Making the case for rigourous imagination

Magical realism. Creativity. Imagination. Surreal. Paint.

by Loes Damhof

“Our brains have become brittle. We are losing the capacity to imagine”

Words from neuroscientist, poet laureate and friend Pireeni Sundaralingam. Pireeni lives in San Francisco, close to Silicon Valley where she does research on the impact of technology on our brains. Increased screen time, getting lost in the rabbit hole, notifications form social media accounts… all contribute our decreasing capability to anticipate. In fact, she just discovered that looking at our phones makes it harder for our brains to look beyond two weeks from now. As humans we have always suffered from the poverty of imagination, but as we are becoming more and more dependent on our devices, one might say we are downright starving.

It is time to make the case for rigorous imagination.

In the FUTURES project we attempt to get youth enthusiastic for futures work. Recent surveys among middle school youth about what role futures play in the classroom, has given us some interesting data. An interest to imagine, yes, and a certain comfort talking about future jobs. But asked about exploring other pathways, we see ‘neutral’ opinions, which could point to a lack of knowledge about the subject. This can several reasons; for example the future as topic can be overwhelming. We think we see this in our futures literacy labs as well. Post-covid it has become more and more difficult for participants to ‘travel into the future’, to imagine beyond the now. This does not surprise us: facemasks and empty streets used to be the images of a dystopian sci-fi film. Since that has become the present, what is then the future? The globally experienced pandemic has shocked us into a reframed state of mind, and a feeling of anxiety has left us grasping for more certainty. With this mindset, it is not hard to imagine it is harder to imagine…

So how do we do this, and how do we stretch the imagination especially of those who might be less interested in the theoretic framework of anticipation? In adapting our Futures Literacy modules to youth, we decided to shift our focus on imagination as a more experiential tool. Without imposing the future as an overwhelming force on youth, can we design futures sessions that are fun, experiential and accessible so we can meet them where they are at? A new exciting development that the HUAS Chair is currently working on, is how to use imagination as a participatory tool for the broader public within public spaces, like museums. How can we use the actual space as a facilitator to stretch peoples imagination? How can we design meaningful experiences using space, art and exhibitions that help us to imagine futures we want to be a part of? By taking participants and especially youth through an embodied future, we might take ourselves away from the screens.

And our brains just might become  a little less brittle in the meantime.

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash