Mind Science

Can imagination be quantified in a science-based way?

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From Suzan Mazur at HuffPost:

(What Would Warhol Say?) Jonathan Schooler: The Science of Imagination

Inspired by Andy Warhol’s Factory? Not unimaginable. In any case, the John Templeton Foundation, with $5.6M or so from its deep pockets, has given birth to the Imagination Institute—-a Philadelphia think tank that for the last two years has been tapping an array of talent for insight into the creative process, hoping ultimately to come up with an “imagination quotient.” Three dozen scientific investigators at 16 institutions have been awarded Templeton research money related to the project. But can imagination really be quantified?

One of the Imagination Institute’s grantees is University of California, Santa Barbara psychologist Jonathan Schooler. Schooler and UCSB postdoctoral researcher, Claire Zedelius have been awarded $200,000 to find out how daydreaming influences creativity, particularly creative writing. Their interest is in whether intervention—-that is, guided daydreaming—-can lead to more inspired writing. [interview follows] More.

It’s an interesting question. As a writer/editor, writing instructor, and author coach for 45 years, I would say that imagination can’t be quantified because it is not one specific trait.

We can quantify height, length, width, depth, temperature, etc., because each of these measures refers to one specific physical feature. Once we agree on a measuring system, we can create and analyze data.

But imagination is not like that. One imaginative person can write an epic trilogy, another a successful sales pitch, a third a board game that sweeps the world. We agree that they all have imagination but they all show different traits.

I’m not saying that there is no way of studying imagination; many things that can’t be quantified can nonetheless be studied. But study would include a revival of traditional literary and artistic criticism according to schools of aesthetics—a far cry from the current habit of lavishly praising any work of the imagination that appears to have outgrown toddlership but maybe not kindergarten, so as to ensure that no one’s feelings are hurt. This I know is true: A writer will never progress without getting past the hurt feelings and reaching for excellence. Which sometimes takes decades.

Royal Society Note: Mazur is the author of a number of books on the evolution controversies, including Public Evolution Summit on the Royal Society meeting last November.

See also: Suzan Mazur: NASA, tax dollars, space aliens, and religion…

4 Replies to “Can imagination be quantified in a science-based way?

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    The same phenomenon shows up dramatically in industrial design. When a designer works under SEVERE constraints of engineering and budget, the result can be excellent. When a designer is free to follow his muse, the result is horrible.

    Brooks Stevens worked for Willys for a while. He designed the ’47 station wagon, which laid the groundwork for modern SUVs. Several of its ‘cues’ are still present 70 years later as Jeep trademarks. Willys couldn’t afford proper body-forming equipment, so the design had to stay within the capabilities of an ordinary sheet-metal shop. Result: Timeless classic.

    When Stevens was given free rein to indulge his fancies in a high-dollar limited production special…. (Look at your own risk! Use eclipse-level eye protection! I warned you!)


  2. 2
    nkendall says:

    I would equate imagination with creative thought. Creative thought exhibits vast quantities of complexity–information quantity–over very brief periods of time. The phenomenon in human experience that exhibits the greatest quantity of imagination–creative thought–are dreams. Dreams entail “visual,” “auditory,” “tactile,” dialog, thought streams and even a backdrop of perspective–a back history. Perhaps we don’t know precisely over what time period dreams occur but it is quite brief. Dreams are essentially short creative movies along with thought streams and an historical background all synced up for our nightly entertainment. We can approximate the quantity of information–the quantity of imagination–by comparing them to movies of similar length. You can quantify movies by assessing the bit stream of a segment of an uncompressed ultra-high definition movie with the highest quality audio (e.g. Dolby Atmos) of similar length. Look at the total bit stream in digital form of such a movie and then compare that to the set of possible bit streams that would be meaningless. That ratio is the approximate quantity of imaginative capabilities of the human mind. But this of course understates the case really because the visual images of the mind in a dream are much more rich in information than even 8K video and also this exercise does not attempt to quantify the thought streams and back history that go with the “visual,” “audible” and “tactile” information. In any case, even despite these uncharitable aspects in the comparison, there is no more simple proof–accessible to us all–of the utter fallacy of materialism than this.

  3. 3
    Dionisio says:

    polistra @1, nkendall @2:

    Interesting comments. Thanks.

  4. 4
    awstar says:

    nkendall @ 2

    I would equate imagination with creative thought

    It seems to me that part of this creative thought process is the capability to run through imaginary trial and errors continually until the most satisfying solution is found — for the time being.

    It’s almost as if the creative thinker is “evolving” a final solution, without any intermediate solutions evidencing itself in the material world.

    Can you measure the number of times one changes his mind?

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