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Imagination in Education

Richard Bright: What do you understand by the word ‘Imagination’?

Sacha, Duchess of Abercorn: Imagination has often been mistrusted in the realm of education as having something more to do with fantasy and the wasting of time, thus, I believe, children in this 21st century are being denied their natural growth path to full potential. The fact is that we live in 2 realities at one and the same time. Our outer reality being linear and time-bound, has more to do with the intellect and the learning of facts and figures and the analytic, whereas our inner reality goes by way of the spiral, is time-less and has the function of making connections and has the ability to synthesise. Imagination is a way of knowing and of being all at the same time. It is the world of And/And rather than Either/Or. It speaks to us by way of images and the symbolic rather than the literal. As a child we are reared on it by way of story-telling and fairy tales and as we grow up we experience it by way of Myth and Legend. It speaks to us also by way of our dreams and day dreams and if we can stay close to the images from within ourselves we can infuse our outer realities with enthusiasm and inspiration bringing the heart back into all that we do. Jung wrote that ‘the imagination is author of all human creation, of all that is greatest in our lives, and that play is its dynamic principle’. It is of vital importance, therefore, that the ‘child’ within us all is given the space to play and find its voice and this can only happen when we ‘still the mind’ and approach the interface between our heads and our hearts. Imagination is ‘seeing with the mind’s eye’ and how helpful it can be at moments to be able ‘to step into someone else’s shoes’ and to imagine how it feels from a different point of view. This is a most vital aspect in social dynamics at this time when the compassion of the heart might solve some otherwise intractable and potentially destructive global problems.

RB: The Pushkin Trust has recently celebrated its 25th birthday, which you are the founder of. What prompted you to do this?

SA: The Pushkin Prizes, as it was called at its inception, came into being in 1987 during the height of the ‘Troubles’ in N Ireland. My daughter, Sophie, had been having nightmares for some time of our home being ‘invaded’ and I realised that she and thousands of other  children were possibly breathing a form of  noxious toxin that suffused the air at that time – that of fear and hatred, of  grief and loss and of huge distrust between the Catholic and Protestant communities. I was at a loss as to what to do to help her until I attended a very special event in England to commemorate the life of my Russian ancestor, the poet, Alexander Pushkin. It was then that I realised how great Art lifts us all beyond the tribal and all that separates us and moves us on to Universal ground, where we share both the light and the dark of life, the joys and the sorrows. It is the ground where we meet as true human beings and where we begin to find and then express our ‘voice’ by more creative means.

RB: Can you say something about The Pushkin’s Schools Programme and why you feel it’s important to be cross-curricular?

SA: The Western Education and Library Board in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, helped us from the beginning to find 8 primary schools – 4 from the Protestant tradition and 4 from the Catholic tradition who would like to take part in a pilot scheme in the form of a creative writing competition. The schools would also be chosen from both sides of the border – 4 from Co Tyrone in Northern Ireland and 4 from Co Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. The schools would then be invited to write short stories or poems on a theme chosen by the Pushkin project. The judges who helped us in the early days were looking for spontaneity, a sense of presence and ‘voice’ in the writing rather than perfect grammar and spelling. The themes we chose  to write about were drawn specifically from one of the 4 elements – Earth,  Air, Fire or  Water –  such as The Tree of Life,  Blowin’ in the Wind,  The Fire Within,  Going with the Flow etc  In this way the theme connected to every subject in the curriculum  and could be  explored and developed in a variety of ways. The Pushkin thematic approach is based on a holistic approach which values the uniqueness of each learner. It also values the contribution made by all subjects in school to the creation of well-rounded, creative and successful students. By placing the environment by way of the 4 elements, at the centre of its thematic approach the Pushkin Trust hopes to instil in children and adults a love and sense of deep connection  firstly to ourselves, and then to the  world in which we live and indeed share with one another. By focussing on a connected and innovative curriculum where learners explore and question, where they create and appreciate, the work of the Trust aims to encourage all learners to develop their fullest potential. The Pushkin logo of the 4 petalled flower is a symbol of the wholeness that we aspire to in our programmes with the 4 functions of Body, Mind, Emotions and Intuition each connecting to one of the 4 elements of Earth, Air, Water and Fire centred on the Creative Spirit at its core.

RB: The programme uses creative writing as its central core, together with other creative art forms. Would science ever be considered to be included in the programme?

SA: The Pushkin Trust works primarily with children aged 9 – 11 years. For that reason the writing of short stories and poems, and now of working in many other art forms is the most appropriate way for them to access their creative spirit. However, just as we are convinced that it’s out of such an integrating approach that children can develop a larger sense of themselves as creative human beings, so we also believe that it can be the source of imaginative activity in all fields of endeavour, including the scientific. Our aim with Pushkin is to develop in children a confident degree of trust in that kind of intuitive creativity which is the source of good work in the sciences as well as in the arts.  The closest we get to scientific work is in our way of studying the environment, which stimulates the powers of observation through the senses and encourages a holistic and imaginative rather than simply analytic sense of the natural world. Science as it is conventionally taught relies on the rational analytic intellect, whereas our Pushkin mode of education tries to bring that faculty into creative relation with the other vitally important human functions of feeling, intuition and the senses.

RB: The Programme concentrates on the environment as an important source of inspiration. Why is this?

SA: The Pushkin Prizes, was conceived, as I have mentioned before, as a creative writing project to enable children in primary school to find their ‘voice’ by way of writing a short story or poem. It became apparent early on in the project that some children found it quite hard to open up to their unique ‘voice’ and connect to the realm of inspiration. It seemed that the most accessible way for a child or indeed a teacher to make contact with the source of their own being would be to take them into the natural world with the help of environmentalists to experience the world around them by way of their senses. After all, so many great artists have drawn upon this universal realm for their most inspired work in order to tap into the creative spirit at its source. We noticed how positively children from both urban and rural back grounds responded to having time in nature – time to regain their senses. It is as if children are in deep need of being re- connected to their ‘birthright’ – to their creative core.

RB: Pushkin’s work has become synonymous with creativity, inspiration and expression of the ‘Voice’. You have talked about encouraging both children and teachers to find their ‘Voice’. What do you mean by this?

SA: The genesis of the Pushkin work began with the ‘voice’ of a child. Realising the fear that was being voiced in my own child in the form of nightmares at that time I searched for a way to enable that fear to be channelled by some means into a more creative expression. I was fully aware that if such negative energy is left to fester it can become self-destructive and equally if it lashes out in self-defence it can destroy the world around it. However, all feelings whether they be positive or negative if they can be contained in some art form then become a kind of gift to life. Inspired by my ancestor, Alexander Pushkin, I realised that the power of the creative spirit, latent within us all, can transform the world we live in by giving a sense of meaning and purpose to ourselves as individuals. We discovered in the early stages of the creative writing programme that if the child in the class-room was to be able to express his or her ‘voice’ fully then the teacher needed to be alongside equally facing the ‘blank page’. We then began an annual November conference for all the teachers who would be taking the Pushkin programme into their class-rooms in the following January. In this way they would experience environmental and arts workshops based on the theme for the year ahead and re-discover the ‘child’ within themselves once more!  The response from teachers to this support enabling them to tap once more into their own creative spirit has been most rewarding. From this has grown our most current programme ‘Inspiring Educators’ which deepens the personal development of a teacher ad helps them to re-discover their own creative voice.

RB: Not only children, but many teachers have described the ‘Pushkin experience’ as life changing, releasing ‘hidden treasures’ that may have otherwise have lain dormant in their normal school lives. Do you think the current systems of education stifle the release of these ‘hidden treasures’?

SA: The ‘Pushkin experience’ has been described by both children and teachers as life changing, releasing  ‘hidden treasures’  that may otherwise have lain dormant in their school lives. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of our current education system is its lop-sided nature. There are many positive aspects to learning how to read and write and knowing how to add and subtract and to  getting our sums right but that is only a part of what education is about. The word in Latin educare actually means to draw out and unfortunately our system seems to have failed massively in knowing how to go about this. We cannot have an exam for testing ‘emotional intelligence’ – feelings cannot be marked right or wrong.  Feelings simply ‘are’. So until our education system discovers how to embrace the non-rational side of a child’s nature we will continue to produce youngsters who are not able to cope with the world around them. Our inner landscape is full of hidden treasures – all qualities of the heart and soul. Until we find a way to uncover these treasures our outer landscape will remain severely impoverished.

RB: Educators from all over Ireland have paid tribute to the ability of The Pushkin Trust to inspire. Teachers and pupils alike have described how their contact with this movement has helped them to unlock in them a creative potential which they never knew existed.  When you founded it, did you foresee the Pushkin movement being so influential?

SA: It is most heartening that the Pushkin Trust has been acclaimed by educators from all parts of Ireland to have inspired children and teachers over these past 25 years. I never, for one moment, realised how strong the growth would become of the ‘seed of an idea’ that I had then. But I now realise that the creative spirit, if given the open ground to grow in, will put roots down and  stretch upwards to the light, branching out into new programmes and projects until it flowers and bears fruit. It has been a most rewarding process to have been involved with and we have simply acted as kind of ‘gardeners’ of our inner landscape. To have witnessed the ‘voice’ of so many children and teachers in so many creative ways has been a most humbling experience.

RB: The Pushkin Trust has grown into an all-Ireland educational programme for the creative and personal growth of the individual. What is your vision for its future?

SA: The Pushkin Trust has grown into an all-Ireland educational programme focussed on the creative potential in both the child and the teacher.  I would now like to see this work deeply embedded in and embraced by our education systems.  I would like to see every child in every classroom in primary schools and on through secondary and tertiary level claiming their ‘birthright’ to become whole human beings, fully alive.

The time is now.



The post Imagination in Education appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Creativity, Imagination and Philosophy

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Dustin Stokes: I’m a philosopher of mind and cognitive science. My research concerns three main (sometimes related) areas: imagination, sensory perception (and how it relates to cognition), and creativity. I tend to approach these topics in a broadly empirical manner, and collaborate with scientists in relevant fields. I have an additional interest in applying theories and methods from the philosophy and science of the mind to questions about art. I am trained in analytic philosophy and have typically worked and taught in philosophy departments. My academic home is the Department of Philosophy at the University of Utah, and I have previously researched and taught at the Universities of Sussex and Toronto, in both philosophy and cognitive science.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your philosophical practice?

DS: Certainly my teachers. As an undergraduate, Bill Brown and Jack Knight. And as a graduate student, Tamar Szabo Gendler, Dominic McIver Lopes, and Mohan Matthen. They each, in their own ways, provided invaluable support and encouragement. And each was sensitive and receptive enough to recognize where my strengths were (and weren’t!), helping me to cultivate those strengths and, in turn to be confident about doing philosophy. This last bit is really important: I think philosophy can be extremely intimidating (it certainly was for me), and I don’t think I would have succeeded without the confidence that these teachers instilled in me. I should add that my schooling involved a lot of different philosophical approaches: history of ideas, analytic metaphysics and epistemology, empirically informed philosophy.

The interdisciplinary experiences that I’ve been lucky to have, and to still have, shaped and continue to shape how I think about philosophical analysis and, generally, theory and science. There are a number of ways that this is true, but here are a couple that come quickly to mind. Engaging with researchers from substantially different fields—for example, the roboticists, Alife researchers and computational neuroscientists at the Informatics department at the University of Sussex, where I had my first postdoc—encourages you, well, forces you really, to reflect carefully on the language and methodologies you use, and the underlying assumptions that you make. All of this has shaped how I think about expressing ideas. Second, and related, these experiences have forced me to be more open minded about the goals and values of philosophy. Put probably too simply: there isn’t just one way, or one good way, to approach a philosophical problem.

RB: What do we imagine we are talking about when we speak of the imagination? Or, to put it another way, can we imagine the imagination?

DS: I think in our ordinary terms, we use ‘imagine’ and its cognates to refer to an array of disparate phenomena. For instance, we sometimes use the term to make clear that we merely thought or believed something, but now realize that we were mistaken, as we do when we say that we “just imagined it”. In a different spirit, we sometimes describe persons as being “imaginative” to express that they are creative or skilled at originating ideas. Sometimes we implore others to imagine so as to encourage empathy; I might say to you, “Imagine if I had done that to you”. And finally, and perhaps most obviously, we think of the imagination in terms of pretence, make-believe, imagery and mental exploration of non-actual, future and past, and merely fictional scenarios.

Now with the exception of perhaps the first imagination-as-mistake sense, all of these ordinary senses of imagination are relatively well theorized in philosophy and psychology: imagination in creative thought, imagination and its importance to understanding other minds, imagination and possibility, fiction, and, most simply, playfully indulging what is not here or now.

Whether there is a singular phenomenon that unifies these roles and mental activities is, to my mind, an open question. But even supposing that the answer to that question is in some sense negative, we can identify some common characteristics that seem to typify each of these cases. Imagination is a mental activity—a way of mentally representing—that is often under immediate voluntary control. (By contrast, you cannot immediately control what you believe at any moment, even if you can steer yourself, so to speak, towards this or that belief. As it is sometimes put, belief is truth-functional, imagination is not.) Second, imagination typically concerns objects and events that are not present to the subject doing the imagining. Put another way, imagining is not, as a mental activity, bound to truth or reality. And finally, and more traditionally, imagination often involves mental images of some sort, visual, auditory, and perhaps other sensory modalities.

RB: Can you give some historical examples of how imagination has been explored philosophically?

DS: I think we first might distinguish examples where imagination is a topic of inquiry, from cases where it is used as part of philosophical method.

Of the second, perhaps with greater or lesser emphasis, imagination has been part of the philosopher’s toolkit from the beginning: imagining hypotheses, possibilities, examples and illustrations. Imagination sometimes occupies an explicit and operative place in argumentation. One clear example is the use of conceivability/possibility principles in the early modern period. For instance, a number of Descartes’ arguments for substance dualism hinge around what he can conceive and the implication this has for what’s metaphysically possible: he claims that he can coherently conceive of his mind without his body, and so it must be possible to have a bodiless mind. Therefore, as a matter of metaphysics, the mind must be substantially distinct from the body. But it wasn’t just Descartes or so-called rationalists that appealed to imagination in this way: empiricists did the same. For example, in some places in the Essay, Locke takes the inconceivability of free-floating properties like colour, shape, motion, and so on to imply that (perhaps) properties without a property bearer are impossible and, therefore, maybe there is (or must be) some underlying substance or “substratum” that bears those properties. And maybe somewhere in between imagination as method and imagination as topic of inquiry, Hume regularly appeals to imagination to explain (but not justify) how we form ideas and beliefs about things for which (he thinks) we lack appropriate evidence, for example, ideas of the self, of substance, and of causes.

Now imagination is currently “in fashion” as a stand-alone topic, but traditionally it has not been a dominant subject matter. One notable exception is Sartre, who wrote two books on (broadly) the imagination. A lot of Sartre’s analysis readily comports, I think, with contemporary discussions of the imagination (and somewhat ironically, since Sartre is not much discussed in contemporary analytic philosophy).

First, Sartre understood imagination to be intentional, in the sense of having aboutness, or being representational. He also tended to have in mind imagery, since he described imaginative episodes as observational. Moreover, when imaging an event, say Pierre in the café (it’s always Pierre in the café), we “see” right through the image to the thing imaged: it is as if we see Pierre, but we do not see our image of Pierre. Imagination is, in more contemporary terms, transparent. But at the same time for Sartre, by contrast to perception, images are somehow tagged as concerning objects or events that are not present. So, imagination is really quasi-observational, since it lacks the feeling of presence that visual or other perceptual experiences enjoy. Finally, he understood our capacity for imagination to be voluntary but also to involve some degree of spontaneity: we construct the objects-as-imaged, but this often happens rapidly and without feeling of effort.

It is this combination of features that, for Sartre, give imagination its creative power. One can actively imagine, where one is thereby responsible for the objects-as-imaged, and without commitment to their presence in one’s environment. And because one can do this, one therefore makes and is responsible for the contents of one’s imaginings (by contrast to the contents of one’s perceptions or beliefs). Imagining is, for Sartre, a richly creative activity, and this is no trivial part of his broader philosophy. The playfulness and freedom enjoyed by imagination is central to how we intend to change the world as we find it, and how we identify as selves. On Sartre’s view, freedom in the world—freedom of the will—consists importantly in our capacity for imagining the world to be ways other than the ways we find it, and then further imagining how we might act to change the world in those very ways. So it’s not an overstatement, I don’t think, to say that imagination and its creative potential are central to Sartre’s existentialism, since they are central to how we mould our existence (which, on the familiar slogan, precedes essence).

RB: Are there different varieties of imagination? Can you give some examples?

DS: Well, as I said earlier, I think this is a point of active debate, since it isn’t obvious that there is a singular phenomenon that falls under the term ‘imagination’. That said, in both traditional and contemporary research, philosophers have made some distinctions. Depending upon one’s views about *a* faculty of imagination, these might be distinctions between types of mental process or state (perhaps not all of them imagination), distinctions in types of imagination, or distinctions in the roles or uses that a single thing the imagination—can serve.

One distinction, acknowledged by both Kant and Sartre is between “productive” vs. “reproductive” imagination (or put in other terms, “creative” vs. “recreative” imagination). The terms already point to the sense of the distinction, but the basic idea is that we can sometimes use imagination to produce or create a thought that is, to some degree, novel. It could be something important like a scientific hypothesis or something banal, like an anxiety-inducing possibility (“maybe that noise in the attic is a gremlin”). But just as often, perhaps more often, we use imagination to reproduce ideas. These could be our own ideas (“there’s that noisy gremlin again”) or be reproductions of ideas of others, as we do when we follow a fictional narrative. Interestingly, Sartre takes the latter—engagement with fictions—to be not entirely re-productive, but importantly productive. He takes the narrative—say a novel—to be incomplete at the stage of the author’s production; although guided by the text, the reader must actively imagine so as to “fill out” the fictional world. The reader is thereby complicit in creating the fictional world, or the “irreal world” as Sartre puts it, and this has an interesting explanatory consequence, it explains why our experiences of fictions can be so powerful: we are actively responsible, on Sartre’s view, for creating that fiction.

Another distinction is between sensory imagination, or imagery, and non-imagistic imagination. Going back at least to Aristotle, mental imagery was the more commonly discussed notion. When we imagine, we form images before the “mind’s eye”. In contemporary discussions, philosophers distinguish this sensory imagination from something that need not or does not involve images, what they call “propositional imagination”. Although imagery has received more attention traditionally, there is certainly early precedent for propositional imagination. For example, Descartes maintained that one could form a mental image of a triangle, but not of a chiliagon (a 1000-sided figure). This is standardly taken to indicate that understanding doesn’t require imagery, since Descartes claimed to find his image-less idea of the chiliagon to be intelligible. But it also points to a kind of imagination: one can imagine that a figure has 1000 sides. This is propositional imagination.

Most recently, propositional imagination has dominated recent theorizing of the imagination, with the consequence that imagery has been relatively neglected by philosophers. My view is that this inversion of tradition is unfortunate, and I hope that more and more philosophers will return attention to sensory imagination.

RB: How do our imaginative capacities differ from other mental capacities?

DS: Well, some of this has come out in what we have already discussed, but here are a few (hopefully not overly controversial) features of imagination, as contrasted with other mental processes. I think most take imagination to be disconnected from truth, reality, and action. So, I can imagine propositions that I know to be merely fictional or false, but I typically cannot (willingly) believe those same propositions. As I’ve put it in some of my work, imagination is non truth-bound in a way that is different from belief, memory, and knowledge. It is also different from sensory perception with respect to the here-and-now. We can grant that vision sometimes suffers illusions and hallucinations (some of them perhaps the mere imaginings of philosophers!), but it is typically responsive to the objects, features, and events that are present in one’s environment. Even if it sometimes misfires, this is certainly the function of vision. Imagination does not share this function: it can be about things that have little or nothing to do with one’s present reality. And indeed part of the fun, and the utility, of imagination consists in this freedom from reality. Finally, imagination is different from other states with respect to action. Unlike forming an intention to perform some action which will, assuming other conditions are in place, result in that action, imagining performing actions is not similarly bound to carrying out those actions.

All of this points to the playfulness of imagination. But, importantly, imagination is not all play and no work. It can result in emotional affect. It plays some non-negligible part in how we empathize with others. It plays a crucial role in a lot of our reasoning: we imagine what may happen if we make one choice instead of another, we form mental images to reason about spaces and bodily actions (“Will this sofa fit through the apartment door?”, “If I turn the handlebars at this angle then I bet I can make that tight switchback.”). It figures in determining whether our evidence is sufficient for certainty or knowledge. And so on.

My view is that it is this combination of playfulness and workfulness that makes imagination crucial, if not essential, to creative innovation and original thinking. The playfulness can get you novel ideas, since it allows you to “try out” thoughts and conceptual combinations unbound to truth and reality; it serves a role that I’ve called “cognitive manipulation”. The workfulness can enable you to determine which of those novel ideas are useful, relevant, or valuable. And all of this can, in the philosopher’s terms, be done agentially, largely under voluntary control.

RB: What role does the imagination have in scientific discovery and how does it fit with rational ways of making discoveries?

DS: I think we are going to talk about imagination and creativity in a moment, and think that is relevant to your question here, so I’ll say a few things now (further to my response to the last question) and more later.

Take it or leave it, but there is a traditional distinction in philosophy of science between “”the context of discovery” and “the context of justification”. The first concerns the scientist’s insight or novel hypothesis, perhaps it comes in a burst of original thinking or after a long period of laborious cognitive work. The second concerns how that hypothesis then gets analysed, scrutinized, tested, and so on. This is rather controversial territory, not least because the distinction essentially identified the context of justification—the “logic” of science—as the only appropriate subject matter for philosophy of science; and it took decades to overcome that theoretical consequence. An underlying assumption here, I think, is that the context of discovery is simply too unruly, unbound with respect to truth and reason, to be evaluated objectively. “Who knows how the scientist gets radically novel ideas!? That’s subject matter for psychology (or magic!) but not philosophy!” What’s right about this is that the generation of novel ideas or hypotheses requires mental processes that are not bound to truth or “objective reality”; it requires, as I said a bit ago, imagination. Imagination is non truth-bound, and playful, in a way that makes it ideal for novel discovery. Now, critics of this distinction and its disciplinary consequences rejected the assumption that the justification or “proof” of theories was a purely objective or logical matter; human psychology and sociology are undeniable factors in the context of justification, not just the context of discovery. An extension of this criticism is to acknowledge how imagination, a mental process not bound to objectivity with a big ‘O’, also figures in scientific reasoning, analysis, justification. Here are a couple ways I think this is true; both of them concern the use of imagination in scientific experimentation.

Philosophers employ thought experiments (sometimes for good, sometimes…not so good). But scientists use thought experiments too; they always have. And it should be obvious why: they often have to “dream up” some conceptual or technological innovation in order to resolve a current problem and, importantly, a problem apparently not resolvable by existing means. And this “dreaming up” involves imagination. It would be wrong to think, though, that this all occurs at an initial stage of discovery or a Eureka! moment. The imagined scenarios or propositions have to be put to the test, so to speak, to determine if they will contribute to the solution to the current problem. And this analysis will often involve imagination. A famous example is William Harvey’s reported method of discovering the human cardiovascular system. The problem was this: the existing anatomical model had it that there were two kinds of blood—one coming from the liver and distributed through the veins and the other coming from the heart and distributed through the arteries. And all of this blood was supposed to be regularly consumed by the human body. Harvey reasoned that this model was incompatible with empirical observation; for instance, it would predict that veins would be regularly dry (which appeared to be false given rapid blood loss upon incision) unless the liver created blood constantly and with inconceivable rapidity. Harvey began to imagine that blood flowed cyclically throughout the body. But this imagined possibility was not yet sufficient for a solution to the problem. To secure that, Harvey then had to construct a new anatomical model, including how the blood flowed from arteries to veins and then returned to the heart through its right ventricle. And he had to construct this new model—a new paradigm, if you like—in a way that was consistent with what else was known about the human body. This is a scientific innovation shot through with imagination at all of its stages.

Another way imagination figures in scientific discovery is technological. A naïve view of empirical science might assume that the technologies used are ready-made, so to speak, and the scientist must then just use them, and sometimes use them creatively. But a moment’s reflection will reveal otherwise: scientific technologies are as much a part of the invention of science as the theories they are used to test and support. The perceptual psychologist, for example, is regularly challenged to identify possible confounds to isolating the phenomenon she is interested in. Perhaps she wants to know if an observed behaviour is a result of vision, but not of the subject’s judgment or desires. So she must attempt to “control for”, as we say, the variables that might be possible confounds and, in the good cases, thereby get data just on the variable/s of interest. A great deal of imagination is required to do all of this successfully: one has to imagine what the possible confounds may be, one has to imagine methods for controlling for the relevant variables and then which ones may work better or worse. And one sometimes must imagine (and construct) a technology in order to serve those very methods. As I like to put it, then, being an experimentalist requires being a tinkerer, both at the stage of experimental construction and technological development. These innovations are themselves creative, are essential for creative scientific discovery, and the tinkering required often involves imagination.

RB: There is little that shapes the human experience as profoundly and pervasively as creativity. What is the relation between creativity and imagination?

DS: I certainly agree. I think it’s right that we simply wouldn’t be human, or what we think of as human, if we lacked the capacity for creative thought and behaviour. And I also think that we wouldn’t be human without the capacity for imagination. As should be clear from what I’ve said about imagination and scientific discovery, I think these two observations are importantly related. I think imagination is central to creativity, and that this is true whether we are talking about richly creative minds like Picasso or Einstein or Coltrane or whomever, or talking about more mundane instances of everyday creativity.

So a lot of my work on creativity has attempted to shift the emphasis from the former to the latter, from genius to what I call “minimal creativity”. I don’t think a Picasso or an Einstein is a good place to start, if we want to understand their innovations from a psychological or naturalistic perspective. Instead, we start with some features that are common to those instances of creativity and ones that many people might make: a clever solution to a hitch in a home improvement project, a new way to explain something familiar, a chess move that surprises both you and your opponent. What is common to all of these?

We can first acknowledge that creative things are valuable, but I don’t think value is informative as a condition on creativity (any more than I think utility is an informative defining condition of, say, a chair). To explain creativity, then, even at the most basic level, we have to say what features are necessary for some F to be creative. This will be incomplete…but I think there are at least two, and even just acknowledging the two can lead us in some interesting directions and make the topic of creativity tractable. First, creative Fs—an idea, an action, a product—are novel or new in some way. But we shouldn’t assume that they must be entirely new, or out of nowhere as we might say. Instead, they can be novel relative to a comparison class, and that comparison class could be the entirety of human ideas, or it could just be the set of ideas had by the thinker in question. Maggie Boden calls the first “historical creativity” and the second, “psychological creativity”. And she urges that an interest in creativity is not exclusive to the first. In fact, I think the point is even stronger: a philosophical or psychological interest in creativity should not centrally emphasize historical creativity, since here our interest is in what the agent does, or has to do, to make something new. And this could be a very individual, rather than a sociological, matter. Second, and related, we think of creative Fs, say a new hypothesis or an interesting performance, as being worthy of praise. Accordingly, they are thoughts and actions for which the agent is responsible (we don’t praise people for things out of their control). So, creativity, in addition to relative novelty, requires agency (in the philosopher’s sense).

This is an incomplete characterization of what I call “minimally creative thought” (or action). But even this minimal sense points to the importance of imagination. As I said above, the playfulness of imagination—its being unbound to truth or reality—allows us to think or act in ways not immediately responsive to our reality (or how we perceive that reality). It enables novelty. And because we can voluntarily control imagination, we can explore those novel ideas and their possible values. And, this is something we do, as agents. The upshot, I think, is that imagination is important for even mundane instances of creativity. And that, to come finally back to the question, is why imagination is so important to being human, and to experiencing the world as human.

RB: Can the imaginative capacity sometimes be a hindrance and restrictive? If so, can you give some examples where this might be the case?

DS: Well, imagination can itself be restricted (and therefore perhaps restrictive). Psychologists (and, following suit, some philosophers) are becoming more and more sensitive to individual differences in cognitive processes. One relevant example here is aphantasia, a condition where individuals have limited to no capacity for imagery. And more broadly, there is good evidence for individual differences in types of imagery. For instance, a lot more people report a capacity for visual imagery than, say, olfactory imagery. Whether these conditions restrict individuals is something of an open question. Persons with aphantasia can perform many of the same cognitive and reasoning tasks as those who have the capacity for imagery, even if they are succeeding by different mental means.

Another way that imagination can be troublesome—perhaps a hindrance—is a familiar one: our imaginations can “run away with us”. One nice development in recent philosophy of imagination and fiction concerns how mere imagining can cause powerful emotional affect. This is obviously true when we watch a film or theatre performance or read a novel. Imagining mere fictional characters and events results in feelings of sadness, pity, fear (or at least, feelings very much like them). In these cases I don’t think we would want to call it a hindrance, but now just notice how roughly the same phenomenon occurs when we are imagining mere possibilities in our lives: one can imagine that a loved one may be terminally ill, that the audience thought your lecture was rubbish, that that’s not a gremlin in the attic but a devastating termite infestation. And these imaginings may absolutely result in genuine emotional affect. This can be a hindrance, emotionally and in our decision making capacities.

A perhaps less familiar way that imagination might be a hindrance concerns knowledge. Many think that having knowledge of some proposition P involves certainty that P is true. Here is one way to characterize this epistemic achievement: certainty that P requires that one be certain that propositions incompatible with P (most obviously, not P) are false. Thus to know that you have a physical body and live in a material world (again, call this ‘P’), you need to be certain (or, as we sometimes say, have a justified belief) that you are not living in some science fictional scenario, say, where all of your experiences are the mere consequence of an elaborate computer simulation. (This may sound outlandish, but how could you be absolutely sure that this scenario is false? It’s notoriously hard to answer that question with certainty. And if you want more down to earth examples: short of going and looking, how can you be certain…that you locked your apartment door this morning? that your car is parked where you left it? that there are no typos in the email you just sent?…it’s easy to imagine possibilities incompatible with each of these propositions). So…this latter proposition (living out an elaborate computer simulation) is incompatible with the truth of P (that you have a physical body and live in a material world), and thus incompatible with your knowing that P. And here is the rub, the more imaginative you are, if you “let your imagination rip”, to steal a phrase from David Lewis, the more salient are those possibilities incompatible with your knowledge that P. So, perhaps surprisingly, imagination can restrict knowledge: as imagination goes up, so to speak, we can become more sceptical and knowledge can elude us.

RB: How do you, or how would you like to, see the future philosophical and psychological exploration of our imaginative capacities progressing?

DS: Well, I’d certainly like to see more collaboration between empirical researchers and philosophers on the topic. Things are trending in this direction, so I’d just like to see that continue. It’s a place—and theories of mind in general are a place—where, I think, interdisciplinarity is worth the hype.

As I noted earlier, the dominant emphasis in the last couple decades has been on non-sensory imagination, and at the cost of work on imagery. I’d like to see that change.

Finally, I think the work on imagination and fiction is good. But I think we should see more emphasis on the importance of imagination to other aspects of life: to the pursuit of knowledge, to happiness, to understanding of others. I’m not suggesting that there hasn’t been some of this work, there has been. But I think there should be more and more of it. To use my own slogan once more, imagination is not all play and no work: it does a great deal of work for us. It may sound lofty, but I think imagination contributes in deep and rich ways to the human condition, and so I would like to see more philosophical and cognitive scientific discussions of this broad importance.



The post Creativity, Imagination and Philosophy appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Creativity, Imagination and ‘Finding Your Element’

Richard Bright: What is the biggest misconception people have about creativity?

Ken Robinson: There are several. Probably the biggest is that creativity is an exceptional set of powers that few people have. My argument is that, if you are a human being, it comes with the kit; you’re born with these powers. Creativity is not a single power that only a few people have, it’s a set of capacities that everybody has. There’s an analogy with literacy. With a few exceptions, everybody is born with the capacity to be literate, but not everybody is, because not everybody has learnt what’s involved and practiced the skills that are needed.

Becoming literate is different from learning to speak. Most children learn to speak quite naturally; nobody teaches them formally how to do it. They just pick it up. You couldn’t teach them. It isn’t practical to teach anybody to speak at that age; you coax, encourage and correct them, but you don’t ‘teach’ them to speak in any formal sense. But writing and reading are cultural skills that have to be studied and practiced and usually do need to be taught. Similarly, all people are born with ‘creative capacities’ but not everybody develops the skills that are necessary to fulfil them.

RB: Would you say that creativity is a natural instinct?

KR: It’s a suite of things. I make a broad distinction between imagination and creativity. Imagination is where all this comes from. It’s part of what makes human beings different from the rest of life on Earth. Very few things do, when it comes down to it and we make far too much of the differences. We’re mortal, organic creatures of flesh and blood. We depend for our survival on what the Earth provides. Our life cycles are similar to many other species; we are part of the natural world.  At the same time, it’s evident that there are some differences between humanity and the rest of life on earth. You and I are communicating across continents by Skype. You’re sitting in a building that someone designed and others constructed and you’re surrounded by digital technologies. So am I. We’re using articulate languages. Other creatures aren’t doing that. There aren’t cats and dogs Skyping in some other parts of the building on devices they came up with.

Clearly there are differences in the way we engage with the world around us. One way of describing these differences is to say that human beings have powerful imaginations; that we are born with a capacity to look beyond the immediate sensory environment. As far as we can judge, other creatures are more ‘locked in’ to the here and now than we are.

By imagination, I mean the ability to bring into mind the things that are not present. With imagination, you can step outside the immediate here and now; you can re-visit the past; you can enter the mindsets of other people and try to see the world from their perspective; you can anticipate the future and hypothesise.

Imagination is the wellspring of creativity. But creativity is a step on. You could be imaginative all day long and never do anything. We wouldn’t say, “There’s Richard, he’s tremendously creative. He never does anything but he’s terribly thoughtful. He lays in bed all day, staring at the ceiling.” To be creative you have to do something, it can be anything, but it has to be something. It could be mathematics, publishing a magazine, making a meal, writing a play, designing a building, coming up with a new scientific theory. But it has to be some thing.

I define creativity more specifically as the process of having original ideas that have value. There’s a shorter way of thinking about it, which is that creativity is putting imagination to work. It is ‘applied imagination’. It’s the executive branch of imagination. We’re born with fertile imaginations. Children often lead wonderfully imaginative lives. They create imaginary worlds and dwell in them with tremendous enjoyment and confidence. To move into the more purposeful realm of sustained and serious creativity, we need to acquire the necessary skills and dispositions in the domain in which we are interested, or at least enough to get started.

I had an indirect exchange with Michael Gove last year. He was on BBC Question Time, talking about how creativity is all very well but musicians have to learn all their scales first; they have to master their instruments before they can create. Well, they don’t. There are many wonderful musicians who don’t know one end of a stave from another, and who learnt ‘on the job’. Think of jazz musicians, rock musicians, blues guitarists who learnt through improvisation and trial and error. I’m sure there are many accomplished classical musicians too, who started making music before they understood what they were doing technically and had mastery of their instruments.

Of course, there’s a reciprocal relationship between the skills you need and what you are  you are capable of doing, but you acquire skills more readily when you need them. I don’t play the piano and I can’t be properly creative on it. I could make a row on a piano. I could vent on it for a while, I could do something that I might personally find interesting but I wouldn’t expect anyone else to take an interest in it because I can’t control the medium. Sustained and fulfilling creative work in any domain requires a growing mastery of the discipline itself. But you can get started and learn more as you go.

Children start out being very imaginative but as they get older they may not acquire the skills they need or they may lose the confidence. They become more self-conscious look at what other people are doing and think, “I can’t do that.” Kids will draw unselfconsciously until they’re five, six or seven. By the time they’re ten, they’ll often say, “I can’t draw.” Actually, they probably can’t. I don’t know how to fly a plane. There’s no point in saying, “Oh go on, have a go!” because I can’t. Of course, I could learn how to do it. There’s a difference between saying, “I don’t know how to do it” and “I’m incapable of doing it.” I can’t play the guitar, it doesn’t mean that I couldn’t, I just can’t at the moment. I could if I put my mind to it.

We all have creative capacities, but they do have to be cultivated. If we neglect or demean them in schools, those natural talents may start to atrophy.

RB: You mentioned drawing and how children, when they are seven or eight, feel that they can’t draw. At some point children are told to draw ‘realistically’ and some then believe they cannot draw because they cannot draw realistically. But they’re still expressing their creativity, although they’re being told, “Well, you can’t draw realistically, therefore you can’t draw.”

KR: Untutored, children’s drawings typically go through various stages of development. Very young children start off with unrecognisable shapes and splodges. As they grow, they start to draw stick people. Then they start adding more details and features. As they go on, they develop some perspective in their drawings. When they get to the age of twelve or thirteen, without tutoring, they don’t get much better. They reach a plateau. Consequently, many adults have the graphic skills of an adolescent. If you asked a typical forty year old they’d probably say, “Well, I can’t really draw.” They’re probably right. They can’t really. If people can’t read, there’s no point in saying that they can when they can’t. But they could, with help.

RB: Going back to imagination. Imagination, as you said, is very tied up with creativity. Ted Hughes, in an essay entitled, ‘Myth and Education’ said, “The real problem comes from the fact that outer world and inner world are interdependent at every moment, we are simply the locus of their collision. And, whether we like it or not, our life is what we are able to make of that collision and struggle. So, what we need is a faculty that embraces both worlds simultaneously, a large, flexible graph, an inner vision which holds wide open like a great theatre, the arena of contention, and pays equal respect to both sides. This really is imagination.” Basically, he’s saying that imagination and creativity involves this dynamic process of negotiation between the inner and outer world. Would you agree with this statement? That there’s a negotiation between the inner and outer? If you’re too ‘inner’, you can be psychotic. If you’re just ‘outer’, you become less empathetic.

KR: Yes, absolutely. One of the consequences of our powers of imagination and creativity is that we don’t live in the world as directly as other creatures seem to do. We live in a world of ideas and conceptions, of representations. We don’t just live in the world, we have ideas about it, we think about it, we theorise about it, we place frameworks across it, we see it through veils of conceptions, through our languages, our cultures and our ideologies. Some of the most bitter battles and murderous conflicts in the world are over ideas, not property. They are between people avidly contesting their own views of the world.

We do live in two worlds. It was nicely put some years ago in a book by Robert Witkin, called ‘The Intelligence of Feeling’.  He said there’s a world that exists, whether or not we exist – a world of other people and objects, a world that was there before we came into it as individuals. There’s another world that exists only because we exist; it’s the world that came into being when we did, it’s the world of our own private thoughts, feelings, perceptions and motivations, a world in which, as R.D. Laing once said, there’s only one set of footprints. We only know the outer world through the inner world, through our various senses and the ideas we have about it.

Education systems are pre-occupied with this outer world, with the events that go on in it and with information about almost to the complete neglect of students’ inner lives. There has to be balance between the inner world of feeling and spirituality, and the outer world of events, ideas and information.

One way, of distinguishing arts and sciences is that the natural sciences especially are focused on understanding the outer world in its own terms. Science is objective in the sense that people aim to produce observations and theories, which can be independently validated by other people using agreed criteria and procedures. In these ways, the assertions of scientists can be challenged, refuted or verified by other scientists. They are objective in that sense.

Objectivity isn’t the same as truth. Ideas and theories that people agree on with complete, objective certainty may turn out in the light of better information and analysis to be completely untrue. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t objective in the first place. They may have been subjected to all the normal criteria of objective judgement: they just turned out to be wrong.

What artists typically aim to do is not only to describe the outer world in terms of itself but of its relationship with our inner worlds: that point of collision that Ted Hughes talks about, where these two worlds intersect. “This is how it looks to me, this is how I experience it. This is how I feel about this.” This doesn’t mean that the arts are not objective, they can be completely objective, but they report on different sorts of truth. They live in that intersection of the inner and outer worlds and they’re all the more important for that.

Creativity isn’t just about the arts. When people say they’re not creative, often what they mean is that they’re not artistic; they don’t play an instrument or draw or dance. But creativity is a feature of all areas of human intelligence, and it operates often in very similar ways in different disciplines. There are many synergies between the arts and sciences, for example. They may answer to different criteria, the purposes may be different, but the interests between them and the processes they draw on are more alike than is commonly understood. Education often divides disciplines and tries to keep them apart but out in the world they constantly flow together.

RB: The statement you made, about defining creativity as a process of having original ideas that have value, the term ‘value’ is loaded, it’s subject to interpretation and misinterpretation. People often associate creativity with the individual, but there’s also the social dimension as well. Would you agree that there’s the value personally for the individual, but also there’s a social dimension?

KR: All three parts of the definition are important. It’s a process and not an event. In any creative process you work to shape the idea or object you are producing. It often takes a different form in the end from what you had in mind when you started out. Being creative is a process of successive approximations. It’s a material process too. The materials being used are not incidental to how the work evolves but central to it.

Some artistic movements, for example, have been spurred by new technologies and materials. Impressionism was borne forward with the development of pre-mixed and synthetic paints, which gave painters a different and more vivid palette than before. The availability of these paints in tin tubes also allowed them to work more easily and quickly outdoors.  The instruments of the symphony orchestra are a tool kit. The development of these instruments intermingled at every turn with the evolution of Western music itself. But these are tools. A cupboard full of these instruments has no music in it until musicians breathe life into them.

So, creativity is a process in which the work you are producing evolves in the making. Sometimes people come up with a finished work straightaway, but it’s more the exception than the rule. It’s said that John Milton never revised ‘Paradise Lost’. He woke up every morning and dictated sections of it to his daughters. They took it down and took it off to the publishers and that was that. It’s much more often the case that creative work takes shape with successive revisions, false starts, edits and changes in the process of making it.

Creativity is about producing something new.  At the most basic level, it means producing something that didn’t exist before. To count as creative, the work doesn’t have to be original to the whole of humanity. It doesn’t have to be quantum theory, or Beethoven’s Ninth. It does have to be new to the maker at least and not just a copy or a repetition.  Value judgements are important here too. In judging our own and other people’s creative work, we constantly apply values to them. Is it any good? Is it worth it? Does it add up to anything? Does it matter? In any creative process, there is a constant questioning, “Does that feel right? Is that OK? Is that it?”

Then, when the work is out in the world, people bring their own judgments to it and decide whether they think it’s any good. That’s true in the sciences and the arts. Most of our judgments about original work are about value. It does of course then raise the question, “Whose values?” There’s no single answer to that. What we do know is that a lot of original work, in all sorts of fields, was vilified when it first appeared. Some of it was deified later on when people got the hang of it; some turned out to be nonsense after all.

Original work is often misunderstood at the time, because it doesn’t sit well with dominant cultural values. Some people start by thinking, “This is rubbish” Then, if it has some enduring quality, people think of it differently because it shifts the value system.

You can’t really have a conversation about arts, or creativity in many fields without encountering value judgements. I don’t know why people shy away from that. Of course, you should be prepared to defend value judgements and to say which values are being applied and why. I think people are sometimes nervous of making value judgements because of a ‘scientistic’ culture that demands quantitative data as proof of judgement. Not all judgements can or should be quantified in the same way.

RB: I want to come on to education. We talked about the creative process, where one is working with limitations. Stravinsky once wrote that the more constraint one imposes, the more one frees oneself. John Cleese talks about creativity as a way of operating, as opposed to a talent, and he imposes time restraints on his creative output during the day. Anish Kapoor talks about limiting failure time, working with failure and reducing that failure time. That idea of working with limitations, self-imposed, or imposed by others, is actually part of the creative process. There are no hard and fast rules about creativity, it can come from desperation, deadlines or daydreaming. So, getting on to education, can creativity be educated? Or does education actually jeopardise creativity?

KR: Limitations and constraints can have an important role in creativity. David Rockwell, the architect, was recently commissioned to design a theatre for the TED conference, which now takes place in a large, rather featureless convention hall at the Vancouver Convention Centre. The actual space is like an aircraft hanger. His commission was to design a theatre that could house twelve hundred people with a sense of intimacy with the stage and each other. The TED conference is only in the space for one week a year and the theatre has to be assembled relatively quickly on site and then dismantled and stored for the next year. He designed a wooden theatre, a little like Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London It’s a beautiful structure that creates a vibrant, intimate space. The strict constraints on space, portability and materials drove the design.

Creativity is not all about freewheeling and freefalling. It’s about control and rigour too. I’m doing some work at the moment with Disney and the ‘Imagineers’. They are brilliantly talented in all sorts of ways, and deeply disciplined in what they’re doing. So, can education help to promote creativity? Well, yes.

Joi Ito runs the media lab at MIT. He said recently, “Learning is what you do for yourself, and education is what other people do to you.” That’s a nice way to put it. Education is about learning. It shouldn’t be necessary to say that but it is. It’s like saying the health service is about health. It is, but in practice all kinds of people go into hospital for one condition and get sick or die of another that they contracted in the hospital. Too often kids love to learn until they go to school because the conditions in schools can militate against it.

There are various ways in which education gets in the way of creativity in particular. One is that most education systems actually do very little to cultivate it. If it happens at all, it happens incidentally through the efforts of individual teachers who are impassioned about it. Politicians talk a good game about creativity, but they don’t do what’s needed at the policy level to make it flourish. Often enough, they do the exact opposite.

Schools can frustrate creativity too, sometimes accidentally and sometimes deliberately, in how they’re organised and operate. Education consists of four interweaving strands; there’s the curriculum, which is what we want people to learn; pedagogy, which is how we aim to help them do it; assessment, which is how we report on how they’re getting on; and the overall culture of the school, which gives strong, if tacit messages about priorities through the physical environment and algorithms of the day.

Broadly speaking, I distinguish between general creativity and personal creativity. There are all kinds of ways to help people think more productively and generate fresh ideas. Edward de Bono has written a lot about this and produced some great strategies like the ‘six thinking hats’ and other practical techniques for generating and sifting through ideas and for organising groups to be more productive. There are other proprietary systems too, like Synectics and Design Thinking, which offer their own techniques. These sorts of techniques can be applied to anything from designing a new car to planning your holidays. I think that schools should routinely teach the skills of general creative thinking.

By personal creativity, I mean areas in which, as individuals, we have a particular calling. I wrote about this in the Element books. For some people it may be chemistry or basketball; others come alive when they’re working with animals, others when they’re dancing or writing. There’s a very personal dimension to these forms of creative work because they fulfil personal talents and passions.

Education militates against general creativity because schools don’t teach the skills and processes of creative thinking. It inhibits personal creativity because a narrow curriculum limits opportunities for students to develop their personal talents and passions or doesn’t allow them enough time to pursue them. There are pedagogical issues too. Teachers themselves are very constrained by the testing demands in schools and not enough of them know how to facilitate the creative process.

Methods of assessment also have to be compatible with promoting creative work. When I was chairman of the Department of Arts Education at Warwick University, I was pressing to have the practical work of students in theatre, dance, visual arts and music, accepted for assessment in its original forms. The general unit of assessment at the time was a two thousand-word essay. Even students that were doing art had to submit essays, not paintings. I remember a conversation with another member of the examinations who said, “There’s no objective way of judging these works” I said, “How do you judge a paper in mathematics?” He said, “We give them to mathematicians.” I replied, “Let’s give works of art to artists and get them to assess it. Let’s give novels to people who understand about novels.” The next issue was comparability. I was asked how we could compare paintings to a two thousand-word essay. I suggested that as a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, the students should probably submit two pictures …

If schools are serious about promoting creativity in schools, they have to look at the curriculum, teaching and assessment and at the physical environment in which students are learning. They have to understand and encourage the conditions in which both general and personal creativity actually flourish.

RB: Certain languages, the written language, the visual language, mathematical language, are sometimes non-transferable. An example would be that, in mathematics, you can describe multi-dimensional space quite easily – up to twelve dimensions – in the visual language you can only imply it in four dimensions; you cannot go beyond that. Visual language is a system of communication, to encode concepts, information and meaning, using visual elements only, no other ‘language’ is needed or will suffice. It’s non-transferable.

KR: Richard Feynman talked about that. As well as being a great physicist, he was also a musician. He said, if you want to understand quantum theory you need to know mathematics. You can’t understand it otherwise. You can approximate it, you can get some rough idea of what we’re talking about, but you can’t engage in it without mathematics. You can’t get there through music.

Different areas of understanding need different modes of discourse. If somebody wants to know that you love them write them a poem, don’t give them an equation. A major argument for the arts in schools is that there are some forms of experience that that we can’t fully understand without them.

RB: My last question. Is finding one’s element a quest?

KR: Yes it is. I write about this in Finding Your Element. A quest is a particular type of journey. If you’re in Bath and decide to go to London, you know where it is and the odds are pretty high you’re going to get there. A quest is a different sort of journey, where you set out purposefully, but may not have a clear idea of the destination or if you will make it. Finding your element is a two-way quest. It’s an inner journey to understand more about yourself, your talents, and the things that engage and interest you. In that sense it’s a spiritual journey: the sense in which you are in high or low spirits, in which your energy is enriched, or depleted. If you’re in your element, you get energy from what you do. Doing things you don’t care for tends to take energy from you.

Finding your element is not just a journey into yourself. It’s a quest to discover more of yourself in the world around you. You may not know what’s in you, until you put yourself to the test in the outer world. It’s that interaction that Ted Hughes talks about.

In Finding Your Element I set out some practices and techniques for this two-way quest. I also argue that this isn’t only or necessarily about what you do for a living, it’s about what sort of life you want to lead. I spoke at an event a few years ago with HRH the Dalai Lama. He said lots of wonderful things. One was, “To be born at all is a miracle. So what are you going to do with your life?” I think that’s exactly the right question.

The odds of our being here individually are very small and we’re not here for very long. Many people spend so much of their time just coping and getting through it. According to the World Health Organisation, by 2020 the second largest cause of disability among human beings, will be depression. Education does little to help here. In high-performing systems on standardised tests, like South Korea and Singapore, kids are being driven to states of high anxiety and often suicide because of the pressure of competition.

Dealing with these sorts of issues is about understanding that education is a personal process and that there are certain conditions under which human beings flourish, and others under which we do not. That’s what the Element books are really about.

The post Creativity, Imagination and ‘Finding Your Element’ appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

How DNA ancestry testing can change our ideas of who we are

How DNA ancestry testing can change our ideas of who we are

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We’ve underestimated the extent of mixing between ancestral groups throughout human history.

Caitlin Curtis, The University of Queensland

Have you ever wondered who you are or where you come from?

I think it’s a fundamental human desire to want to know this.

One way we’re seeing this curiosity play out is in the rise of the at-home DNA ancestry business. You’ve probably seen the ads for tests like 23andme and Ancestry DNA: you spit in a tube, and then receive a report breaking you down into neat little slices in a pie chart telling you that you’re, say, 30% German and 70% English. As a population geneticist, I find this fascinating.

But how does our collective interest in ancestry testing interact with our ideas and conversations about race?

Read more:
A DNA test says you’ve got Indigenous Australian ancestry. Now what?

‘No borders within us’

Earlier this year, a Mexican airline, Aeromexico, ran a tongue-in-cheek ad campaign, called “DNA Discounts” with the slogan “there are no borders within us”. For the ad campaign they gathered a group of North Americans who were willing to take a DNA test and get their results on camera. This group contained some members with, let’s just say, a somewhat negative view of Mexico.

Do you want to go to Mexico?

In the ad, the airline offered rewards to these people based on their DNA results, in the form of a discounted airline ticket to Mexico. The size of the discount depended on the amount of Mexican ancestry. If their test showed 15% Mexican ancestry, that meant a 15% discount.

The footage of people getting their results on camera is pretty funny, and some of them seemed somewhat surprised, and maybe even upset about their reported ancestry. More than half of those tested appeared to have Mexican ancestry, even though they weren’t aware of it.

The slogan “there are no borders within us” has an element of political commentary related to Donald Trump’s border wall. But the ad also teaches us two important things.

It shows how DNA testing can challenge not just our ideas of race and identity, but our notion of being. Your genetic ancestry might be completely different from your cultural identity. Just ask the folks in the ad.

Beyond this, it also highlights how mainstream this kind of science has become, and how much DNA ancestry testing has entered into pop culture.

Read more:
Five things to consider before ordering an online DNA test

Recent, dark past

I think we humans have always been interested in our ancestry, but it hasn’t always been a healthy interest – sometimes it’s been much darker and more sinister. And we don’t even have to look too far into the past to see that.

The eugenics movement was part science and part social engineering, and based on the idea that certain things – such as being poor, lazy, “feeble-minded” or criminal – were actually traits that were inherited in families. These traits were often linked to certain ancestries or racial groups using biased methodology.

Eugenics was the idea that humanity could engineer a better future for itself by identifying and regulating these groups using science and technology.

Read more:
Boyer Lectures: the new eugenics is the same as the old, just in fancier clothes

In the United States in the early 20th century, eugenics became a recognised academic discipline at many prestigious universities – even Harvard. By 1928, almost 400 colleges and universities in America were teaching it.

In 1910 the Eugenics Record Office was set up to collect ancestry data, literally door to door. It then used this data to support racist agendas and influence things like the 1924 Immigration Act to curb immigration of southeastern Europeans, and ban most Asians and Arabs altogether.

Although we may think of eugenics as something linked with Nazi Germany in World War II, Hitler based some of his early ideas about eugenics on these academic programs in the US. There was a fear of “pollution” of the purebred genetic lineage, and that the “inferior” races would contaminate the “superior” race. Many Nazi defendants at the Nuremberg trials claimed there wasn’t much difference between the Nazi eugenics program and the ones in the US.

Racism with flawed science

The events of that time are still relevant now. More than seven decades have passed and we’re seeing the rise of far-right groups and ideologies – the world of Trump, and the return of restrictive immigration policies.

We’re seeing a mainstreaming of ideas about race that we rejected not long ago. We’re once again seeing the science of genetics being misappropriated to support racist agendas.

Read more:
Dramatic advances in forensics expose the need for genetic data legislation

Late last year, the New York Times reported on a trend among white supremacists to drink milk. Most people of northern European ancestry have a version of a certain gene, called a lactase gene, that means they can fully digest milk as adults. This is due to a genetic mutation several thousand years ago, around the time of the first cattle herders in Europe.

The article described how people from the far right have taken this scientific result and run with it – producing bizarre YouTube videos in which people chug milk from 2-litre containers, swigging it and throwing it around in celebration of their supposed “genetic superiority” – and urging people who cannot digest milk to “go back”. Comedian Stephen Colbert even picked up on this story (in his words: “lactose is their only form of tolerance”).

The white supremacists took this bit of science and twisted it to suit their needs. But what they have ignored is research showing that a similar version of this gene evolved among cattle breeders in East Africa too.

DNA does not define culture

It’s not just popular culture: DNA ancestry has also entered political culture.

The right-wing Australian nationalist One Nation recently called for DNA ancestry tests as a requirement to prove Aboriginal identity to access “benefits”. I don’t want to give this dangerous idea any more oxygen, and as a geneticist I can tell you it won’t work.

Cultural identity is much more than simply what is in our DNA. Aboriginal communities are the ones who determine who is and who is not Indigenous. I think this episode highlights a worrying trend for genetic tests to be seen as the ultimate decider of race and identity in public debates.

Read more:
Why DNA tests for Indigenous heritage mean different things in Australia and the US

So how does the marketing of the DNA companies themselves influence our thinking about ancestry?

These ancestry companies use the language of science in their marketing, and present their results as being highly scientific – which people interpret as meaning accurate and factual. The process of estimating ancestry from DNA is scientific, but people may not realise it can also be a bit of a blurry process, and actually more of an estimate.

When you look at your slice in the pie chart and it says 16% German, it is not a fact that you are 16% German. It’s an estimate, or an educated guess, of your ancestry based on statistical inference.

I think representation of our ancestries in pie charts is not helping our conversations.

Twins got different results

Recently, two identical twins put five DNA ancestry companies to the test, and this provides a really interesting look at how this process works.

The raw data for each twin was more than 99% identical, which shows that the way the companies produce the raw data is indeed quite accurate.

The shocking thing was that the companies provided each twin with noticeably different ancestry estimates.

From one company, the first twin got 25% Eastern European, and the second got 28%. Just to be clear, this shouldn’t happen with identical twins because they have the same DNA.

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Even more surprising, one company said the twins were 27-29% Italian, but another said they were 19-20% Greek. A lot of this difference would be based on the size of the databases that the companies use as references and who is in the databases, and – very importantly – who has been left out of the databases. These factors would be different between the different companies, and change through time.

So the results you get now could be different to the results you might get in, say, six months when the databases are updated.

Estimating our ancestry is hard, and the main reason it is hard is because our ancestry is much more mixed up than some people might have thought. It’s not really so clear-cut as a pie chart might suggest. The statistics are blurry because our populations are blurry.

The bigger picture that’s emerging from DNA ancestry testing is that we’ve underestimated the extent of mixing between ancestral groups throughout human history.

Looking at the pie chart might give you the impression that there are discrete borders within you and boundaries between your different ancestries, but as Aeromexico so eloquently put it, “there are no borders within us”.

This article is an edited version of a story presented on ABC’s Ockham’s Razor and delivered at the World Science Festival, Brisbane in March 2019.The Conversation

Caitlin Curtis, Research fellow, Centre for Policy Futures (Genomics), The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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