The ability to think rationally is an essential feature of being human, but it is hard to imagine how our species could have gone from living in caves to sending rovers to Mars in the space of 40,000 years without another crucial element — our creative impulse. Both Einstein and Picasso believed that their respective genius in science and art was based upon an ability to view the world as would a child. But clearly there is a difference between an adult with a childlike ability to think outside the box, and actually being a child.
So what is the basis of human creativity and imagination, and how does it differ between adults and children? The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky believed that each individual human consciousness is transformed by social interactions, particularly through language, but also other cultural “tools” such as music, art, and literature. And he saw imagination as no less influenced by this social input than other aspects of consciousness, stating that it is “the means by which a person’s experience is broadened, because he can imagine what he has not seen [and] can conceptualize something from another person’s narration and description of what he himself has never directly experienced.” Vygotsky thought that imagination was particularly stimulated in the developing child through the process of play.
A key aspect of play is that it allows the child to reach further than their current stage of development. As Vygotsky put it, “in play a child is always above his average age … it is as though he were a head taller than himself.” But if play is part of the process whereby the powers of imagination are formed during childhood, how does this relate to creativity in the adult? Here it is worth noting that some aspects of adult human culture have attributes in common with play, including the link with imagination. For instance, when as adults we read a novel or watch a film, we can also imagine ourselves and others in the roles of the characters experiencing situations within it.
By identifying with a character in an imaginary world created by the book or movie, we can become a “head taller” than we typically are — just as in childhood. Equally, the rapidly changing circumstances that occur in mass movements and revolutions can provide opportunities for people to exercise creativity and imagination in ways unthinkable in “normal” life, and in the process become a “head taller” in ways that are fully grounded in reality, not someone else’s fiction. In the classroom or on picket lines and protests how and what we learn is shaped by the nature of the social context we are in, and the potential for creativity produced by the collective relationships we contribute to and experience.
If play is central to the development of imagination during childhood but also has similarities to imagination in adults, what can modern neuroscience tell us about the imaginative process? The areas of the brain involved in this process in adults are now being explored using sophisticated brain imaging methods. Previously it was assumed that imagination and creativity must be solely due to activity in brain regions like the prefrontal cortex — part of the cortex that wraps around the brain and positioned just behind our forehead — which was long assumed to be the place where ‘higher’ brain functions mainly take place.
Yet a study by Alex Schlegel of Dartmouth College, US, has indicated that imagination requires a highly distributed neural network, with eleven areas across the brain being activated when an individual takes part in creative acts. Schlegel believes that this network is equivalent to a “mental workspace”. The connected neurons that make up this “workspace” provide the basis for our ability to alter and manipulate images, symbols, and ideas, and gives us the intense mental focus that allows us to formulate new ideas and solutions to complex problems. An unexpected aspect of Schlegel’s study was that it highlighted an important role for a region of the brain called the cerebellum — a brain region at the back of our heads — in imagination and the creative process. This finding has been confirmed by Allan Reiss and colleagues at Stanford University. Previously the cerebellum has been linked more to the control of balance and coordinated movement of the body’s muscles. So how might this brain region influence imagination and creativity?
Surprisingly, it seems to do so in ways that are similar to its unconscious role in coordinating bodily movements. As a result, Reiss believes deliberate attempts to be creative, or for teachers to deliberately foster attempts to be creative may not be the best way to optimise a person’s creativity. While greater effort to produce creative outcomes involves more activity of “higher” brain regions like the prefrontal cortex, it may actually be necessary to reduce activity in those regions to achieve creative outcomes. In other words, trying too hard may prove counter-productive when it comes to creativity and learning generally. This has obvious implications for education, for it suggests that teaching approaches that are based on making the student consciously “work” at learning may actually be counter-productive.
Drawing on Vygotsky’s arguments about the importance of play in the development of imagination, Larry Vandervert, of American Nonlinear Systems, has proposed that play in both animals and humans is based on the same mechanisms of repetition in the cerebellum. However, play in humans has evolved from play as simple training to deal with the unexpected to long-term survival by predicting, mitigating, and preventing the unexpected. As play’s role in our mental development has evolved from its previous purely animal-like functions to taking on more specifically human attributes, a cerebellum region called the dentate nucleus has developed to become a river of nerve tracts running from the cerebellum to the prefrontal cortex region.
As this has increased the number of nerve tracts interconnecting with higher mental functions, it may also have supported imagination in play and the development of creativity in the adult. What about differences in creativity and imagination between people? The view put forward by conservative thinkers is that having high levels of creativity and imagination — often labelled with the blanket term “intelligence” and supposedly quantified by Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests — has a strong biological component. So, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings argues that environmental factors play no part in shaping student performance instead emphasising the importance of genetic factors as underlying intelligence.
Johnson, Cummings and their ilk argue rich people are born cleverer than the rest of us, and this is the reason they are rich. A central problem with this point of view is its total lack of scientific evidence. What passes for evidence rests almost solely on historical studies of similarities in IQ scores between identical twins compared to dissimilar IQ scores of non-identical twins. But such studies have, to put it mildly, a chequered history. Notably, Cyril Burt of University College London, who produced the largest body of findings of this sort in the mid-20th century. Burt was behind the introduction of the segregated grammar school/secondary modern post-war British state school system, with the so-called “11 Plus” at its centre.
After his death in 1971 Burt was exposed as a total fraud. He completely made up data to back up his “findings”. He even invented a fictitious research assistant! It is accepted now that studies of twins are fraught with problems and this methodology is no longer used. Perhaps even more importantly, recent attempts to link specific regions of the human genome to IQ scores and other measures of intelligence have failed. An article in Behaviour Genetics summarising such studies concluded that “many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge”.
The biggest study of this type to date, led by Daniel Benjamin of Cornell University and published in 2018, investigated over 100,000 people and was designed to introduce a scientific rigour previously lacking. But this also produced negative findings. Given that IQ tests themselves have been consistently criticised for their class and cultural bias, this latest research is another devasting critique of IQ tests’ validity. Even people whom we might retrospectively judge as being particularly gifted with creativity and imagination seem to have been shaped as much by nurture as by nature. For instance, who would have predicted that a youth judged a failure by his teachers and who said “school failed me, and I failed the school” would become one of the greatest scientists of all time? Yet such was the experience of Albert Einstein.
Meanwhile, the young Charles Darwin was accused by his father of caring “for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching”. With hindsight, we can recognize qualities shown even at an early age by these two scientists that would later contribute to their great discoveries. So, as a youth, Darwin’s interest in cataloguing the wildlife he caught bordered on obsession. Yet this attention to detail proved of great importance when Darwin was collecting examples from the natural world to back up his theory of evolution. And while Einstein didn’t impress his schoolteachers, at the age of 16 he wrote an essay about the physical world that prefigured his later insights about relativity.
But would Darwin have come up with his revolutionary theory if he had missed out on a trip around the world on the HMS Beagle, which he almost did, being only second choice for the position of a companion for Robert Fitzroy, the ship’s captain? And would Einstein have made his amazing discoveries if he had been successful in his applications for university teaching positions? For his failure in these led to him accepting a job at the Swiss Patent Office, which, although routine, provided a “worldly cloister” that allowed him the time and space to develop ideas that the pressures of an academic career might have denied. If chance and circumstance had such a big impact on the possible future development of thinkers as distinguished as Darwin and Einstein — who after all were middle class individuals with a wealth of family and institutional support — then how much more the case must this be for the mass of ordinary working people across the planet?
The fact is that only a socialist society run by the majority of people in the interests of that majority, can ensure the development of each individual human consciousness, to its truly amazing potential.
John Parrington is the author of The Deeper Genome and Redesigning Life, Oxford University Press
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