How Imagination Helps Me See More Clearly

This could be one of the oldest optical illusions (Image credit: KARTY JazZ Wikimedia). It is a 12th-century sculpture in the Airavatesvara Temple in Tamil Nadu, India. Do you see an elephant on the right or a bull on the left?

Imagination is the interrupter of automatic predictions.

– Menka Sanghvi

Imagination has a reputation for taking us away from reality. I believe the opposite is true. Whenever we look at something, our brain constructs complex jigsaw puzzles out of what we see and predicts what the missing pieces should look like. It’s only if any of those pieces turn out to be something different, that the brain is alerted. The trouble is that these discrepancies are not always picked up.

As a student of physics at Cambridge University some 20 years ago, I became quite obsessed with visual illusions. I found them humbling. On the one hand, scientists are trained to rely on their senses, to observe the ways things are directly, rather than to imagine them. But when we encounter a visual illusion, we must reckon with the impossibility of seeing clearly, let alone “objectively”. The brain fills in gaps using its imagination, and this can be so convincing that it can easily override reality.

In his book Helgoland, the physicist Carlo Rovelli writes, “Many, if not most, of the signals do not travel from the eyes to the brain; they go the other way, from the brain to the eyes… When we look around ourselves, we are not truly “observing”: we are instead dreaming of an image of the world based on what we know .” Relying on our eyes alone does not make us more grounded, but more fallible.

This is why an active imagination has become so precious to me. It is the interrupter of automatic predictions. Creating space for possibilities in the mind’s eye enables me to see more with my physical eyes. Having accepted that my experience of the world is largely based on my brain’s guesswork, I want this guesswork to be as rich as possible, inclusive of things hidden, fantastical and unpredictable. Imagination, it turns out, grounds me in reality by helping me to see more clearly.

This article was originally published in the inaugural edition of the Imagination Zine (editor: Mark Riva) in September 2021