I read a fascinating essay earlier about the role of imagination in expanding human experience and how actors are a conduit for the audience to travel to places (mentally). The post goes on to talk about the ability of actors (not in the strictest sense and is extended to include influential figures) to feed and evoke emotions that enable the audience to internalise imagined narratives. Read the essay here to understand more about the authors’ points of view on using imagination to humanise ourselves and others. It is quite compelling, although distant from the subject of this blog post.

Plato viewed phantasia (the power of imagination) as a distraction from reality, thus limited in its function to help human cognition. Aristotle, however, placed it front and centre in the human process of learning, on par with perception and the ability to think. He equated this to a sixth sense that is slightly different to our other sensory experiences. The difference stemmed from how it can be manifested independent of external stimulus. Contemporary science argues that, without imagination, it will be difficult to build mental models of our environment and develop associative memory.

Memory is a repository of images and events, but imagination (phantasia) calls up, unites and combines those memories into tools for judgment and decision-making

Thousands of years of evolution have conditioned us to reduce our external environment to something that is comprehensible to our minds, and phantasia plays a significant role in helping us achieve that.

What tethers imagination to our human reality is this ability to lean into the environment and undertake a cognitive exercise to make sense of what is around us. This is defined as affordance and was first introduced in the 1960s by James Gibson, an eminent American psychologist.

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.

Since Gibson, various other psychologists have further developed this to understand human interaction with the environment better. In my personal point of view, the most pertinent addition comes from a very unlikely source in the form of William Gaver. He spoke about affordance in the context of Human-Computer Interaction. Since then through today, affordance has been used extensively to moderate human interaction with products/ interfaces from industrial design to social media and robotics.

In his paper titled Technology Affordances published in 1991, he discusses how James Gibson offered an ecological (read: environmental) alternative to cognitive approaches to human perception and action. The paper discusses the finer details of interface design and human interaction from a technological standpoint. He also articulated something that is extremely relevant to human reality.

Affordances are independent of perception, and exist whether or not they are perceived.

This gives rise to what he termed as perceptible affordance and hidden affordance, depending on the person’s ability to discern affordance from their environment. By extension, this also implies that there can be false affordances – things that seemingly resemble an affordance, but isn’t.

This brings me to my central point – it takes phantasia or imagination to take advantage of the affordances in the environment. A footballer has to have the vision to make a ‘Hollywood’ pass; a successful entrepreneur identifies opportunities in areas where others don’t; it takes creativity to open a wine bottle with a shoe.

It takes imagination to take advantage of the affordances in the environment

Agreed the examples aren’t comparable or exhaustive, and there is this significant variable called ability. While I fully subscribe to the merits of method and preparation, not every action in response to an affordance comes with significant downside such as a failed enterprise.

Remember, affordances exist independent of perception. We just need to be ‘present’ to our realities to imagine the possibilities that are in front of us. It could be hit or miss (read: false affordance), but we are at least interacting with everything around us. That is how humanity evolved and will continue to evolve into the future.


On a related note, you might also find the following links quite interesting.

Aphantasia is the inability to picture or visualise mental images. This condition is a relatively new discovery and neuroscientists have been trying to understand this better. The studies commissioned to understand the effects of varying degrees of aphantasia among people is independently interesting to read more about.

Aphantasia: A Life Without Mental Images (BBC)

When The Mind’s Eye Is Blind (Scientific American)

Phantasia: The psychological significance of lifelong visual imagery vividness extremes (Science Direct)

Updates since the post

1/ Here’s a short 14-minute documentary that shows what it is like to have Aphantasia.

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