Such tricks hath strong imagination

I’d like to think I am as imaginable as anybody else. Not imaginary, mind you -to me, at least, I exist- but, rather, able to imagine. For as long as I’ve known me, I’ve found imagination to be a welcome shelter from the stormy blast, as it were. I’ve always needed a place to escape -I think most of us do- and inside my head seemed incredibly convenient.

I’ve never understood those who felt that imagination was just some sort of icing on the cake of consciousness, that it was merely a quirky byproduct of more important cerebral functions, a luxury that could probably be ignored unless you made your living from it. I’m retired now, so I suppose I do. I’m allowed to label my imagination as merely elderly eccentricity, with neologisms and dementia as added attractions. But, if the truth be told, I prefer to wander in and out of it as the situation demands; I’ve come to regard imagination as adding character to my personality.

And yet, as valuable as I’ve found it, I sometimes wonder why imagination would strike an evolutionary chord -once it had arrived on the scene, why did it seem worth preserving? I mean what was Darwin thinking? It’s all well and good to have something on hand to entertain small children at bedtime, but is it important in real life to be able to envisage something that isn’t? After all, it’s hard enough to understand the things that are, so is imagination just dessert: a fluffy spray-on whipped cream? A reward for eating all the serious stuff on the daily plate?

Of course, I’m being epistemically maladroit when I pose the question; I know perfectly well the value of imagination, it’s more a question of why. Why did it appear in the first place? And when it finally did, was it something you’d have already have needed imagination to appreciate -a circulus in probando… or is it a petitio principii? I forget. Anyway, both expressions make me think of my high school Latin teacher who used to bang a wooden yardstick on his desk whenever he wanted the correct answers to his questions in correct Latin (we used to make up Latin words to see what he’d do). But, I digress.

But now that I think more about it, the uses for imagination are truly legion: ‘A mind that can conceive of possibilities beyond its own experience can prepare for the unexpected… overproduction of possibilities, followed by pruning through experience, is a viable evolutionary strategy.’ For example, ‘The immune system generates huge numbers of diverse antibodies, of which only one might actually fit with a given antigen… And the infant brain doesn’t gradually wire its neural connections as experiences accumulate; rather, it starts with a vast array of random connections that are then thinned out during brain development to leave what is useful for dealing with the world.’[i] So perhaps imagination is simply a system of refashioning these options: a neural exaptation, if you will. In fact, imagination seems to use the same apparatus as memories.[ii]

I suppose the link with memories makes sense. My big brother linked them anyway. He was ten years older than me, and I remember our early years were fraught. What we both remembered of those times was redolent with imaginary explanations and tales half-told. When I was young, I assumed he had access to incredible knowledge stores, but more often, I suspected he was just making things up.

I remember one time when we were walking down the street in 1950ies Winnipeg; I was perhaps seven or eight years old, and like all children, naturally curious about everything. “What do the letters TNT stand for?” I remember asking, as I gazed at his face far above me. The question had just popped suddenly into my head, apropos of nothing.

“You wouldn’t understand,” he answered haughtily, tired of my incessant questions.

I had to tilt my head so far back to confront his eyes and refute his arrogance, that I lost sight of the sidewalk and tripped. Naturally, he chose the opportunity to recover from his dismal knowledge gap about TNT. “Do you know why you keep tripping all the time, G?” he asked with a smirk on his lips.

I had no answer for him, mainly because I rarely tripped.

“It’s because you’re walking incorrectly,” he added, when I merely shrugged. “You always lead with your heels; you should lead with your toes… Like this.” He raised his heels to demonstrate, and for some reason tried to walk like the ballet dancer I’d seen prancing proudly on her toes when our teacher had taken the class to a rehearsal of what is now ‘The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’. ‘The pointe technique’, Miss Haversham had called the maneuver, explaining that it was terribly difficult and usually required special shoes.

Although my brother’s prancing looked utterly ridiculous, I didn’t know enough about ballet to contradict him. Anyway, intrigued by the challenge, I tried it on the grass for a few steps and I found that I could do it far more gracefully than him, albeit totally unlike anything I’d seen at the rehearsal. It didn’t feel very natural, either, and I could only hold myself on my toes very briefly. Still, it was early days…

My brother just smirked at me, probably thinking how naïve I was to believe everything he said. “You go practice, G,” he muttered with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I’m meeting Shirley in a few minutes,” he added, and walked quickly away, his leather heels banging noisily as he let them lead him, as usual, along the sidewalk.

But despite his insufferable hubris, I got the feeling he may have inadvertently stumbled onto something that could be life changing for me. He had perhaps accidentally recognized one of my many hidden talents; he made me wonder what it would take to become a ballet dancer. I mean, I had already showed some promise on the grass. And apart from tripping, had he seen some other promising signs in me -the way I moved my hands perhaps, or the rhythm in my feet? Maybe he was more observant than I gave him credit for.

I worked my way home on the grass beside the sidewalk trying to stay on my toes, but my  teacher had been right, it was very difficult, and I probably needed special shoes. Still, I’d almost made it to my house when my friend Jerry saw me and wandered over.

“Watcha doin’, G?” he asked, staring at me curiously.

“Ballet,” I answered proudly.

He cocked his head and stared at me the way kids do when they think you’re crazy.

“I’ve been trying to walk home on my toes,” I explained.

He rolled his eyes. “That’s just stupid, G,” he said and then shook his head. “Anyway, you don’t have enough toe muscles,” he added, noticing my discomfort.

But I could tell he didn’t understand how good I really was. I sighed at his ignorance. “It’s how all ballet dancers learn the ropes to start with, Jerry,” I said, crossing my arms across my chest defiantly, and finally allowing my heels to touch the ground.

He threw a knowing smile at me. “I’d rather play soccer,” he said and pointed at the field down the block where some of the older kids were kicking a ball around. “Wanna come?”

I nodded and we both raced each other, with heel-strikes ringing along the hot afternoon sidewalk. I knew I couldn’t pretend I preferred ballet when a pick-up game of soccer beckoned; maybe I could pretend the older kids would actually let me play…


[i]https://aeon.co/essays/imagination-isnt-the-icing-on-the-cake-of-human-cognition

[ii] Ibid.

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