The Biology of the Imagination

Simon Baron-Cohen in Entelechy:

Childers1art5In what sense might something as intrinsically human as the imagination be biological? How could the products of the imagination – a novel, a painting, a sonata, a theory – be thought of as the result of biological matter? After all, such artefacts are what culture is made of. So why invoke biology? In this essay, I will argue that the content of the imagination is of course determined more by culture than biology. But the capacity to imagine owes more to biology than culture.

Let’s start with a few definitional issues. What do we mean by ‘imagination’? I do not mean mere imagery, though clearly the imagination may depend on the manipulation of imagery. Imagery is usually the product of one of the five senses (though it can also be generated without any sensory input at all, from the mere act of thinking or dreaming). Imagery typically comprises a mental representation of a state of affairs in the outside, physical world. I don’t want to put you off from reading this essay by littering it with jargon, so let’s just think of a mental representation as a picture in your head. That is what we are going to be calling an image, but that is not the same as imagination. Consider why not.

When we create a visual image of a specific object in our mind, the image as a picture of the object has a more or less truthful relationship to that object or outside state of affairs. If the image is a good, faithful, representation, it depicts the object or state of affairs accurately in all its detail. So, mental images typically have ‘truth relationships’ to the outside world.

More here.