Humans are remarkable, not because of their capacity for doing things (we are neither the fastest nor strongest species on the planet) but because of our capacity to conceive of how things might be rather than how they are right now. This capacity for imagination allows us to make plans for the future, to see problems in a new light and to understand why other people act the way they do. Perhaps more relevant to this blog, however, is the fact that whether our sleep is being disrupted by ruminations about work, or we pass idle time on a bus by daydreaming about a romantic liaison or a holiday, imaginative process are at play when we are otherwise at rest. Ironically, the important role imagination plays in our species’ cognitive toolbox is matched by the problems that arise when attempting to study the experience; it is in this context that the Hubbub project makes an important contribution to understanding the human condition.
Imagination is hard to study for two reasons. First, the private nature of imaginative processes means that they are primarily accessible through introspective analysis. This subjective perspective provides a rich datum of the qualities of the thoughts that people experience, but can lack the objectivity that scientific analysis ultimately requires. Second, spontaneity is a quintessential and perhaps critical, feature of the imaginative process, however, it denies the experimenter the opportunity to manipulate the topic of their investigation. Without the capability to manipulate imaginative processes it is much harder to study them scientifically. Problems in measurement and control have therefore prevented the study of imagination from receiving the attention it deserves.
In the last decades, research on what the mind and brain does when otherwise unoccupied has led to the recognition that imagination plays a key role in our mental life. Thanks to this work we now know that we need to understand what thoughts people’s imagination leads them to think, what these mean to the individual who experiences them and how they are perceived by society as a whole. We must also understand the functional role imaginative processes play by charting the costs and benefits that they bring in daily life and explore how people can learn to exert control over them. The answers to such a wide range of questions will not come from a specific paradigm or even a single scientific discipline.
It is this context that the studies that we are conducting in the Hubbub project are important. By gathering together a team of poets, historians, neuroscientists and psychologists, and focusing their attention on the nature of rest, we are able to explore imaginative experiences from a rich multi disciplinary perspective. We use a broad range of techniques to explore the subjective structure of imaginative experiences, delve into its historical and artistic basis and probe the underlying neural mechanisms that support it. This exciting chance to understand the experience of imagination from many different angles will provide unprecedented insight into what is now recognised to be a key element of the human condition. So sit back, relax, and imagine what we will discover in the next 18 months.
Follow Jonny Smallwood @the_mindwanders