The Value and Limits of Imagination

On a 4-day Field & Field course I recently attended on The Divided Brain. Coming to Your Senses, Iain McGilchrist told us that there are four paths to knowledge: science, reason, intuition and imagination. He gave a one-hour talk on each of these topics. In these posts I am sharing the notes I made whilst listening to the talks. For previous posts see:

And for further posts on Iain McGilchrist’s work, see

The Value and Limits of Imagination (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation. Any errors are mine)

Iain started by telling us that imagination is a bit suspect these days.

‘Inspiration is something we cannot control, towards which we have to exhibit what Wordsworth called a ‘wise passiveness’. As the nineteenth century wore on, this lack of control fitted ill with the confident spirit engendered by the Industrial Revolution, and this lack of predictability with the need, in accord with the Protestant ethic, for ‘results’ as the reward for effort. Imagination was something that could not be relied on: it was transitory, fading from the moment it revealed itself to consciousness (in Shelley’s famous phrase, ‘the mind in creation is a fading coal’), recalcitrant to the will. In response to this, ‘the Imaginative’, a product of active fantasy, rather than of the receptive imagination, began to encroach on the realm of imagination itself….’ (p.381 The Master and His Emissary)

The Reformation of the sixteenth century could be seen as having involved a shift away from the capacity to understand metaphor, incarnation, the realm that bridges this world and the next, matter and spirit, towards a literalistic way of thinking – a move away from imagination, now seen as treacherous, and towards rationalism. (p.382 The Master and His Emissary)

But imagination is not something that leads us astray; it is our only hope of leading us to reality and not only for great artists. It is for each of us in our everyday experience. We should go to meet it. If we don’t we are closed in a hermetic cell. We need imagination to get out of this.

In talking about imagination, Iain referred to Schelling (1854-1775) and Coleridge (1772-1834), saying that Schelling was a very profound philosopher and that Coleridge helped to make his ideas more comprehensible. Beyond this, Iain said little about Schelling. I know nothing of Schelling and it appears from a brief internet search that he is a philosopher who would take some getting to know, but as far as I can fathom, Schelling’s main thesis was an opposition to mechanism, materialism and scientific theorising and a view that nothing in nature is completely lifeless. ‘Nature is mind in the process of becoming conscious. Mind (or the self), on the other hand, is something which in its cognitive, rational activity, creates nature.’ (Dictionary of Philosophy. Penguin. P.555). Further brief reading around this topic suggests that understanding this relationship between mind and matter requires a leap of imagination.

Coleridge drew on Schelling’s ideas to develop his theory of imagination. Coleridge distinguished between fantasy and imagination. Fantasy is about escaping reality. It recombines things that are already known to us. But imagination is bound up with reality. It looks at what is and sees it for the first time. Imagination is a process where we never quite arrive, a process where we go to meet things, where the progress towards reality is one of ascending a spiral and seeing the whole.
















William Blake’s painting of Jacob’s ladder

When ascending the spiral, reaching a higher plane also involves a ‘coming back’ and being able to see and maintain contact with what is below.

Coleridge thought human imagination had two distinct parts, the primary and the secondary. Primary imagination is, he thought, the spontaneous act of creation that is not at our beckoning or under our control. There may have been years of mental work prior to this. Secondary imagination is the conscious act of bringing a composition into being from primary imagination. In other words, as Shelley said, inspiration is already dying when composition starts, hence ‘the mind in creation is a fading coal’. Poetry, music and composition come through us.


Iain then went on to talk about creativity, telling us that the right hemisphere of the brain is much more creative than the left hemisphere, although both hemispheres are involved in creativity. We can’t make the creative act happen. To encourage it, don’t do things.

Iain then discussed three stages of the creative process:

  • Preparation, a long process involving hard work, skills and knowledge, both conscious and unconscious
  • Incubation, an unconscious stage which is not under voluntary control and can only be impeded by conscious effort
  • Illumination, when a flash of insight flowers out of unconsciousness

In looking for this model of creativity I found it can be attributed to Graham Wallas. Maria Popova has written a useful post about this on her brainpickings site.

Iain also told us that for creativity there must be generative, permissive and translation requirements. The generative phase brings together things that normally can’t be brought together. In the permissiveness phase we have to get out of the way so that this can work for us; there is a relaxation of self-imposed constraints. Creation is always also self-creation. We make things and ourselves. The self and the Other create one another.

“A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.” Percy Bysshe Shelley

In the translation phase, the analytic mind plays a part, but it needs intuition to discover things. Criticism mustn’t happen too early. The subliminal self is superior to the conscious self. It’s interesting to consider the extent to which scientists actually use the scientific method, and how much they rely on the subliminal self, imagination and intuition.

Does the right hemisphere play a part in creativity?

Evidence of the right hemisphere’s special role in creativity comes from studying the work of renowned artists, composers and poets, before and after having a stroke. See, for example, a paper written by H. Bäzner and M.G. Hennerici – Painting after Right-Hemisphere Stroke – Case Studies of Professional Artists. In this Bäzner and Hennerici discuss the work of Otto Dix, whose paintings became flatter and more schematic following a right hemisphere stroke.












This move towards static, flatter and more narrowly focussed images can also be seen in film makers following a right hemisphere stroke.

A left hemisphere stroke has the opposite effect. For example, Benjamin Britten is thought to have done his best work after a left hemisphere stroke; Stravinsky composed more after a left hemisphere stroke; Handel wrote his Messiah in just three weeks shortly after his left hemisphere stroke, and William Carlos Williams’ poetry output became prolific after his left hemisphere stroke.

Damage to the left hemisphere, or just suppressing the left hemisphere, can lead to improvement in all kinds of creativity, e.g. the 9-dot problem can be solved much quicker following a left hemisphere stroke.

The challenge is to draw four straight lines which go through the middle of all of the dots without taking the pencil off the paper


The Relationship between creativity and mental illness

Aristotle linked melancholy to creativity, and research has linked depression and alcoholism to creativity. Rates of creativity are abnormally high in people with mental illness or mood disorders. Studies on male and female poets have shown higher rates of mental disorders, and in her book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, American psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison examined the relationship between bipolar disorder and artistic creativity. Comedians tend to suffer from depression. But no-one is very creative while they are ill. When they are well, the fact of having been ill makes them creative, but stress and anxiety promote the left hemisphere’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, as Iain told us at the beginning of his talk there seems to be a resistance against the notion of imagination. In briefly following this suggestion up, I found that in her paper The Odd Position of the Melancholic – The Loss of an Explanatory Model? Dr. Helena De Preester has written (p.18) that this resistance also applies to notions of melancholy and inspiration.

‘ …. the notion of melancholy is pushed to the side of a very subjective and personal discourse, and seems to have lost its all-pervading cultural and historical meaning, which was very helpful in directing discussions about (artistic) creativity, inspiration and imagination.’

‘ … the term ‘imagination’ is not very popular anymore: young artists or students in the arts often prefer to say that it all comes down to working very hard and to having the accidental (and economic) luck of becoming famous.’ …

‘creativity’ is an effect of working very hard, but it does not figure in a broader discourse on inspiration. The notions of ‘imagination’, ‘creativity’, ‘melancholy’ and ‘inspiration’ thus seem to have become vague and private notions, which rather block than deepen a discussion on the specificity of artistic creation and the position of the artist.

But Iain suggested that to be creative we need to open ourselves up to unconscious influences. This critical phase must be out of our control. We have to avoid interruptions and stress for creativity. Play and being relaxed are important. Consciousness is a stage with a spotlight. We need to get out of the glare of consciousness, out of the spotlight for creativity to flourish.

3 thoughts on “The Value and Limits of Imagination

  1. Bruno Annetta June 26, 2019 / 3:30 am

    Hi Jenny
    Once again I thank you for sharing your notes. I found them illuminating, enlightening and valuable.

  2. joannereedauthor June 26, 2019 / 10:47 am

    Avoid interruptions and stress for creativity?

    There is some creativity that comes from calm periods of reflection but new experiences and interactions often spark up my ideas.

  3. jennymackness June 28, 2019 / 6:27 am

    Thanks Bruno and Joanne for your comments.

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