Toward a Science of the Imagination


“When the imagination sleeps, words are emptied of their meaning,” reflected writer and Nobel laureate Albert Camus. But what is the imagination? Is it sheer fantasy, or might it be crucial to engaging with life and exploring the world? How might it relate to dreaming, to personal development or mental flexibility? And what scientific information is needed to understand how imagination functions and grows?

The Imagination Institute is a new venture supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation which has launched a series of events and a grants competition, Advancing the Science of Imagination: Towards an “Imagination Quotient, to explore such questions. “Currently, there is little consensus on how imagination might be studied objectively,” explains Martin Seligman, founder of the field of positive psychology and the Institute’s executive director. “Our aim is to address this situation and begin to explore this central human capacity in a systematic way.”

“It’s vital that we develop ways of valuing imagination as a society. Understanding it from the perspective of science will help that,” adds Scott Barry Kaufman, the Institute’s scientific director, who previously worked at New York University researching and teaching about creativity and intelligence. “For example, currently, educational systems tend to reward individuals who can pass tests and reproduce information, but quick learners are not necessarily the most imaginative or creative.” Kaufman draws on his own experience. At school, imaginative explorations of his future were written off as delusions of grandeur.

“We live in an age full of compelling and competing demands for our attention,” he continues. “But rarely are people given the time to reflect, imagine, or daydream. Studies are beginning to show that rich inner lives enhance learning, creativity, and wellbeing.”

For example, studies of the brain suggest that the prioritization of the external environment leaves key types of mental activity underdeveloped. Take the so-called default mode network, which helps us to integrate the past and future, envisage new possibilities, understand fiction and other people, and process social and emotional information. These are all key human abilities without which, other studies suggest, we are left less compassionate, less able to learn, and less able to find meaning.

The work of the Institute is aimed at developing measures and means to study imagination and to nurture it. In particular, it is envisioned that the grants competition and events will help lay foundations for the emergence of an “Imagination Quotient.” This will orientate a deeper understanding of human imaginative capacities and the ways in which they might be enhanced. Advancing the Science of Imagination: Towards an “Imagination Quotient” will support the testing, validation, and development of measuring tools and interventions. Up to fifteen two-year grants in the range of $150,000-$200,000 will be awarded in 2015. Letters of intent are due September 30, 2014, and full details are available online.

The events will bring together imagination researchers and individuals celebrated for their imaginative abilities, with the purpose of exploring the nature and scope of the research. These conversations will examine imagination in various fields including the corporate and military, educational and governmental, artistic and therapeutic.

The poet Ted Hughes once remarked: “Imagination isn’t merely a surplus mental department meant for entertainment, but the most essential piece of machinery we have if we are going to live the lives of human beings.” For Hughes that was a powerful intuition proven to him in his own life. The Imagination Institute seeks to demonstrate it for us all.