I have fond memories as a child playing with my favorite toy – A cardboard box. The larger the box, the better! A box quickly became everything from a fort, to a puppet show theater, to a lemonade stand kiosk machine, or a hamster maze complete with multiple-themed peep-hole dioramas. I wasted no time in transforming someone’s trash into an imaginative playground of fun and wonderment.
Like many, I learned the link between Imagination and Play at an early age, and like most, I found myself struggling to find the joy of Play as adult responsibilities grew. Why is it that we so easy to forget how fun imagination can be? Is it just human nature that we lose sight of the emotion felt when we used our imagination in early childhood?
An excellent book by Stuart Brown, M.D., entitled “Play – How it shapes our Brain, Opens our Imagination and Invigorates the Soul“ illustrates many of the points I make here on this blog on the Science of Imagination. The book makes many correlations between imagination and play, and I believe in many ways, that imagination is play. Brown’s description of Play makes many parallels with Imagination, and with fear of plagiarizing the entire book, I recommend giving it a good read.
Like the action of Play, imagination shares many similar qualities defined in Brown’s book. Imagination is: 1) Apparently purposeless, 2) Voluntary, 3) Has freedom from time and a diminished consciousness of self, 4) Improvisational potential, and 5) A desire for continuation.
1) Many views are that imaginative daydreaming doesn’t seem to have any survival value. It doesn’t apparently help in providing the necessities of life such as food, money, and shelter. “If only I had a penny for every dream,” one song goes. Imagination is considered a waste of time in many circumstances just as Play is pointless goofing around.
2) Another quality is that imagination is voluntary. Like Play, you cannot force imagination. If attempts are made to push it, it is deprived of all fun and joy and produces nothing of original value. Imagination happens for its own sake. It is fun and a cure for boredom. Some of the most creative outputs come from just playing around with concepts and ideas.
3) Imagination provides freedom from time. “In imaginative play, we can even be a different Self. We are fully in the moment, in the zone. We are experiencing what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.” Brown points out in his book.
4) Brown continues, that play has improvisational potential. Not stuck in a rigid way of doing things, in imaginative fantasy, we are open to serendipity and chance. When using our imagination in Play, “We are willing to include a seemingly irrational element.”
The act of play itself may be outside of ‘normal’ activities. The result is that we stumble upon new behaviors, thoughts, strategies, movements or ways of being. We see things in a different way and have fresh insights. – Stuart Brown, M.D.
Ironically, we don’t activate our imagination with the intention of gaining insights, but like entering a game of play, ideas arrive as a result of it. You never really know what you are going to get when you use your imagination.
5) When appropriately used, imagination has a continuation desire that is the same as the qualities of play. With Play, Brown states, “We desire to keep doing it, and the pleasure of the experience drives that desire. We find ways to keep it going. If something threatens to stop the fun, we improvise new rules or conditions so that the play doesn’t have to end. And when it is over, we want to do it again.” These properties are what make Play, for Brown, the essence of freedom.
Brown asserts that there is no way to understand play without also remembering the feeling of play. I believe that to understand imagination, you must also try to remember the sense of joy that comes when exercised. Remember the exhilarating and fun adventure found in imagination that was so easy to grasp as a child.
Think back. Open the box and remember.