Stop Making Sense

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Image by Dan Nevill*

Adult human beings are chronic sense-makers. Surrounded by dizzying ideas and sensations, we work to make them manageable: we classify things so that when we encounter something new, we can drop it conveniently into a folder in our mental file cabinet. When we’re working on a project, we focus on that exclusively and block out all “distractions.” This narrowing and organizing is necessary, of course; without it, we’d too be confused to ever get anything done. But might such confusion also be an asset?

For years I was an avid spelunker—that is, I liked to explore caves. My experiences visiting them have taught me a valuable lesson about imagination. Let me explain. When you enter a cave, you turn off your everyday sensory expectations; you step into a dark, mysterious world different from the one to which you’re accustomed. But as you spend six, eight, ten hours underground, you adapt to your environment and acquire an alternate way of seeing. When you finally emerge, however, the real shock comes: after hours of blackness, the colorful aboveground world is more vivid than ever. It stimulates your visual receptors. But in that moment you’re too overwhelmed for your usual organizational mechanisms to kick in. Instead of defined objects, you see floating blurs of color and texture. This may be disorienting, but it’s also liberating and, literally, eye-opening! Continue reading

The Pope’s Telescope

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Image by Sarah G*

The discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe would be the greatest turning point in the history of humankind. Fire, the wheel, religion, organized government, the printing press, the computer—all of these breakthroughs, which have enabled us to advance in so many ways—would pale in comparison. Of course, the scenarios I’m imagining wouldn’t necessarily have to involve intelligence: mere microbes from other planets could help us cure diseases. But what does the Vatican, of all institutions, have to do with this?

In November, the Associated Press reported that “the Vatican has called in experts to study the possibility of extraterrestrial alien life and its implication for the Catholic Church.” The Reverend José Gabriel Funes, director of the 120 year-old Vatican Observatory, held a weeklong conference that brought together thirty scientists—astronomers, physicists, biologists, and other experts—to discuss these issues. Obviously, the possibility of sentient beings existing beyond Earth raises many questions for adherents of all religions, but the conference centered on science rather than theology. This interests me most, however, as an illustration of imagination at work. Continue reading

Imagination Means Business

Image by Mark Kobayashi-Hillary*

One aim of Lincoln Center Institute’s Imagination Conversations is to demonstrate to audiences that imagination is not only the province of artists but, rather, is central to the fields of education, science, government, and business. A recent New York Times article by Lane Wallace, “Multicultural Critical Theory. At B-School?”, reveals that some thought leaders in the business world share our perspective. The piece focuses mainly on Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, whose guiding principle is that business students need to learn more than number-crunching if they are to succeed in the 21st century—they must also be able to think critically and creatively.

Martin’s idea, Wallace explains, is to weave skills traditionally associated with the liberal arts—for instance, the ability “to imaginatively frame questions and consider multiple perspectives”—into the business school curriculum. Other institutions besides Toronto that have expanded the scope of their M.B.A. programs in the last few years include Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and the Yale School of Management. Many of these programs are now offering “design thinking” classes that send students into the field to find problems, to which they then propose solutions. Martin and his like-minded peers are wisely responding to one of the lessons of the current financial crisis: businesspeople with basic knowhow aren’t enough to keep our economy thriving. The new era demands workers who can “think … nimbly across multiple frameworks, cultures and disciplines.”

Developing the minds of M.B.A. students holistically is an exciting step in the right—that is, the imaginative—direction.

*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.

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Imagination Takes a Hike

Image by Craig Cloutier**

To say that I am an avid walker is an understatement. It is perhaps one of the things I love the most about living in New York City. For me walking is about much more than exercise or fresh air—it’s about exploration, experience, and reflection. But it wasn’t until I came across Alexei Sayle’s* article from this past Sunday’s Observer of London that I became cognizant of how wonderfully this activity also fuels my imagination.

It was really a single line from Sayle’s article that has started me thinking about this: “The act of walking itself can be, if you tread with your eyes and brain open, fantastic for the imagination,” he writes. This seems deceptively obvious, perhaps, and it is certainly something I readily recognize as I reflect, now, on my own experience. Stepping out for a lunchtime turn around the block during a busy work day isn’t just about releasing tension, it’s about re-starting my brain, revving up those gears, generating sparks. Yet I had not previously conceived of walking as a part of my own imagination practice.

Not only is New York an eminently walkable city, but I am certainly not alone in my passion for exploring this fascinating place on foot. The population encountered striding through Central Park, Riverside Park, or along the sidewalks of the Upper West Side (or in myriad other corners of the five boroughs, I presume), is gratifyingly diverse and often unexpectedly fascinating. What and who you encounter during a particular foray makes the experience valuable, but I wonder whether simply being “outside” or “abroad” in both a conceptual and physical sense doesn’t also exercise the imagination in a certain way?

Thinking about stepping out to reignite? Caleb Smith documented his two-year project to walk every street in Manhattan. Shore Walkers is a year-round walking club based in NYC and lower New York State, perhaps best known for The Great Saunter, an annual 32-mile hike around the perimeter of Manhattan. (A bit crazy on the face of it, I know, but I have actually completed this walk more than once!) I don’t mean to seem completely NYC-centric, though! Check out www.startwalkingnow.org from the American Heart Association. And consider browsing the Internet for information about walking your own community.

*Sayle is not terribly well-known in the U.S. Readers might most likely remember this British author, actor, and comedian for his recurring role as the landlord Jerzy Balowski on the 1980s import, The Young Ones.

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**There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.

The Spaces Between

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Image by Ladonite / Brendan*

Image by Ladonite / Brendan*

As a dancer and someone who frequently experiences works of art in many disciplines, I’ve come to see over the years that constraints are often more conducive to artists’ imaginations than so-called “freedom.” Let’s say you’re a choreographer working on a commission. If you know that the area of the stage is only so many square feet, the piece must last no longer than twenty minutes, and the budget will allow for just four dancers, then you are able to focus on one thing alone: how can you make the most complex and beautiful dance possible within these limitations? But does this suggest that embracing boundaries is also a valuable strategy for business, government, and other institutions? Continue reading

Fail to Succeed

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Image by CCK Mom*

Image by CCK Mom*

Sometime between childhood and adulthood, we become afraid of failure. As kids, whether we’re wrestling with watercolors to create a coherent painting or struggling to ride a bicycle or getting the hang of rope climbing in phys ed, we understand intuitively that failure is inevitable and acceptable and that we can learn from it. But as we grow up, all too often we become conditioned to see only “right” and “wrong” answers where we once saw infinite possibilities. Disapproving glares and snickers—wherever they come from—drive us to fear failure, to cover it up, to toe the line. Fortunately for me, an early mentor offered a much different philosophy. Continue reading