Did Our Capacity for Imaginative Thought Give Rise to Civilization?


An article in the New Scientist (20 September 2014), Daydream believers by Catherine Brahic motivated this blog post. This is not to say that I thought it is a good article as I strongly disagree with many of the arguments in the article. Nevertheless, it launched some thoughts that I feel compelled to express in this blog post.’

My first disagreement regards the concept of memory advanced by philosopher./psychologist Alison Gopnik. Certain researchers have a problem with the following, “If imagination is the ability to transcend our current circumstances and use our minds to travel through and space and beyond, then that includes everything from daydreaming of unicorns to visualizing an even last weekend and figuring out at two in the afternoon, how best to get to a social occasion across town that evening. The objection to this definition is that we are constantly using our imagination. Ms. Gopnik prefers to carve out a special niche for imagination and to regard memory as a storage space for data. Research has clearly indicated that memory is not a static storage space but is instead dynamic, constantly being recreated whenever we act upon it. The role of memory is to serve as a mechanism for time travel, to draw upon past experience and learning and to use that information to imagine different possibilities and the means of achieving those possibilities. Although we might typically think of imagination as allowing us to escape reality and to live in a fantasy world, it is basically the same mechanism that we use to plan for the future and to cope with reality. And, yes of course, this capacity provided the ability to build civilizations.

The article also hit on another one of my pet peeves. It contained arguments that imagination is a uniquely human capacity. I’ve come to believe that homo sapiens has an inferiority complex expressed in a need to distinguish itself from other animal species. Well we do know that all primate species dream. I might make the argument that imaginative thought involves similar processes to dreaming except it occurs when we are awake. Moreover, prominent neuroscientists have argued for consciousness in a wide range of species (see the healthymemory blog post, “Consciousness in Both Human and Non-human Animals.”) The following is from the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observation can be stated unequivocally:”

The declaration concludes:

The absence of neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

To reiterate the answer to the question in the title of this post, “Yes.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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