A Question of Imagination

You can’t imagine anything you haven’t already seen. If the imagination is the combining element of the human brain, then it stands to reason that if there’s nothing to combine, you cannot imagine it. I read about an experiment where scientists asked people to draw an alien. They could draw the alien however they wanted, but it should be as different from life on Earth as possible. The people that were asked to draw these aliens still created creatures with legs, arms, eyes, and/or mouths. Some made amoeba like creatures. At least one left the page blank and said we couldn’t see it. Regardless of the instructions, people couldn’t imagine life on another planet without referencing life here on Earth.

So, it’s your turn. Grab a sheet of paper and draw an alien that looks a different as possible from anything on Earth. Go ahead. I’ll wait. (I mean, seriously, as long as you bookmark this page, you can always come back and find this article and continue reading after you’ve drawn your alien.)

After thinking about this for the past couple of days, I gave it a go. I tried to draw an alien that doesn’t look like anything we have on Earth. It’s difficult because of the diversity of life on Earth. It’s also difficult because the creature is designed out of context. What type of planet does it live on? How does it survive? How does it experience the universe?

It’s difficult enough for us to imagine how other life here on Earth experiences the universe. What our dogs and cats thinking about? Is it just ball, ball, food, master, and food, sleep, sleep, food, servant? I know my cat dreams, but what is she dreaming about? Those are our domesticated pets. Put us in the alien environment of water and we just think fish are stupid, or we use excuses about how all animals are to be dominated by mankind. We don’t empathize with creatures we consider below us, and that’s true for people to.

If you weren’t born into poverty, it’s probably pretty difficult for you to imagine what it’s like to be poor. “Let them eat cake if there’s no bread.” “Why don’t they just get a car and drive to work?” “They’re all lazy and don’t want to work hard.” Poor people are often seen as something less than human by the people in the socioeconomic sphere above them, and it makes it difficult to empathize with someone who can’t afford their medication, doctor’s treatment, rent or food. “They should get a job” even if they’re already working three jobs. “They should get an education,” even if they are already working three jobs. “They shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford them.” Seriously, who can afford kids? The hospital bill alone for a newborn without complications is enough to put me off my tea.

There are ways to fix the problem of a lack of empathy. Reading books is a start. Watching documentaries could help. After all, a lot of people can empathize with the rich because that’s what they see on television, in films and in music videos. Get experiences that are vastly different than your regular life through volunteering – at a soup kitchen, at a shelter, with an outreach group. Start seeing other human beings as being the same species as you and seek out to engage with them.

This is one way to begin improving your imagination. You can imagine a horse flying because you’ve seen horses and things that fly. You’ve seen things that float, so you can imagine a horse flying in that way. It’s not a big leap to think of a horse jumping and missing the ground. It’s gone back centuries. Once you can imagine a horse flying, you can imagine anything else flying. However, to bring something into being that you have no way of imagining is impossible. Whether for art or for life, you have to start with a base of knowledge before you can use your imagination to create something new and hopefully better. Leave your alien in the comments below or share it on Facebook and Twitter #penguinate.

For more on creativity, get “Disneyland Is Creativity.” Order “Penguinate! Essays and Short Stories.” Preorder “The Haunted Mansion Is Creativity.”