Human Imagination: The Ultimate Time Machine

Occasionally I wake up in the morning – or the middle of the night – when I’ve had a really weird dream. Sometimes it takes several minutes to shake off the sense that it was real. And I think about it and say to myself: “Wow! Where did all that come from?” The situations, characters and story lines can be far removed from my life’s experiences. Dreams, of course, are some of the most mysterious aspects of that thing of wonder: the human imagination.

turner seascape and steve bell cartoonThe imagination, of course, plays the central role in works of art, used in the widest sense. From the impassioned brush strokes of J M Turner to the incisive pen strokes of a Steve Bell cartoon. From Antigone, King Lear and Hamlet to Harry Potter, Hard Times, Hobbits and Discworld. From Bach, Berlioz and Beethoven to the Beatles, Brel and Bowie. Experiencing the results of another person’s imagination is part of what binds us together as human beings and makes life rich and fulfilling.

Out of Time

But the idea I’m exploring here is how one’s imagination can take us out of our own time – and space. We use our store of memories, tidied up and altered in ways it’s difficult to assess, to analyse and reminisce over past events . We can engage in thought experiments to imagine some planned – or unplanned, hypothetical – future event. By imagining possible futures, some of our best and worst hopes and fears can be played out. When deep in our own thoughts thus, we are – literally – out of time.

His Master’s Voice and Where’s My Nuts?

So what makes human beings unique? It’s clear that other creatures have some sorts of memory. Dogs and cats recognize their owners. Any number of territorial creatures can recognize smells associated with marking out their territory. There’s some evidence, but the jury’s probably out on whether squirrels can really remember where they buried their nuts. But only humans seem likely to be able to put together a cogent narrative about past events.

squirrel and nuts

There’s nothing unique to humans about the lived experience of consciousness: living in the present. So that just(?) leaves awareness of the future.

I Have Seen the Future

This, I think, is where human beings come into their own. To give a really bad, but current, example. The “debate” leading up to the EU referendum vote next month seems to consist almost exclusively of two rival speculations about the future. Person A says the sky will fall in if we leave. Person B says it won’t. Person X says we’ll be miles better in some respect if we go. Person Y says we won’t. And so on, and so on. It’s tedious and ultimately fatuous. One person’s “project fear” is another’s wise cautionary tale. But it is all, at heart, just competing narratives about the future. No other species on the planet could communicate in this way.

People do actually like to be told about their future, even when they know, deep down, what they’re being told is utter nonsense. I’m thinking here about fortune tellers, horoscopes, séances and such like. These rituals seem to satisfy some half-buried need for reassurance.

And It’s Murder

So from reassurance, I think it’s high time – indeed inevitable – that we talk about death. (Not about taxes today: sorry, Benjamin Franklin.) There is a generally, if not universally, held view that only humans have a concept of the inevitability of their own future death. There are some interesting discussions in the New Scientist and NY Times about other species’ understanding of death and use of rituals. A long discussion can be read in a US blog Rational Skepticism expressing a variety of ideas along the same lines. A really thought-provoking item in Wray Herbert’s We’re Only Human blog extends the discussion into more dangerous territory. It explores the reasons behind why humans are the only species prepared to commit murder and genocide on the basis of differing philosophies or world views, including religious differences.

Clash of civilizations
Clash of Civilizations

The Time Machine

time machine
Time Machine

There are a great many other avenues of thought to explore from the discussion so far – perhaps for a future blog. But my central point today is that it is our ability to think out of time and, above all, about the future that marks us humans out from the rest of Earth’s inhabitants. So I finish with a salute to that extraordinary product of evolution: the human imagination. It’s a source of our joy, our sorrows, our hopes and fears, and, inside our heads at least, it’s the ultimate time machine.


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