I believe in the power of imagination

rogier - somerville, Massachusetts
Entered on May 17, 2008

I believe in the power of imagination

I became a neuroscientist because of my fascination with the power of the human mind. Not only can it process reality, it can also make things up, and it is surprisingly good at that. Art is of course the first thing that comes to mind. But while imagination is easily associated with fun and entertainment, it is often more difficult to see that imagination is an essential part of daily life. In vision, for example, the brain “fills in” the part of the visual field where we cannot see because the optic nerve passes through the retina of the eye. When I am at work in my lab, and I read a formula that consists of three variables, it helps to imagine it in three dimensional space.

But it never occurred to me that I could use my imagination as a tool for dealing with something that had become a serious problem in my personal life. I had been a smoker since the age of 17. I quit several times, not successfully. At the age of 34, it was high time for me to stop. Why didn’t I? Every time I lit another cigarette, it was the result of a decision. Why did I keep making the same bad decision?

Clearly, the rational arguments were not effective. And the emotional aspect seemed beyond my control. But then it occurred to me that I could use my imagination. I sat down for a couple of minutes every day and imagined that I was a non-smoker. No, stronger. I imagined it was impossible. Beyond my control. I imagined I was no longer able to perform the act of smoking. Of course I knew it wasn’t true. I just temporarily believed it. In fact most people do the same thing when seeing a movie, or reading a book. It’s called the suspension of disbelief. I temporarily believed that I couldn’t smoke.

Quitting was surprisingly easy once I had placed “smoking” in the department of things that are “impossible”. Not that I didn’t want to smoke. Oh, I did want to smoke. But I just couldn’t. And I held on to that thought.

I have to mention the movie “La vita e bella” (Life is beautiful), in which a father uses his imagination to help his son survive their internment in a Nazi concentration camp. That is a way too rigorous test of my idea, but I do believe that humans have a lot to gain by learning to harness the power of imagination.