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Imagination helps us understand the world – and change it

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Issue 2423
The film Groundhog Day shows the hero stuck in a time loop he can’t escape from - a familiar situation for workers everywhere
The film Groundhog Day shows the hero stuck in a time loop he can’t escape from – a familiar situation for workers everywhere

We’re often told that ordinary people will never run society because they have no competence, creativity or imaginative vision.

Claims about competence look increasingly hollow given the current economic crisis and our rulers’ seeming inability to stop global warming. 

And the recent Scottish referendum campaign showed ordinary people’s imagination and vision.

On a bigger scale, art and culture flourished in the Egyptian Revolution.

One commentator described it as a “revolution of the imagination”.

In fact creativity and imaginative vision are central features of every genuine social upheaval. 

But in “normal” periods of history ordinary people’s contributions to debate and culture can seem invisible.

So how do such bursts of imagination arise?

Fittingly, the most interesting theories about this process were developed during the greatest mass upheaval of history—the Russian Revolution—by Lev Vygotsky.

Vygotsky believed that imagination was a central feature of all human minds, not just the preserve of a “creative” few.

And he argued that, far from being a distraction from the realities of life, imagination is crucial to how we relate to the material world around us.

Importantly Vygotsky proposed that, unlike animals, human minds are structured along social lines. 

Humans use tools to act upon the external world and they use language to shape their inner, mental worlds.

Vygotsky stressed that this is not something society imposes on the “blank slates” of individual minds.

Instead it is a highly active process and sometimes a discordant one. And imagination plays a central role.

Vygotsky studied children at play. 

His research showed that imaginative activities helped children to understand the complexities of the social world.

But he also showed how this helped children transcend the external world and realise real, individual creativity.

Unfortunately our education system is geared towards children learning facts to pass tests. Explorative or questioning behaviour gets little reward.

This could explain the results of a recent study by US researcher Kyung Hee Kim.

She found that IQ scores—which rely on a certain kind of knowledge—have increased in recent decades. 

Yet those measuring creative thinking have significantly decreased.

Essentially school students, and increasingly those at university, are being trained to tick boxes.

If this is true of school, it is even more the case for adult life.

The film Groundhog Day shows the hero stuck in a time loop he can’t escape from. 

He asks a worker, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”

The worker replies, “That about sums it up for me.”

It’s no surprise that many people seem to lack the imaginative spark we are told only those at the top possess given such feeling of impotence.

But recent events show that such an imaginative force is alive and kicking—and it has the power to transform the world.

John Parrington is a lecturer in molecular pharmacology at the University of Oxford

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