space which we refer to as imagination and which among other things, we use to imagine possible futures. Reflecting on the imagination being the entire way we experience reality led me to wonder about the relationship of ‘myself’ to imagination, the more I wondered the more it seemed to me that imagination was very closely related to the concept of self. Whenever imagination was present it seemed there had to be a self occupying it. I tried to think of situations when imagination was present but self wasn’t, and failed. I wondered where self could exist without imagination and again struggled to find those spaces. This led to further pondering the results of which are outlined below.

Neither imagination or a sense of self exist in a physical reality beyond the mind. So it is fair to say without much fear of contradiction that both self and imagination are creations of the mind. As well as this similarity there also seem to be other links between the space of imagination and a felt sense of self in terms of personal identity and our existence as an independent entity. 

It is difficult to conceive of the idea of a personal self existing anywhere but in the realm of imagination. Where, other than in the mind could the idea of a personal self reside? And since the self resides in the mind in which mind states can it be found other than the imagination? Despite my doubts about the value of dictionary definitions relating to subjective conscious experiences, for clarity I used a dictionary definition of imagination as; the facility to be able to create mental images of things not directly experienced by the senses (I am using this limited definition which does not include the word creativity to simplify things!). An additional aspect to imagination that is not covered in this definition is that the mental image in the imagination must change over time, indeed existence through time is an essential quality of imagination, remembering and planning take time. Imagination where ‘I’ view the past and future seems the natural space for my self to occupy, indeed it is not immediately obvious where the idea of a personal self might exist other than in the realm of imagination.

If I recall a past event or plan a future activity, both these thought processes take place in the realm of the imagination: recollection of something that happened in the past and planning for the future require an image of some description. If we are planning a future then we need to use imaginary versions of our senses; hearing and sound if we are composing music, vision if we are planning an event, movement if we are planning an activity, etc. Is it possible to consider any thought taking place in the imagination involving planning that does not involve us, i.e. our self, to a greater or lesser degree? Turning to memory, again we recall facsimiles of our senses and how they saw, heard, smelt, felt and reacted to a past time. These memory exist for us – our self – over time in imagination

There are some mind states where we seem to be without self. A sudden physical pain is a felt experience which only later might we refer to as ‘my pain’. Say we pick up a pan handle only to realise it is frighteningly hot, the pain is felt as an experience, we don’t think, ‘my hand is burnt’ there is simply an experience of pain. We can later say ‘I have burnt my hand’ but this is a later construction of a past event which would take place using imagination. The pain itself does not require imagination as it is a direct result of experience through the senses.

In samadhi meditation when we focus on the breath an aim is to concentrate on the felt experience to the exclusion of all other thoughts and images. In Vipassana meditation we are focusing on thoughts and emotions as they occur without judgment of reaction. In both processes there is the sense of the mind being focused beyond the realm of imagination and self. Other processes when the mind is involved in specific activities that take all available mind space such as complex mathematics and perhaps craft skills and some aspects of creativity can be so all encompassing that they leave no room for reflection on self. But do these activities involve imagination? In his studies of what he refers to as the state of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that when in a state of optimal experience we lose both a sense of self and of time. Since imagination is a temporal experience this suggests that in flow we experience being without imagination or self.

It does appear then that these specific highly focused non-self activities that take place in the mind could also be characterised as taking place in thoughts that also lack the need for a general or broad imaginative space. These special cases, if they require imagination at all, require a highly specialised image. For example, In conversations with mathematician friends they say that when in mathematical flow they are using mathematics as a concept rather than dealing with images of symbols and numbers. This resonates with what Ronn said in the last meeting about these specialist areas having their own ‘language’.

The times when we are in flow are for most of us rare, the majority of the time our minds are much less focused, we harbour various imagined scenarios and are open to distraction. It is at these times that the imagination has space for our self. This is Descartes duality where we happily consider ourselves as having thoughts, memories, plans, conversations, it is at these times we cultivate, and have since childhood been developing, our sense of ourselves. What it means to be me. 

So if the self can only exist in the space we refer to as imagination, what of imagination? Where else does imagination – in the sense of a general broad platform rather than the very focused and narrow imaginations associated with specific thinking tasks such as complex mathematics or musical composition – exist?

Any time we consider using our imagination we must by default think of ourselves as part of that construct. Indeed we say, ‘our’ imagination, if it it our’s then it involves ‘our’ self. Even in dreams we either see ourselves or are the viewer of the action, in both cases there is either yourself taking part as a character or as an onlooker.  

To summarise, it could be argued that the self cannot exist without imagination and that imagination cannot exist with self. If this is the case what is the difference between self and imagination? Are they synonymous? Could it be that rather than a self residing in imagination, your imagination is your self? 

If we relate this back to creativity and the idea that there are aspects of the creative process that only work in the absence of self, then what this looks like now is that as well as finding a space that lacks self we are also looking for a space without imagination. This does seem to resonate with the idea of flow where any distraction and involvement of time, self and other diversions tend to disrupt the process. At times of flow there is simply experience rather than a self having an experience in an imaginary space over time. We may though have some sense of being while in flow, is this sense of awareness the same as self? There does seem to be a difference between a personal self, a personal identity, a sense of me, and the more distant sense of awareness of being that might occur in meditation, flow, etc.

Is there any science to back up this hypothesis? The modular theory of mind as proposed by evolutionary psychologists suggests that what we think of as consciousness is one or more of such modules. The author and evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright refers to these as these in some of his teachings as the public relation or PR modules whose job it is to relate information from the unconscious modules. The fact that at least some aspects of thought originate first in the unconscious before being passed to the conscious is now well established. Indeed the theory that conscious thought is no such thing and that conscious processes are all after the fact is very pertinent to dharma and reactivity. Peter Carruthers view that there is no such thing as conscious thought suggests that feelings such as anger are products of unconscious processing passed on to consciousness that interprets them as real and instills in them a sense of ungrounded authenticity and If we can distance ourselves from these feelings we can begin to see them for the distractions they are.. Another perspective on the role of the unconscious in decision making can be found in Before you know it by John Bargh.

According to evolutionary psychology, modularisation evolved as part of sapien survival strategy. in The strange order of things Antonio Damasio presents a compelling argument that the whole brain, body, mind construct evolved from the effect of feelings and in this proposal consciousness is a side effect of feelings. 

Some current research appears to support the view that consciousness, including therefore the experiences of imagination and self, is a side effect of evolution These theories don’t contradict the idea that imagination and self could be one and the same thing. The modular view as developed by evolutionary psychology explicitly considers the self a fabrication of the mind. 

Taken together this current research suggests that we tend to look the wrong way through the telescope when considering self and consciousness. As beings with a self we can be fooled into giving prominence and indeed preeminence to ourselves. We can see ourselves as distinct and apart from the world around us, and consider ourselves to be individual and unique entities of special importance. If these feelings are as a result of the chance progress of evolution then it seems plausible that the construct of self might well see the space it calls as imagination as something other than itself, a space to occupy and to use when required. It is perhaps on reflection more difficult to see how or why two distinct systems – self and imagination should have conveniently evolved in tandem that so well suit each other. 

Are self and imagination two subjective experiences of the same phenomena, two names for the same experience? Since it is the nature of self to consider itself distinct, from a subjective perspective self and imagination would necessarily be perceived as two distinct phenomena but is this really the case? Ocham’s razor suggests we should always look for the more straightforward explanation, and favour explanations that posit fewer over more entities. 

Is it not possible at least, that looking the correct way down the telescope is to see self as nothing more than an evolutionary side effect which has so taken over the mind/brain/body that it has installed itself as the preeminent feature of being? This more objective stance might see self as a construct that evolved in tandem with the phenomena of imagination to enable a temporal view of the world that allows for reflection of the past and planning for the future. The moment to moment experience of being, tends now only to become prominent when we practice mindfulness.

To paraphrase the Christian aphorism that the greatest trick the devil ever played is to convince people that he does not exist. Perhaps the greatest trick the self ever played is to convince people it does exist 

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