Imagination Is a Skill We Develop, Not a Trait We Lose

6 min read

The most popular TED talk of all time is a talk by Ken Robinson on whether schools kill creativity. Robinson does not provide any evidence they do; he simply laments the decline of arts education. But the popularity of this talk, viewed 75 million times, implies that its title resonates with the general public.

In particular, it resonates with conventional wisdom about the rise and fall of imagination. We commonly think of imagination as springing forth, fully formed, from the minds of children, requiring no teaching or training. Imagination is then assumed to decline with age, as children acquire the channelized thoughts and routinized behaviors of adults.

James Reeve Stuart / Wikimedia Commons

The Painting Lesson

Source: James Reeve Stuart / Wikimedia Commons

One reason we associate imagination so strongly with children is casual observation of children’s behavior. Children often seem absorbed in imaginative activities. They engage in pretend play. They make artwork, like crayon drawings, and handiwork, like cardboard forts. They believe in fantasy characters, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. And they craft experiments to learn more about the world around them.

But on closer inspection, these activities are less imaginative than they first appear. When children pretend, they typically simulate real-world activities, like using tools or doing chores. When they make things, they typically replicate ordinary objects. They do believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but they do not create these characters; they accept their existence on the word of trusted authorities. And when they conduct experiments, they do so mainly to confirm their expectations rather than challenge them, rarely learning anything new in the process.

As for adults’ imagination, we often think of adults as drones, or worker bees, trained to perform the same mindless tasks over and over. But it is through the labors of adults—and the expertise of adults—that we have art, architecture, literature, medicine, mathematics, science, and technology. Adults are cultural innovators; children are not.

In fact, scores of studies demonstrate that children’s imagination is impoverished. Children have the capacity to entertain novel possibilities but not the tools. The tools come from knowledge, learned from others, which allow us to transcend our beliefs about what is true and contemplate ideas about what could be true.

In my new book, Learning to Imagine: The Science of Discovering New Possibilities, I review research on how children’s imagination is more limited than we realize and how adults’ imagination is more expansive than we appreciate. Below are three prime examples.

Do Children Think Anything Is Possible?

A potent way to expand imagination is through the testimony of other people. Most of what we know comes not from firsthand observation but from secondhand reports. Few of us, for instance, have orbited the Earth or performed heart surgery, but all of us can learn about these possibilities from those who have.

Testimony is particularly valuable to children, who have a limited database of experience. In fact, some have argued that children are programmed to absorb adult testimony, accepting anything they hear as possible. But are children that credulous? Researchers have looked into the matter by asking children about the possibility of unusual events, like eating lightning for dinner or finding an alligator under the bed, and they find that children actually think very little is possible.

Children deny the possibility of events that violate physical laws, like eating lightning, but they also deny the possibility of events that violate mere regularities, like finding an alligator under the bed. In other words, they think that improbable events are impossible and must learn that many events they do not expect to happen still could.

Imagination Essential Reads

Are Children Natural-Born Innovators?

Tools, like testimony, expand imagination by transporting us to a new location in the landscape of possibilities, sometimes a location previously viewed as nonexistent. The physicist Lord Kelvin once proclaimed that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” Less than ten years later, the Wright Brothers flew the first airplane. Heavier-than-air flying machines went from an impossibility to an actuality in an instant.

One explanation for why naysayers like Lord Kelvin fail to appreciate the promise of new technology is that children are humankind’s real innovators. Their fresh perspective allows them to solve problems that might stump adults. Researchers have explored this possibility by giving children problems that require making a new tool, such as the problem of removing a toy from the bottom of a vertical tube using only a pipe cleaner.

Adults solve this problem immediately and effortlessly; they bend the pipe cleaner into a hook and then fish out the toy. Meanwhile, 3- and 4-year-olds almost never solve the problem. Reminding them that pipe cleaners are pliable does not help, nor does showing them a pipe cleaner already bent into a hook. To succeed, young children typically have to observe a full-blown demonstration of someone making a hook and using it to retrieve the toy, which they then copy.

Do Children Prefer Pretense to Reality?

Fiction is a model of reality that allows us to immerse ourselves in vicarious experiences. Literature, theater, television, and film expand our social imagination by simulating the actions of fictional characters as they struggle through life’s great problems for us—problems such as attaining power or finding love.

Anything can happen in fiction, and it’s generally believed that that’s what makes fiction appealing, especially for children. Much of children’s literature is set in fantasy worlds quite different from our own, such as Middle Earth, Narnia, Oz, and Hogwarts.

But if you give young children the choice between a fantasy story and a realistic story, they prefer the realistic one. If you give them a choice between a fictional story and a factual story, they prefer the factual one. And if you give them a choice between an unusual story and an ordinary story, they prefer the ordinary one. Children exhibit these preferences when deciding which stories they want to hear as well as when making their own stories. If Clifford the Big Red Dog were a choose-your-own-adventure story, children would choose that Clifford was brown and medium-sized.

Reimagining Imagination

As educated adults, we can imagine how an alligator might get under a bed, how a pipe cleaner could be used as a hook, and how a dog might behave if he were big and red. But these are developmental achievements, not inborn traits.

It may sound pessimistic to argue that children have poor imaginations, but it’s even more pessimistic to view imagination as a trait we possess only as children—a trait we lose with age similar to how we lose our hearing or our vision. Children certainly have imaginations; their artwork, their play, and their curiosity are a testament to that fact. But there’s a difference between having an active imagination and having an extraordinary one.

An extraordinary imagination requires knowledge: the examples, principles, and models learned from others. The more we know, the farther our imaginations can wander. Indeed, an important takeaway from the research covered in Learning to Imagine is that the key to expanding imagination, for people of all ages, is not forgetting what you know but learning something new.

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