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Is Imagination More Important than Knowledge?

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein

I’ve been visiting my 10-month-old grandson a lot lately, and to me it’s truly astonishing to watch him not exactly play, but whatever he’s doing, he is doing it intently and on his own for long periods between eating and sleeping. He has an unstoppable desire to know, and that is spurring him to combine and experiment with things that we adults would think of as incompatible, nonsensical even, with the sole purpose being to see what happens. He is not getting anything done, per se, but he is one of the world’s leading experts at trying stuff out.

Kids are typically thought to be more creative than adults, but there are many studies that contest this belief, because it mistakes imagination for creativity.  Imagination is the capability to create in one's own mind what does not exist, and children are pros at this. Creativity is taking that imagined thing and making something real from it, like a painting, or a car, or a new cat toy that your cat will, in all likelihood, ignore. This is not something most young children are equipped to do without some adult guidance. My grandson isn’t being creative with his play, he is simply experimenting, constantly and deliberately. He is passionate about defining his world.

When I was little, I used to think that if I could imagine something, I could make it come true. Time travel was a big ambition of mine when I was around eight or nine. It just didn’t seem like a big deal, and there were television shows back then with storylines based on visiting different times in history, or the future. This gave me a vague picture in my head of what time travel would look like. What I didn’t have was a solid foundation of knowledge, so my imagination could go anywhere I wanted it to. This can’t be called creative, however, because to be creative it needed to be executable. It’s great to encourage children with their big ideas, but at some point they need to realize that in order to create, imagination, knowledge and reality have to come together and be on their side.

This is tricky, because discouraging children’s imaginations with doses of reality can be disillusioning, and that can put the brakes on creativity. And, as children grow up, we see less and less imagination (and therefore, less creativity) because of the pressure to be right, to look good, to be accepted into our tribe. Knowledge embraces what is, imagination embraces what might or could be. Armed with knowledge, Einstein imagined himself riding on a beam of light, and that dream, combined with what he understood scientifically, helped him to see the special theory of relativity that we use today to understand time as it relates to our universe.

It’s also not helpful that a lot of us equate competence with creativity. We’ve all seen musical wunderkinds on the news or social media who can play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto from memory, at double the speed of anyone in existence. Ta-Da!! But this is not because of either creativity or imagination, it’s because the child’s parents found a teacher who followed the steps to teach the child what we call in the biz “technique” adequately, and they just happened to have a student who understood the fundamentals of music. This does not a memorable or expressive performance make!

I don’t know about you, but the performances and artwork I remember over my lifetime touched my soul, made my hair stand up, taught me something about my humanity, and that is the reason I will never forget them.

Knowledge can also really mess with our ability to be imaginative, because not all knowledge is either correct, or useful, or interpreted the same way. Plato proved this with his allegory about people in chains, living in a cave. The hypothetical story goes that a lot of people were chained inside a cave, and since they had been there their entire lives, figured that’s how everyone went through life. A few people got out and looked around outside, but when they came back to report that there was a LOT more to life than living in a cave, the ones still chained in the cave refused to believe them, and chose to spend the rest of their lives in that cave.

Imagination also comes in handy when we want to ask a question like: “What if the Earth didn’t rotate?” or some other established fact that we decide to explore the absence of or addition to. There’s nothing like tearing apart our preconceived notions to get our imaginative juices flowing, and we can learn a lot from engaging in this kind of game playing that children tend to love. 

I have a friend in his nineties who is as intent on learning as my grandson. He takes courses, goes to concerts and lectures, reads books that are wide ranging in the information or stories they impart, all to figure out his world and his place in it. It’s hard to stump him on any subject, AND….he still has all his nouns! (This is in contrast to me and many of my friends and acquaintances who have been around long enough to come face to face with Noun Disintegration, a condition that crams too many nouns in too little space in our brain memory drive. DO NOT ask me the name of that movie about that ship that goes down, any of the actresses or actors in it, whether or not it won any awards, etc. It’s stowed tightly into too small a space, and can only emerge when I don’t need it.) His quest for knowledge keeps him amazed at life itself, and although he himself isn’t creating anything, it gives him a deep appreciation of those around him who do.

Knowledge is a great tool for humanity, but it is only that. When our fears about artificial intelligence surface, which has happened a lot in recent history, we need to remember that it's our imagination and the creativity that emerges from our knowledge that has made our time on Earth worth living. We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.*

*Props to poet Arthur O'Shaughnessy

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