Do we really use our Senses, Imagination and Knowledge?

After reading an incredibly interesting research paper recently, named: “Berkeley’s Two Mental Events: Ideas of Senses and Ideas of Imagination and Memory”, authored by Tzofit Ofengenden, Tübingen University, the paper triggered some interesting observations and questions… ‘There’s no question that our ability to remember informs our sense of self and knowledge, however, the relationship may also work the other way around: so can our sense of self influence what we are able to remember through imagination and knowledge?

If you close your eyes and imagine an apple, an apple exists, but only in one place in your brain. That is the difference between perception and imagination. … comes from recordings from single neurons in animals and humans. … close your eyes and consider these questions: What shape is a Scottish Terrier’s ears? Which is a darker green: grass or a green tree python? If you rotate the letter “N” 45 degrees to the right, is a new letter formed?

In seeking answers to such questions, scientists say, most people will conjure up an image in their mind’s eye, mentally “look” at it, add details one at a time and describe what they see. They seem to have a definite image in their heads.

But where in the brain are these images formed? And how are they generated? Without hands in the brain, how do people “move things around” in their imaginations?

Using clues from brain-damaged patients and advanced brain imaging techniques, neuroscientists have now found that the brain uses virtually identical pathways for seeing objects and for imagining them – only it uses these pathways in reverse.

In the process of human vision, a stimulus in the outside world is passed from the retina to the primary visual cortex and then to higher centres until an object or event is recognised. In mental imaging, a stimulus originates in higher centres and is passed down to the primary visual cortex, where it is recognised.

The most important lesson from 83,000 brain scans; good activity, ‘too little activity or too much activity by our brain’ by Daniel Amen

Dr. Martha Farah, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, recently said: “People have always wondered if there are pictures in the brain,” More recently, she said, the debate centred on a specific query: as a form of thought, is mental imagery rooted in the abstract symbols of language or in the biology of the visual system.

Vision is not a single process but rather a linking together of subsystems that process specific aspects of vision. To understand how this works, Dr. Kosslyn said, consider looking at an apple on a picnic table 10 feet away. Light reflects off the apple, hits the retina and is sent through nerve fibers to an early visual way station that Dr. Kosslyn calls the visual buffer. Here the apple image is literally mapped onto the surface of brain tissue as it appears in space, with high resolution.

Imagination…..the creative power of the mind

Knowledge versus imagination. Einstein’s aphorism reflects a recurrent theme in human thought. The ancient dichotomy between what we know and what we dream, intuit or sense by instinct is found, in some form, in every field of human intellectual endeavour. It is seen in the contrast between rationalist and mystic interpretations of the world’s great religions, between realism and surrealism in the visual arts and between the brutal number-crunching of much experimental physics and the feathery abstractions of superstring and membrane theory.

Knowledge concerns itself with what is present to the senses, but is also a stored and shared repository of publicly acceptable thoughts, many frozen into physical symbols (written or spoken), transmitted through time and space. Knowledge coded, stored and expressed using symbols can, because of the entrancing flexibility of symbol systems, be broken up and reassembled in a multitude of novel combinations. It is this act of recombination which underlies the power to imagine. Our imagination is and must be grounded in our knowledge. The more memories we accumulate, the more material we have to work with, the richer and stranger are the fruits of our imagination.

Imagination, however, is not just the recombination of stored experiences. Such recombination happens every night even in organisms blessed with much less cortex than human beings. What distinguishes us is our capacity for controlled and wakeful dreaming. This is a useful survival aid, helping us to solve problems, anticipate challenges and conceive alternatives. But we have turned imagination into much more a good in itself. Like money, sex or drugs, we use it to satisfy our needs, flaunt our wealth and status, tighten our social bonds, or distract us from realities we would rather avoid.

Knowledge binds us to a sometimes-oppressive existence; imagination helps us escape it. However, imagination evolved as a tool for facilitating survival. Imagining, we take a step beyond what we know into the future or into another world. We see alternatives and possibilities; we work out what we need to reach our goals. Unhooked from reality, imagination no longer serves these life-enhancing purposes. Without new knowledge to feed it and keep it in check, it can become sterile and even dangerous: “nothing but sophistry and illusional”.

Another measurable way of thinking about the balance between imagination and knowledge is to consider each as private or public, individual or group. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously argued that language is essentially public, requiring consensus about the use of its symbols in order to maintain consistency in meaning over time. One might say the same about knowledge: it must derive from experience in a way which can in principle be reproduced by others. Imagination is a private thing, the leap of a single brain from established fact to exciting novelty.

Was Einstein right?

Is imagination more important than knowledge?

As our realities become more complex we seem increasingly to prefer imagination, but that preference is culture-dependent. Imagination flourishes when its products are highly valued. Leisure, wealth and a degree of political stability are prerequisites for the freedom essential to creativity and for the use of artistic products as indicators of social status.

So, is imagination more important than knowledge? It depends on whom you ask, what you ask about, and when.

Limiting our imagination, is limiting our knowledge and importantly our ability to communicate, as Ludwig Wittgenstein once said:

“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

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