Imagination and creativity

As human beings, we seem to have a tendency to attribute human characteristics to non-human beings, imaginary beings and even inanimate objects.  Ancient civilizations were well aware of this strange habit of human psychology. Xenophanes invented the word "anthropomorphism" 2,600 years ago.  He realized that people worshipped gods that looked like them - the Greeks had white gods, while the Ethiopian gods were darker.  From this observation he predicted that if horses and donkeys believed in God, their god would trot on all fours.  He may have been right.  Some time ago, some primatologists documented a type of behaviour among chimpanzees, called 'the rain dance': when a storm begins, sometimes they climb a tree, then they tear out its branches and brandish them while they cry out to the clouds - as if they were facing a male rival.  It seems to be a kind of 'chimpomorphism' about the storm. They shake their branches at the alpha male they assume must be throwing flashes from the sky.

Why though invest the inanimate with emotions?  I cannot speak for chimpanzees but we, as humans, seek explanations of how the world works. Our curiosity is for our benefit, for our survival as a species. We need to try to predict when bad and when good things will happen. But this curiosity causes us difficulty.  Finding answers to the complexity around us is very hard.  And until we have found out what the underlying mechanism is, in order to enable us to understand why things are happening, we have to live in a state of uncertainty, a state of mind we do not find easy to cope with. And anthropomorphising can apparently assist us with this to some extent. To give emotions to what is in fact not guided by another mind, to indulge in fiction, when we have no other explanation for what has happened to us seems to be a good holding strategy. There are experiments that have shown that attributing intention to inanimate or imaginary objects actually gives us some consolation, even where we have just suffered from that ‘intention’.  It may be, for example, that the god of the mountain is unhappy with our conduct and, therefore, has caused the lava to descend on our city.  Perhaps our stars are not aligned correctly for our love life. 

It seems that even an absurd explanation gives us a kind of hope or solace in an otherwise incomprehensible world. We don’t easily live with the idea that our lives are guided by pure chance. Which is why we accept answers which are far from scientifically plausible. And hence our willingness to believe in astrology and create gods of all types or spiritual powers which somehow affect our lives.

But our willingness to anthropomorphise things may also indirectly give us an excuse. Why else do normally rational people shout at their computers when they don't work?  When the computer crashes, according to studies, our brains react as if the computer were a being who had behaved maliciously towards us. My computer is a thing I rely on and so have a relationship with.  When it crashes, it seems that I consider that the computer has disappointed me. I suppose I prefer to think that the loss of my data is the fault of the computer rather than my fault for failing to make a backup.

Anthropomorphism though is particularly apparent in those who are socially isolated.  Hence the image we have of elderly women treating their cats like children. We are social animals: anthropomorphism gives us a friend when we don't have another one.  And it is now known that such self-delusion can to some extent prolong life because it makes us happier.  I suppose the modern equivalent of the cat is the avatar, a virtual artificial life in which we can play the role of the person we would like to be and interact on an emotional level with the avatars of other nerds.

It is though not only in Game of Thrones that we find a fantasy world. The telling of tales, whether through engaging in anthropomorphism or talking around the camp fire has been a normal part of our culture since our ancestors walked in the jungle. But why? And why still today? We are not still trying to explain why lightning bolts appear from the heavens.  But we have countless books telling stories about people and crimes and wars and places. Amazon started the building of its empire on the sale of books. 

What, though, does it actually give us, the consumers?  We must value it highly as lots of money is made from story-telling of all types – people pay high prices for tickets to go to the opera and to the theatre, and even higher prices to go to musicals and other shows of all sorts and descriptions.  I suppose that the obvious thing to say is that it gives us enjoyment, or, at the least, it stops us being bored - the Romans' bread and circuses, perhaps?  If it is simply a pleasure though it still needs an explanation - all the other pleasures we have exist to encourage us to do something that is fundamental to our survival, either as individuals, for example eating, or as a species, sex.

Could the explanation somehow lie in the fact that the sign of good fiction is that we feel the emotions that a real encounter with the fictional characters and places would produce?  We are temporarily convinced of their reality.  One could then argue that a romantic novel would allow us to spend an hour or two learning how to find  real emotional fulfilment, even though, many years ago, much of the romantic genre of fiction would have been considered to have produced a weakened mind. Adventure stories, in contrast, could perhaps be said to encourage us, from the hero's example, to do things we wouldn't otherwise consider ourselves capable of. But unless we fancy ourselves as James Bond, then this seems rather an implausible suggestion. And then there are the horror stories. How do we take advantage of being scared?  Is it perhaps that we identify with the hero’s defeat of an unknown horror, so overcoming our primitive memory of the scary noises of the forest during the night?  Perhaps, now, it gives us the impression that we can control even the most threatening and unexplainable dangers that the world can throw at us.  Is it that, as we have discussed earlier, we need or at least in days gone by, we needed all of this in order to shield us from the psychological difficulty of dealing with the uncertainty created by an incomprehensible world?  I'm not at all convinced that any of these are an adequate explanation.

So then it is rather difficult to see how our culture of story-telling gives us a significant evolutionary benefit, such as would have been needed to have driven its progress from virtual non-existence amongst the lower orders of animals, to what we now find in our species, together with the accompanying increase in brain size. 

Now, it may seem odd to suggest it, but might it perhaps have had no or only a negligible evolutionary effect?  Might it be in fact that our story-telling culture is only in fact a side-effect, nice to have, but not exactly essential to our lives?  After all, we need imagination. Imagination invites us to think differently about life, to create scenarios which have not actually happened and to ask “and then what?”. Granted that this is so, then then it seems reasonable to posit that it must underlie our creativity. And creativity is used not just, or even primarily, to produce stories, but to try to work out how things work in the real world and how we can make them better work to our advantage. It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that our intelligence and our imagination – combining to produce our creativity – have, purely by chance, in addition to allowing us to work out how the world works, allowed in parallel what may be only a side-effect, but seemingly embedded in our human culture - story-telling about a fictitious world.

Paul Buckingham

12 January 2020

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