In this article written exclusively for Imagination Matters, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, takes a fascinating exploration into the mind’s creative power and how we can imagine imagination itself.

Can you imagine a life without imagination?  If you can, then you have an imagination.  To create an image in your mind of something that does not exist in your current reality is one way of defining an aspect of what it means to imagine.  But what does it really mean, “to create an image in your mind”?  To explore this question, we need to examine each of the components of this phrase.

To create means to construct something, to give life to something seemingly from nothing, or from component parts that become assembled in novel ways to give birth to a whole, something greater than the sum of it parts.  We can create a building, for example, from wood and steel, that is more than simply those materials; we can create a dance from our memory of prior performances, our sense of movement and form, and from the dancers’ own contributions to the choreography.  We can even create new ideas, at times built from the “noosphere” or “mindsphere”, the interconnected energy environment of shared information that surrounds us within cultures, communities, and our relationships with other people, and with the planet.  Energy comes in many forms—from electrical to chemical, sound to light—and a pattern of energy with symbolic value is a way of defining what information is.

Can you imagine a life without imagination?  

An image is a term that may not be as limited as its connotation perhaps implies.  Some consider an image a visual picture, a kind of internal photo shop display.  But images can actually emerge across the entirety of our sensory spectrum, including hearing, smelling, tasting and touching.  In an even broader way, an image can be interpreted to include a notion or idea, a conceptual image without physical correlation, a conceptual sense we have within our awareness.  Sometimes images are embodied, and we feel them in our limbs, face, or bodily organs—and then we can express these images as gestures, dance or song.

In your mind is a fascinating phrase that may itself create a range of images in each of, well, our minds.  But what does it mean to have an image, in your mindIn is simple—and indicator that the thing, the image we are creating, is contained or present within something.   Your sounds fairly simple at first glance, but in reality it’s much more complex, or at least less defined and confined, than you might initially think.  Your implies something that belongs to you, and that’s fairly straightforward.  But here is the complex part:  what are you?  Well this may be simply defined as your skin-encased body.  That’s who you are.  But that can’t be the whole picture, or we would say that you are the body, but in actuality we usually don’t—we say that we have a body.  And how about your head, a part of the body people often point to, at least in contemporary cultures, indicating their identity rests within their brain, the organ encased in the skull.  I am my head, you might then say, or I am my brain.  But people often don’t speak like that either.  In other cultures, individuals might point to the group in which they live, or the nature that surrounds them, and say, there, here, this is me, this is my identity.  I, in this body yes, am a fundamental part of the world around me—an identity much larger than a solo-self; I am the world as much as I am this body.  Pointing to the head and saying, “here I am” can get quite a giggle from people living in other cultures, as I’ve tested out in various countries around the globe.

To create an image in your mind means we need to address what mind means.

Leaving the you, of your, of your mind, aside for the moment, let’s come to the final word of our phrase, mind.   To create an image in your mind means we need to address what mind means.  This question is not as simple as it may seem—in fact, it may stretch your mind’s imagination to consider that the word, mind, actually has no shared definition in the various fields that work with the mind, including education, psychology, psychiatry, philosophy, and even mental health. Of course “mind” infers our feelings, thoughts, memories, intentions, hopes, dreams, longings and beliefs.  But those useful descriptions actually don’t tell us what the mind actually is.

I can imagine that you may feel unsettled by this, as I certainly was when it first became clear.  (And here please note, that “I can imagine that you may feel…” is using my imagination to create an image in my mind of your mind—your subjective experience).  After asking over 100,000 therapists of various sorts, and over 20,000 kindergarten through twelfth grade teachers, after interviewing the heads of departments in these various aforementioned academic and clinical fields, the vast majority—as in over ninety five percent—of these large samples of individuals have never been offered a definition of what the mind is.  That, for me, was pretty mind-blowing. But what is the mind that is being blown?

I’ve had to struggle with my own confusion over being trained in medicine, developmental research, and psychiatry, and working as a psychotherapist and educator with the mind, but having no guidance from these trainings on how to define what the mind might actually be. So, yes, you may have imagined, I had to use my own imagination.  I had to create an image of what might be—an image of something that did not exist in at least my own current reality.  That imagination led to the building on prior knowledge of the various academic disciplines, from mathematics, physics and chemistry, to biology—including medicine and psychiatry—to psychology, linguistics, sociology, and anthropology, in order to construct an image of “the whole elephant” built from the input of the descriptions of the individual parts that each of these disciplines beautifully offers.  The assumption of this approach that came to be called, “Interpersonal Neurobiology” was akin to the old Indian fable of the blind men and the elephant—that there is one elephant with many descriptions of its parts, that there is one reality of mind that could be ultimately defined.

“A mind that is stretched to a new idea does not return to its original dimension.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes stated, “A mind that is stretched to a new idea does not return to its original dimension.”  For me, giving a detailed description of “mind” as including subjective experience, consciousness, and information processing was a useful starting place that stretched my own mind.  It was helpful to at least realize that though Hippocrates said 2500 years ago that mind was simply and only an output of the brain, and William James in 1890 supported this claim, that in fact the mind might be broader than the brain, even bigger than our bodies.  What this stretching idea might mean is that mind is part of a system that involves the embodied brain beyond just the skull encased brain, and it includes something more than simply energy and information flow in the head or the whole of the skin-encased body—it includes the energy and information flow we share with each other in something called our relationships—with each other, with history, with the planet.

What could this system be that involves both embodied and shared energy and information flow?  It would be an open, chaos-capable, and non-linear system—one in which it is influenced by factors outside of “itself,” capable of being randomly distributed, and having the property in which small inputs lead to large and difficult to easily predict outcomes.  That makes the possible system of mind a complex system by the terms of mathematics.

What might we imagine the mind to be as a part of this system of energy and information flow happening both within these bodies we inhabit and within our relationships?  The science of complex systems reveals that they have emergent properties, including one called self-organization.  Perhaps our mental facets of subjective experience, consciousness, and information processing are emergent aspects of this system—and perhaps mind is additionally a fourth facet, one we can define this way:  the embodied and relational, emergent self-organizing process that regulates energy and information flow.  Where does it take place?  Within and between.

When we also ask how self-organization is optimized, we come to a fascinating mathematical fact:  the linking of differentiating parts of a complex system is how it achieves a flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable state—a FACES flow that is the basis of harmony.  Let’s use the simple term, integration, for this way of taking differentiated elements and combining them in such a manner in that they become linked but do not eliminate their differentiated nature.  This is how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

After a long line of reasoning built upon empirical findings woven togegther to create an image of the whole elephant of the mind, what emerges is the notion that integration is the fundamental process underlying health.  When we have integration, we have harmony and well-being (there are hundreds of scientific papers you can use to back up this simple statement).  What this suggests, also, is that we might imagine that imagination could be seen as an outcome of integration set free.  When we let our subjective experience, consciousness, information processing, and self-organization become liberated from inhibiting constraints, then the natural emergence of the mind is to differentiate and link.  Imagination is a natural outcome of a freed mind.

Inhibiting integration inhibits imagination.

What shuts integration down?  When we feel threatened, the brain in our heads activates systems within it, within the whole body, and within relationships that shut down integration.  We become reactive in response to threat, getting ready to fight, flee, freeze, or faint.  Learning, connection, and imagination are inhibited in such a “no-brain” state initiated with the harsh NO! of threatening experiences.  In contrast, a “yes-brain” state turns on a social engagement system and we are free to imagine a world that might be, not just defend our now protected and inevitably constricted self from outer threat.  We become smaller and limited under the siege of a No-Brain state; we become larger and freed with a Yes-Brain state.

We can now imagine what imagination might be:  energy and information freely flowing in an integrated pathway within our magnificent bodies and our wondrous relationships.  When we are faced with a situation that is larger than what we can easily comprehend, we may come to feel a sense of awe that research reveals is associated with a feeling of connection to a larger whole.  When in a Yes-Brain state, our minds’ are freed to allow the flow of energy and information to be experienced in these glorious embodied and relational locations.  The “you” of your mind is more than within your body, it is within your relationships to the world around you as well.

When we are in a Yes-Brain state, the mind is freed to imagine all sorts of possibilities that before may have been unavailable to our conscious experience.  In this receptively aware Yes-Brain state, we likely tap into a part of energy’s flow that I’ve come to call a “plane of possibility”—a mathematical imagining of what some physicists call a sea of potential or quantum vacuum.  After studying the experiences 10,000 individuals doing a practice to enhance the integration of consciousness called the Wheel of Awareness, it has become clear that one source of being aware, of being conscious, may actually be when the probability position of energy—one essential feature to how energy can be seen as the movement from possibility to actuality—rests in the location of ultimate uncertainty, this plane of possibility.  When individuals are given the opportunity to access this plane in the Wheel practice, to enter a state of wide-open awareness, the descriptions of their experience suggests that this inner hub of the Wheel, this plane of possibility, is both the source of knowing of consciousness—of being aware—as well as the source of what are the knowns, the new options that with consciousness we can choose to explore and combine in new ways.  Imagination is awakened from this spacious plane of possibility, the source of both being aware and new possibilities.  The plane is the visual mathematical depiction of a generator of diversity, a formless place full of potential forms: it is both empty and full simultaneously.  And it is from this place of potentiality that imagination is born.

In this way, we can propose, freeing access to open, receptive awareness is a natural birthplace for imagination to arise.

But for some, threat shuts off tapping into this plane of possibility.  Sometimes threats from the past can remain present as synaptic shadows shutting down the courage to imagine and create new combinations—to integrate one’s inner life and interactions with the world.  These historical threats create a chronic and persistent No-Brain state where the uncertainty of the plane of possibility is an unsafe place to wander and the experience of wondering is shut off.

For others, the inhibition of threat may not be from the past, but instead is in the present moment, as when students do not feel free to explore their mind’s own creations, and instead feel imprisoned by the “right-or-wrong” of curricular culture commonly created not only in schools, but in contemporary communities.  We come to live with an outer digital focus of yes-or-no, up-or-down, right-or-left.  Instead, imagination invites an analogic spectrum of images with an array of values; and it requires the embracing of inner experience without initial judgment.   Finding a way to shift a school environment to what my colleagues and I call a “generative social field” would support the respect for each person’s individuality—for their own unique contributions to a larger integrated whole—and the importance of their own subjectivity, awareness, and information processing—for their mind.  As part of an inner and an inter aspect of mind, too, imagination becomes a shared experience as well as an interiorly felt emergence of new ideas.  Being a member of such a supportive social community would help cultivate in our next generation the imagination we will need to create new images of a world as it might become, and how it should be.

Imagining that imagination might be directly related to integration, offering this possibility for consideration, we can see the following line of reasoning.   Given that integration might be the basis of health means that integration may be essential to well-being.  The “you” that this healthy Yes-Brain state refers to is both an internal you, what you can call “I” or “me”.  And who you are is also a relational you, what you can call a “we”.  Imagining how to integrate these two aspects of you, we can take the differentiated me and equally important but simply distinct we and create the new image of our integrated identity as a me plus we equals MWe!  Together, MWe can help liberate this innate, integrative health-promoting power of imagination for our inner and our inter well-being in our shared home, this precious planet, this place of open potential we’ve named Earth.  Imagine what kind of world such an open space of mind might create.  Onward, together, MWe go!

Posted by:Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D

Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. An award-winning educator, he is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and recipient of several honorary fellowships. Dr. Siegel is also the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, an educational organization, which offers online learning and in-person seminars that focus on how the development of mindsight in individuals, families and communities can be enhanced by examining the interface of human relationships and basic biological processes. His psychotherapy practice includes children, adolescents, adults, couples, and families. He serves as the Medical Director of the LifeSpan Learning Institute and on the Advisory Board of the Blue School in New York City, which has built its curriculum around Dr. Siegel’s Mindsight approach.

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