Our Fertile Imagination

Humans have long had fertile imaginations. It isn’t just that we see patterns everywhere, but that we see them and make up stories about them. Whether it be the forest, the wind, or the stars, we have long read into the world around us a rich tapestry of our own imagination.

A thread that runs through it all is the agency we ascribe to the patterns. The gods control our fates, the spirits reward or punish us, the stars foretell our future. Even the remnant of tea leaves in the bottom of a cup gives us an important and relevant message.

But what happens when we don’t exercise our imagination?

It doesn’t go away, it’s far too fundamental in us to simply vanish. A river flowing that deep and wide doesn’t just evaporate, it finds a path. We can’t help but apply our innate human tools.

Yet modern culture not only rarely begs of our imagination, it often actively campaigns against it. As society becomes more and more secular, more based on numbers, religions and astrology are put on the same shelf — viewed as discards and refuge of the needy and poor.

[Even spiritual pursuits for most moderns is received dogma that asks little of the mind other than acceptance and belief. In fact, some are hostile towards questions.]

So our scientific numerical world, outside the hands of mathematicians and some scientists, requires no imagination. There is little or no room left for imagination in most daily lives.


At least not in our work and regular interactions. In modern cultures, play, that oh so vital mental activity, has always been the final bastion of imagination.

Children still have the rich imaginations of our ancestors. To play with a child is to enter a world of literal magics and innocent delights. It’s something that many adults find awkward and challenging — a native talent that growing up often erases.

We might point to movies, TV shows, or video games, as vast instances of imagination, which they surely are, but they don’t require much of our imagination, and that’s the point.

We just sit back and watch.

§ §

Modern techniques have made visual entertainment look entirely lifelike. Unlike books or plays, which require our imagination, the verisimilitude of modern video gives us a real life experience that parallels what we experience from the news or documentaries.

The blurring of the line between reality and fiction is a topic for other posts; right now there is just the fact that the visual forms we consume for entertainment have become very realistic and don’t ask us to imagine anything — they show it to us.

As an old phrase suggests, “It doesn’t leave much to the imagination.”

My canonical example has long been how we depict being gunshot. Long ago it involved the victim clutching their (bloodless) stomach, groaning, and falling down. For real excitement a stunt guy might fall off a stunt horse. Through the ages, those visuals have… changed.

[If you want one more thing about our history to piss you off, look up the “Running W” horse stunt. The best outcome was a very unhappy horse that was done for the day. To steal an old medical punchline, “the stunt was a success, but the horse died.” So the horses are safer now, and the visuals are the horrific part.]

Anyway, it has occurred to me that the superior realism of today’s movies, TV shows, and video games, may have had an unfortunate double whammy on our psyches.


Firstly, I’ve long thought the level of realism makes our visual stories much more powerful, which is a sword with two edges. They’re more immersive and engaging, but they also have greater power to affect and shape us (just as real life does).

So while CGI and film techniques bring wonder and realism, we may also have given them more power to program our minds.

Books and plays don’t have the same power because the lack of realism distances the viewer from the content. (Which is generally a good idea — stories should not be too immersive. We must always be able to know they are stories.)

That said, literary fiction has the power of ideas, which famously move mountains.

Secondly, and this is my thesis, such realism in stories, contra books and plays, removes the need for, and exercise of, our imaginations. We no longer need to imagine anything about Lord of the Rings or Sherlock Holmes.

Indeed, in the latter case, there are myriad visualizations to pick from, which has the nice effect of making the character blurry again.

[I’ve mentioned before how the LotR movies have “collapsed” my imagination wave-function regarding those characters and settings. Now if I read those stories Frodo has collapsed to Elijah Wood. I’m currently re-reading American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, and thanks to the Starz series, Wednesday is forever collapsed now to Ian McShane. Fortunately, that’s great casting.]

§ §

So what is the consequence of rarely exercising our imagination?

More importantly and to the point: Does it get subverted into a tendency to believe in fantasy bullshit?

I can’t help but wonder if our need to imagine, when subverted, doesn’t turn into a generic fascination with conspiracies or astrology or flat Earth or multiple worlds or whatever fantasy bullshit comes along and seems grabs the mind.

Is this explained by our need to imagine?

Take away the gods, take away the spirits, take away the stars, the cards, and the tea leaves, and what remains? Our fantasy heroes and ideas?


Especially since the 2020 election, and extra especially since Wednesday of this week, I’ve been wondering how people can be so deluded.

Are people really that stupid? I’ve never actually met anyone that stupid, so I think something more is going on. Consider the scientific delusions, SUSY or string theory, for two examples. Highly intelligent, highly educated, highly capable people with good track records believe these things, pursue them as real. String theory captivated (and still does) a large segment of physics.

It’s not stupidity. I think — maybe — it’s our imaginations running wild in a world that doesn’t tend to exercise them. Perhaps it’s like how one gets muscle cramps when stressing unused muscles.

[With science, some imagination and guesswork is required. Science is nothing without inspiration and intuition. But, as always, the key is recognizing fact from fancy and not conflating them. And in the end, it’s experimental results that wins the day.]


I think paint ball games and climbing walls might reflect our need for imagination. Flight simulator games may also tap into the desire to imagine.

On a deeper level, those who play militia and survivor games are clearly indulging their imaginations. Watching the members of an invading army raping the Capital I was struck by the dress-up nature and strong sense of people living in an imaginary world.

I saw a lot in common with those most far gone into science fiction or Renaissance Faire fantasies, but here with an ideology based on fear, hate, grievance, perceived privilege, and violence.

I suspect much of it revolves around a small number of hate-fueled disgraces to the human race (cockroaches that should simply be squashed and forgotten), but they are amplified many times over by followers and technology.

Utterly starved for something to imagine, they believe in the world they’ve been handed by false prophets.


A small ray of sun through the clouds, it seems that some of them have finally, at long last, found the bottom of the rabbit hole.

Too little too late for my money, but better late than never.

I wonder what the hangover on that one must be like. “OMG! I sided with Satan! I’ll never be clean again.”

No. No, you won’t. That’s a stain that won’t wash off.

[I’d say, “Be ashamed,” but it seems shame is one of those old-fashioned social imagination things we lost somewhere along the way.]

§ §

On a lighter and harmless note, the subverted imaginations of scientists can, in some cases, take on tinges of cultism, which I think is a good indication of how invested our imagination can get.

I must cite the MWI here for the striking evangelism and arrogance of its strongest proponents. People like Sean Carroll and David Deutsch, who, no mistake, have made enormous contributions to physics, have a “One True View” approach that both puts me off and throws a red flag on the play.

It’s also, I think, a good illustration that intelligence and education alone aren’t a shield from fantasy bullshit. They only up the quality of the bullshit. It’s well-grounded scientifically plausible bullshit.

But it’s still bullshit.

[Do I need to explain that “bullshit” is meant in a broad and mild way? Actual bullshit is excellent fertilizer and manure from ruminants doesn’t stink like the feces of meat-eaters. If a friend starts going on about something, one might affectionately say, “That’s some bullshit there, my friend!” It just means: not factual, not evidential, not real. Kinda like: No shirt, no shoes, no service.]


I do sometimes wonder about the canonical spherical cow of science. Physics traditionally oversimplifies, and I wonder if that thinking is infectious.

Not to pick on the MWI here, but one thing that strikes me is the sweeping (and contra observational) idea that the wave-function meaningfully applies to classical objects. It seems an overly simplistic view to assume a single piece of math applies to all of reality.

It seems another example of imagination subverted.

§ §

So what’s the solution? As always, my one-word answer is: Education!

Teach children to think critically and for themselves, expose them to the width and depth of the genuine real world and its peoples, excite them with the possibilities unlocked by true knowledge and understanding,… and so much of this shit goes away.

It could be the world the Victorians imagined way back when knowledge and science lifted us from our dark bestial ages and seemed capable of delivering utopia to all (or, at least what they thought of as “all”).

I do think education is one key. Another is ruthless self-awareness. One of my favorite quotes, due to Albert Camus, is: “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.”

It’s about reducing the hidden-from-self part of the Johari Window. It’s about asking why one believes the things one believes. If the belief is sound, it’ll survive those questions just fine. One might even thrive on the better understanding of one’s own beliefs.

Stay watching your minds, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

12 responses to “Our Fertile Imagination

  • Wyrd Smythe

    What’s interesting and relevant about American Gods is that it involves the idea that our beliefs in gods actually creates those gods (as genuine physical beings with mystic powers). It’s an idea that Terry Pratchett uses throughout his Discworld novels.

    Ironically, in the book Gaiman and Pratchett did together, Good Omens, Heaven and Hell, Angels and Demons, are all quite real on their own.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    The post ran too long for this, but I was tickled by this Gismodo article that’s about the leaked plans showing the electronic diagram for the 5G chips that taking the COVID-19 vaccine will inject into our bloodstreams for mind control.

    The diagram is clearly for a guitar foot pedal.

    (So blatantly clearly that it goes back to what I said about it’s not stupidity. There must be people among that crowd capable of reading a simple circuit diagram. It requires a major application of the subverted imagination to see anything else there. Such a good example!)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    In other news, I never paid much attention to the controversy over American Dirt (2020), by Jeanine Cummins, but apparently it has snowballed into a whole thing.

    I tend to have the same opinion here that I do regarding people who get their knickers bunched over Dave Chappelle (who I think is one of the best comedians out there). People are, in both cases, unhappy with what these two represent for the [fill in the blank] community. Apparently some people see these two (and so many others) as speaking for the [fill in the blank] community.

    In other words, these people give Cummins and Chappelle (or J.K. Rowling, to name another) a lot of power as speakers and then condemn them when they speak for themselves and say things contrary to what these Good And Decent Folks Know To Be True.

    I am so goddamned sick of this shit. Fuck these people and the horse they rode in on.

    Good lord, you imagination-starved motherfuckers. A woman wrote a book. A fiction book. Are you really saying she can’t write any goddamn book she wants? You don’t like it, write your own goddamn book.

    A comedian says somethings to get a laugh (and to make us think) and people lose their shit. And what really bugs me is that these are people nominally on my side (or I’m on theirs, whatever).

    So this is a note to self that I really need to talk about this political and social identity stuff. And about #cancel culture. I’m still pissed about Al Franken.

  • Anonymole

    I’ve spent a fair amount of time on how humans find patterns in things. Pareidolia seems rampant in humanity. One of my favorite is stock market data: “Oh, look a pattern of bumps – it must continue… Right?”

    I used the whole tea leaves theme in my second novel:

    If you turn the image, there’s another less obvious image.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      What big teeth you have, grandma!

      Yeah, that pattern recognition ability (the envy of AI researchers) is a two-edged sword. We see both the real and imagined tigers stalking us in the high grass…

  • rung2diotimasladder

    Perhaps a lack of imagination outlets does contribute, but I think your points, “intelligence and education alone aren’t a shield from fantasy bullshit,” and “an intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself” are most insightful. I agree that self awareness is key.

    We’re all prone to group think. Liberals are constantly saying, “I believe in science.” Yeah? Well what does that mean? How many of them actually know what they’re talking about? They have nothing more than an opinion about science, but they don’t see that, so they plaster their cars with thoughtless bumperstickers and feel superior. Not that there’s anything wrong with having opinions—we can’t know everything, after all—but recognizing them as such is key. Otherwise we can only hope our opinions don’t come from fantasy-land. (The ones I’ve expressed here come from Plato-ville, not to be confused with Play-Doh-ville.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yes, I quite agree! There’s that line about opinions and assholes and how we all have them and they all stink to one degree or another (and no one thinks their own does that much — it’s actually a really good metaphor).

      That’s a good point about people and science. Being on the right side isn’t an excuse. (How are we so sure it’s the right side?)

      I do think the only way one has a chance of staying on a rational beam is constant self-checking backed with education and experience.

      (There’s a debate about whether everyone has an internal monologue. I’m among those who not only have one, I have several. Different aspects of my self that constantly, and very annoyingly at times, question the other aspects. I’m constantly having to explain myself to me.)

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