Imagination in adults

I recently read this question and answers in “The Last Word” column in New Scientist. I had to type it out and share it. This is a selected extract of the answers, with my emphasis added.

Question: Why are adults and teenagers less imaginative than children?

Answer 1:
I’m assuming that by “imaginative”, the questioner is thinking of such things as “if you plant budgie seed, do budgies grow?” If an extra-terrestrial asked such a question, you wouldn’t think they were imaginative, you would think they had limited understanding and experience of life on Earth, or perhaps the strangeness of the English language.
If imagination is what produces inventive, speculative fiction, and then turns that fiction into a reality, then it is a quality that is not lost as people get older.

Answer 2:
The answer is that they are not. Children are happy to imagine a fat gentleman can make a single sledge pulled by reindeer fly and become capable of delivering presents to half the world’s children, that the said gentleman is capable of stuffing himself and these presents down chimneys far too restrictive to accommodate either him or the presents, and all this in the space of 24 hours. Adults can still imagine this, but are more sceptical.
Children show no inhibition in putting their imagination into words because even if their propositions are outrageous, they will be indulged by adults. Adults keep theirs to themselves because they know they will be either exploited, challenged, laughed at, or arrested.

Answer 3:
Many young children’s imaginative observations and questions are to do with not understanding how such things as behaviours, objects, and processes are categorised. As we grow we learn a staggering array of social and physical facts: trees cannot walk, fish do not arrange birthday parties, and so on.
Asking “imaginative” questions that are across categories is critical for learning about how the world works and is, fortunately, seen as charming in small children. However, in older children similar observations may be seen as “proof” that basic understanding about how objects, animals, or processes work or are categorised hasn’t been learned. As a result, the child may be teased or told off for being babyish or silly.
Our socio-cultural system values logical, rational, linear thinking higher than intuitive, divergent, imaginative thinking – unless someone has made a lot of money from being imaginative with a novel, film, or invention. People who think “sideways” or in imaginative ways are frequently dismissed or admonished by peers, parents, and teachers for trivialising, daydreaming, or messing about. They are not being s sensible, serious, or responsible grown-up. As no-one likes to be a social outcast, most people censor and inhibit their “silly” or imaginative thoughts.
Imaginative thinking like any other kind of thinking is a skill and it atrophies with lack of use. This is why so many adolescents and adults are perceived as being less imaginative than children.
Those of us who continue to work with imaginative thinking throughout our lives can comfortably give 5-year-olds a run for their money. Real creative thinking – whether in art, literatures, science, or engineering – demands we play with and deliberately mix up categories and types to come up with new ways of seeing existing situations or problems.

To this I add:
Revel in your imagination. Revel in the fact that it is more mature and knowledgeable than the imagination of a child, and thus can come up with far more interesting flights of fancy and can lead to creative output of high quality. Exercise it. Imagine something weird, strange, or amazing every day.

And, at least occasionally, do something with those imaginings. Turn them into projects, or artworks, or writing.

You don’t have the excuse that you’re not as imaginative as a child.

3 Responses to “Imagination in adults”

  1. Tom West says:

    Children have imagination. Adults have vision

  2. The Ridger says:

    I’d say a lot of the questions children ask aren’t “imaginative” – they’re straight-up asking for information. The “what-if” questions that lead to works of fiction are imaginative – China Mielville is imaginative. Children are mostly just ignorant…

  3. The Ridger says:

    Míeville, dangit. (and I’m not “posting too quickly”. I’m trying to correct an error. Double dangit.)

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