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!
The lesson of leaving the cave is that sometimes it’s worthwhile to take in the world all at once—and forget about imposing structure on it. When I come out of a cave, I remember how dazzlingly rich and complex my surroundings really are; I don’t try to fit them into my preconceived mental categories. Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik talks about the difference between states of consciousness experienced by adults and by infants as a difference between the illumination afforded by a spotlight—focused and directed, narrowed to the objects and ideas of immediate concern; and a lantern—a soft glow that diffuses and broadens the reach of attention. In Imagination First, Eric Liu and I draw from this idea to advocate an imaginative practice we call “Spotlight Off, Lantern On.” The spotlight represents how most of us live and work: we discern borders between things, we break stuff down into chunks we can handle, we deal with one thing at a time. The lantern, on the other hand, represents “full-field awareness” (124). To understand what this means, think of being in a foreign country: when you can’t rely on your tried-and-true habits of thought, you simply absorb everything. You’re actually more conscious than you are at home.
So what’s so great about “loosening the grip of the sense-making intellect and yielding to a more limbic form of awareness” (126)? Well, imagination is all about conceiving new possibilities, and it’s very hard to do that if one goes through life making tidy sense of whatever one perceives. Confronted with some new phenomenon, we might automatically classify it. “Oh, X is a Y, and Y’s are only good for such and such, so I know the potential of X.” No! Stop! Maybe X is a million other things besides Y! Maybe the potential of X is limitless! But to realize this—to see beyond the rigid conceptual limits that we devise in order to easily interpret the world—we must switch off our narrow spotlights and raise our luminous lanterns.
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