Imagination is a daily practice. Our brains use two forms of memory. One is a procedural memory that supports rational, scientific, left-brain habits. The other is an episodic memory that tracks and records episodes (stories) of experiential learning often discredited as anecdotal evidence. Remembering entire episodes exercises our imaginations as we toggle between various points of view and tour the complexities of real life. Our imaginations require direct sensory input. Physical experiences stock up a reservoir of images, sounds, tastes, smells, and sensations. I’ve noticed a sharp decline in the ability of digital natives to come up with expressive metaphors, perhaps because screens can’t provide enough authentic sensory experiences to activate what seems to be a sensory-dependent skill.
Science is beginning to indicate that what we call insight is largely a sensory process. While we await more science, it’s interesting to consider all the metaphors we use to describe intuition or insight. We smell bullshit; something rings a bell or triggers our radar; a story delivers a flash of understanding, sends off vibes, or delivers a kick in the gut. Maybe what people used to call “extra-sensory” perception is more accurately described as sensory perception—reading our own body’s sense of a situation. All I know is that when I diligently seek out experiences that feed my imagination and revisit these experiences by imagining the sensory details, it is much easier to come up with insightful metaphors and stories.
Imagination enables us to invent new futures that are better than the present. Logic relies on past evidence-based successes, whereas imagination turns reality into clay we can mold into novel shapes and then test. Consider the person who sketched the design for the chair supporting your bottom right now. At some point this chair didn’t exist. That person imagined it, sketched it out, maybe even used a story to communicate the idea of it so strangers could construct it into a material reality. Without strong imaginations we struggle to invent new material realities.
Constant investment in your imagination stretches the mental muscles you need to explore beyond apparent limitations. Protect your storytelling from the enemies of imagination: certainty, proof, and metric constraints. Question certainties that narrow your definition of a problem. Ask real people to tell you true stories in person (share yours first). Don’t allow well-intentioned criticism to obliterate the best parts of your stories by shifting your focus to minor flaws before you have found the heart of your story. Rise above cynicism, quarantine fears, and risk vulnerability to stay connected to your imagination’s ability to find new trails of insight.
Software designers regularly use metaphors of architecture, building, and journeys to accelerate design ideas. These imaginative metaphors demonstrate how quickly metaphor can recruit the power of our imagination to see connections that logic fails to notice. Think about your imagination as taking on the metaphorical habits of different animals. For instance, my imagination is naturally like a fox because I chase whatever rabbit runs in front of me. Sometimes I need my imagination to hibernate like a bear or become as fickle as a cat, vacillating between exploring a problem from the inside/out as well as outside/in. Physical world metaphors trigger new points of view that may reveal new insights.
Metaphors shake things up. When you characterize a well-worn problem with a new metaphor you update your view with imaginative insights. Another of Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling suggests making a list and then discarding your first five ideas in order to see if the sixth one surprises you. Likewise you might list five good metaphors specifically to find a sixth metaphor that better improves understanding. I use all of these tricks to stimulate my imagination.
Finally, imagination is vital for people who maintain a wide circle of moral concern. If we can’t clearly visualize the people we care about: future generations, our boss, family and the vast array of humans we choose to treat like family they will cease to influence our perceptual field. Expanding who, where, and what we imagine makes our stories feel more meaningful to more people.
Excerpt from Chapter 11, 3rd ed. of The Story Factor (2019) AUDIBLE VERSION HERE