Imagination is a Muscle

What exactly is imagination?  Imagination is defined as the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.  Is it possible to have no imagination?  There is indeed a very rare condition in which sufferers have no ability to visualise mental images – known as Aphantasia.  It is believed that only 1-3% of the population suffers with Aphantasia.  How then do we account for the much larger percentage of people who say they have no imagination?  

In an ideal world, all children will be stretched and challenged from an early age to develop their imagination into a powerful tool. However, we know this is not the case for all.  I often work with teenagers who are reluctant writers.  They tell me that they have no imagination, and are unable to think of ideas for creative writing.  This often goes hand in hand with a dislike of reading.  Do we accept that these students are unable to develop their imagination and must forever stare at a blank piece of paper with dread, or are there ways we can help older students?

Although we cannot turn back time, I do believe there are techniques we can use with our students to help them realise they do have an imagination:

  1. Start with the concrete.  If a child tells you they cannot visualise an idea, then create it for them.  Give them a picture as a starting point.  Begin discussion with what they can see in the picture, then move on to discuss what might be just beyond the boundaries.  One of my favourite resource pictures depicts a wonderful woodland scene with rough stone steps leading up and out of sight.  What could be at the top of the steps?  Pictures of people in action lend themselves to thinking about what might happen next.  
  1. Brainstorm.  So many students are reluctant to do this, and yet are surprised when they cannot just start writing.  Ask them to write down as many words and phrases that they can think of about a given subject, without worrying if they are actually going to use them in their writing.  There is no wrong word.  Once they get used to doing this, they can choose a selection of the words they have brainstormed as a starting point for writing.  The act of brainstorming itself will help stretch their imagination.  
  1. Exercise daily.  Imagination is no different to any other muscle.  You need to use it little and often.  No-one is suggesting reluctant students need to write a story a day.  However, they can write something: a description, a journal entry, what they are having for lunch, or details about their favourite video game or movie.  What they write is less important than ensuring they flex that muscle.  
  1. Read fiction.  Frequent reading has been shown to stimulate the right side of the brain and improve brain function.  There is no question that during reading students practise creating images in their mind, a vital step to creating their own ideas.  

Why does it really matter if some students don’t use their imaginations?  Can we not just accept their differences and encourage them in areas in which they do excel?  Without imagination, we have no innovation.  Imagination pushes discovery and understanding.  It opens the world to the possible in all things.  Shouldn’t we enable all students to be this creative?  To find that potential ​that is within themselves?

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