All religions have one thing in common: they teach you that if you imagine someone else dealing with an issue, then the issue will be resolved. We pray. We talk to the spirits. We call the four quarters. Whatever.
This is useful for situations we have no control over. By assigning the problem to someone else, we don’t have to worry about it anymore. Done and done.
But why does it work? As a social species, we depend on others to handle things all the time. We can relax and get back to probing for termites when we know someone else is looking out for predators. Our brains developed to this level in groups – not alone. Their full functionality, therefore, can only be expressed in a group setting.
So what happens when the group is gone, or isn’t enough to solve a problem? We create extra, virtual members of the group. Spirits. Gods. Invisible forces with consciousness of their own. We imagine the virtual person handling the problem we can’t deal with, and we trick our instincts into allowing us to move on.
The more the other members of the real group come to accept the virtual member, the more real it seems, and the more real it seems, the more we trust it to handle things. This is how religion happens and why it’s been useful for hundreds of thousands of years.
Religion harnesses the power of the imagination. This is where I was afraid this post would start to sound like an episode of Reading Rainbow – but I’m dead serious. Human beings are entirely capable of imagining ourselves into being sad, happy, angry, healthy and even sick. This is part of why placebos are more effective than they should be, and why shamanism is still practiced in parts of the world despite access to modern medicine. It can’t print you a new aorta, but for anxiety, depression, and the common cold, it works just as well – and sometimes better – than any pill.
Imagination is also a social tool that makes a group function better. When I imagine how you’ll react to something, I’m running a simulation that may tell me how to approach a social problem in a better way before I make you angry and waste valuable time. (Note to self: do this more often.)
It’s a communication tool, too. Imagine what these letters would mean if you couldn’t imagine what they mean. Imagination extends our social group, and therefore our brainpower and our knowledge, not just into the virtual but into the real people who have lived before us and recorded their thoughts.
Imagination is what makes video games fun – when you play Halo, you imagine you’re actually shooting aliens, not just pressing buttons and staring at colored lights.
It’s what makes advertising effective. Every single sale is based on the thought, “Hey, you’re right, blank would be better if I had blank!” That’s imagination at work.
It’s the mechanism that’s made everything we value about the modern world possible. It’s the instinct that allows an individual to access the knowledge of many other individuals – and for all of them to collectively act like one organism toward a common goal. It makes humanity more than the sum of its parts.
Conclusion: Go foster some effing imagination. YES I’M TALKING TO YOU.
Also, the first person who sends me a Reading Rainbow t-shirt gets an awesome prize.