Think of how Albert Einstein changed our understanding of time and space by fantasizing about people going to the center of time in order to freeze their lovers or their children in century-long embraces. This space he imagined is clearly reminiscent of a black hole, where, theoretically, gravity would stop time. Einstein also fantasized about a woman’s heart leaping and falling in love two weeks before she has met the man she loves, which lead him to the understanding of acausality, a feature of quantum mechanics. A caricature of special relativity (the relativistic idea that people in motion appear to age more slowly) is based on his fantasy of a world in which all the houses and offices are on wheels, constantly zooming around the streets (with advance collision-avoidance systems).
Even the “Many worlds” interpretation which is espoused by some physicists, including Stephen Hawkins, is based on Einstein’s fantasy of a world where time has three dimensions, instead of one, where every moment branches into three futures. Einstein summarized value of using your imagination to fantasize best when he said “The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.”
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: Try to solve the following thought experiment before you read the paragraph that follows it. The thought experiment is attributed to the German Gestalt psychologist Karl Dunker.
One morning, exactly at sunrise, a Buddhist monk began to climb a tall mountain. The narrow path, no more than a foot or two wide, spiraled around the mountain to a glittering temple at the summit. The monk ascended the path at a varying rate of speed, stopping many times along the way to rest and to eat the dried fruit he carried with him. He reached the temple shortly before sunset. After several days of fasting and meditation, he began his journey back along the same path, starting at sunrise and again walking at a varying speed with many stops along the way. His average speed descending was, of course, greater than his average climbing speed. Is there a spot along the path that the monk will occupy on both trips at precisely the same time of day?
If you try to logically reason this out or use a mathematical approach, you will conclude that it is unlikely for the monk to find himself on the same spot at the same time of day on two different occasions. Instead, visualize the monk walking up the hill, and at the same time imagine the same monk walking down the hill. The two figures must meet at some point in time regardless of their walking speed or how often they stop. Whether the monk descends in two days or three days makes no difference; it all comes out to the same thing.
Now it is, of course, impossible for the monk to duplicate himself and walk up the mountain and down the mountain at the same time. But in the visual image he does; and it is precisely this indifference to logic, this superimposition of one image over the other, that leads to the solution. The imaginative conception of the monk meeting himself blends the journeys up and down the mountain and superimposes one monk on the other at the meeting place.
Your brain is a dynamic system that evolves its patterns of activity rather than computes them like a computer. It thrives on the creative energy of feedback from experiences real or fictional. You can synthesize experience; literally create it in your own imagination. The human brain cannot tell the difference between an “actual” experience and a fantasy imagined vividly and in detail. This discovery is what enabled Albert Einstein to create his thought experiments with imaginary scenarios that led to his revolutionary ideas about space and time.
Imagination gives us the impertinence to imagine making the impossible possible. Einstein, for example, was able to imagine alternatives to the sacred Newtonian notion of absolute time, and discovered that time is relative to your state of motion. Think of the thousands of scientists who must have come close to Einstein’s insight but lacked the imagination to see it because of the accepted dogma that time is absolute, and who must have considered it impossible to contemplate any theory.
Think of an impossibility, then try to come up with ideas that take you as close as possible to that impossibility. For example, imagine an automobile that is a live, breathing creature. List the attributes of living creatures. They are, for example, breathing, growing older, reproducing, feeling emotions, and so on. Then use as many of those attributes as you can while designing your automobile. For instance, can you work emotions into something that a car displays?
Japanese engineers for Toyota are working on a car that they say can express moods ranging from angry to happy to sad. The car can raise or lower its body height and ‘‘wag’’ its antenna, and it comes equipped with illuminated hood designs, capable of changing colors, that are meant to look like eyebrows, eyes, and even tears. The car will try to approximate the feelings of its driver by drawing on data stored in an onboard computer. So, for example, if another car swerves into an expressive car’s lane, the right combination of deceleration, brake pressure, and defensive steering, when matched with previous input from the driver, will trigger an ‘‘angry’’ look.
The angry look is created as the front end lights up with glowering red U-shaped lights, the headlights become hooded at a forty-five-degree angle, and downward-sloping “eyebrow” lights glow crimson. A good-feeling look is lighting up orange, and one headlight winks at the courteous driver and wags its antennae. A sad-feeling look is blue with “tears” dripping from the headlights.
Stretching your imagination by trying to make impossible things possible with concrete thoughts and actions is a mirror reversal of dreaming. Whereas a dream represents abstract ideas as concrete actions and images, this creative process works in the opposite direction, using concrete ideas (a car that is alive) to gain insight on a conscious level to reveal disguised thoughts (about cars showing emotion) as creative imagery.