Imagination: A two-edged sword

Imagination is powerful, delightful, dangerous and useful. Imagination is a two-edged sword.

Picture a coach telling his players, “Come on, get serious. Destroy those guys! This is not just a game, it is your life.” If he can get his players pumped with these images and feelings, victory certainly has a better chance.

Visualize treating a patient with acupuncture or giving a patient some medicine. The more the patient is convinced of the power of the treatment, the more effective it will be. In fact, that power will be amplified further if the practitioner is also convinced of the power of the treatment.

Imagine a charismatic jihadist or politician getting his listeners to see a  flat world of “us vs. them” and having his spell-bound followers feel the power of self-righteousness and hatred. Imagination for these skilled manipulators is a trustworthy ally.

When believers gather together to talk to their imaginary god, the power of the group amplifies the illusion: the voice of the god can be heard more clearly, the visions and feelings flow. The group thus confirms the power of their god.

Writers and artists find that treating creativity as if it comes from outside themselves helps to nurture that creativity. This is because we fool ourselves thinking we are in control of our thoughts. We fool ourselves in imagining who we are. We are many things. Imagination can show us that — for the better or for the worse.  Imagination can feed both love and war.

The trick is to let imagination be your friend and not your master. Such a balance is very delicate. Our imaginations are our servants in some aspects of our lives and enslave us in others.  This “double-edged” principle can be seen in many aspects of our mind including our analytic skills and our emotions.  Making the mind an ally is an art.

Questions for Readers:

  • How do you view the double-edged sword called “imagination”?
  • Has your imagination ever stung you?
  • Do you feel you use your imagination as well as you could?

My related posts:


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

10 responses to “Imagination: A two-edged sword

  1. CRL

    A double edged sword? What about a fickle friend, who abandons me when I need it most, but comes running back with apologies to regain my affections when I want it least?

    Imagination is safe when recognized as such, but becomes dangerous when its products are taken as truth.

  2. Robert

    As a musician I use my imagination every time I practice.When I am about practicing a very difficult peace of music ,I play it in my head,hearing how beautiful it sounds,imaging how it feels to play,imaging the joy of playing,Then,by some miracle,it’s much easier to play.
    I can only recommend this.

  3. @ CRL
    “Fickle Friend” — I love that !!

    @ Robert
    Thank you for the example. High Divers do the same. Before suturing a complex facial laceration on a child, I have done the same — I teach students the usefulness of this too.

  4. practiceofzen

    Sabio –

    Your essay brings to mind a passage in Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas (1759), in which Rasselas and Nekayeh visit the pyramids, and the wise Imlac warns them about “that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life.” Half a century later, Johnson’s neoclassicism would give way to Romanticism, which celebrated the self and the imagination.The Romantic glorification of self and artifice would reach its apex in the Aestheticism of the 1890s, which in turn gave way to the naturalism of Zola and others and the realism of Joyce in the early twentieth century.

    As your essay well illustrates, the dialogue between romanticism and realism persists to this day. I’m interested in your suggestion that some artists and writers treat creativity as if it came “from outside themselves,” and I’m curious to know which artists and writers you had in mind. In my experience, most serious writers are avid, critical readers, and to that extent they rely on outside sources. But I’m hard put to recall an artist or writer who has argued or would claim that the sources of their creativity (as distinguished from their models, subjects, or ideas) lie outside themselves. “Look into thy heart, and write” is a much more common attitude.

  5. In engineering, imagination is a critical design tool, beyond just figuring out a sexy shape to sell on the market. You have to imagine all the possible ways an end-user will use your product, and/or imagine what different stresses may be acting on your design. You then feed those imagined uses and forces into the design as assumptions, add in the known forces as well, and then try to design accordingly.

    Imagination has definitely come back to bite, usually due to either a lack of robust imagination, but sometimes due to an imagined confidence in a part which is unjustified.

    This is all what I would consider “pragmatic” imagination, and to a certain extent I feel I do that well. But I feel woefully weak in more free-form imagination. At times, when that weakness comes to mind, I try to strengthen it with exercises, like looking a clouds and trying to make out shapes.

  6. First, as a native Nebraskan I love the picture of my team and the olde skool ball coach Bo Pelini trying to light a fire. They won that game.

    Second, I thought you would appreciate this spam comment I just received: “When I initially commented I clicked the -Notify me when new feedback are added- checkbox and now every time a remark is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any approach you possibly can remove me from that service? Thanks!”

  7. CRL

    I entirely agree with you, Wisefool. Give me a problem, I’ll find a weird and creative way to solve it.

    Give me free reign, I freeze.

    I suppose this would be the main difference between the kind of imagination attributed to scientists and engineers, and the kind attributed to artists and writers.

  8. @ practice of zen:
    I am hugely ignorant of the philosophical taxonomies of literature and art. Your comment set me about reading a little on it. Thank you. More later.
    But as you say, periods live on in the present, tensions persist. I added a comment on your site of Romanticism in Zen — looking forward to your response to educate me.

    You may be interested in my diagram of Creativity.

    Also, you requested this: Here is a Radio Lab episode on addressing your Muse (externalization of your own mind).

    @ The Wise Fool & CRL:
    I wonder how your preference for defined problems affects your philosophical views. As you know, I think our temperaments and skill sets affect our philosophies.

    @ Cris:
    (1) Interesting, I did not know what that was a picture of. Small world.
    (2) Ironic spam since your site does not have such a button yet — 2 weeks and counting, eh?
    (3) I love the Göbekli Tepe posts — I hope to post concerning that a bit but I have to do some study and drawing first. Thanx for the inspiration.

  9. @Sabio
    That’s a tough question to answer from within my own skin. 😉 However, I would say that for me, engineering problems are as hard to define as people are in a biography. Even friends you know intimately well still hold some mysteries, and the same can be said in engineering. I may know well all of the expected forces, temperatures, etc. which would act on my widget, but there is no way for me to know (for example) that the metal forging I use has an internal crystalline structure which is guaranteed to work at the defined material strength, so I add a “factor of safety” to the design, making it slightly stronger than is theoretically necessary.

  10. “How do you view the double-edged sword called “imagination”?”
    -it is the greatest triumph of humanity, it’s what makes us, us. and as great as it can be, it can be our downfall too. all in all, i’m a big fan and advocate of imagination wisely used.

    “Has your imagination ever stung you?”
    -sometimes I think you’re saying something that you’re not. I imagine what your intent is… not helpful.

    “Do you feel you use your imagination as well as you could?”
    -if i did, i would have written a couple of books by now. i do have a modified beowulf stories that I have written for my nieces and nephews where they are kings and queens of European countries (tied to their heritage from those countries) and how they nonviolently solve problems. have a few other things in the works like that…

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