I’ve recently become interested in the role of imagination in cognition. A couple of separate strands of interest from the last few years have finally come together to form a coherent mass (certainly not a whole at this stage) placing imagination as a very integral cog in higher order thinking, commonly known as executive function.
Executive function is the cognitive control of various thinking processes, such as reasoning, planning, task flexibility and execution and working memory. Broadly speaking, executive function is concerned with organising and regulating thoughts, and thus behaviour, when our automatic processes are not sufficient. Automatic processing occurs all the time and is a way for our brains to carry out ordinary, every day tasks without using up too much brain power – literally and figuratively. Automatic processes allow us to get on with thinking about other more important issues – Kim Kardashians bottom, what’s for tea, the role of imagination, etc. – and allow the brain to use valuable ‘food’ (energy in the form of oxygenated blood) elsewhere. Anything that you can do ‘without thinking’ will fit in to these automatic processes, as well as tasks which require minimal conscious effort – walking, driving, buying a pint of milk – if Tesco’s hasn’t played around too much with the store layout – scrolling through facebook…
These automatic processes are extensive, varied and hugely useful but often they are not adequate. Planning a driving route to visit a place you are unfamiliar with, deciding whether to apply for a job or not, buying a pint of milk in a foreign country (or perhaps just a new shop!), fixing your bike or car or any other technically difficult activity, considering your weekend plans, and even trying to resist the chocolate bar sitting in your bag. All these sorts of activities require a bit more cognitive oomph and that is where the idea of executive function comes in: Executive function is almost like the ‘control centre’ for these more difficult brain processes. There are different theories of how this may be achieved variously rooted in neuroscience, psychology, philosophy and computer models, but largely it is agreed that this processing occurs in the frontal lobe. How it is done, or even being certain that executive function is an element of our neuro-processing isn’t that important for the purpose of this post though. If anything, for the rest of this post executive function can almost be thought of as shorthand for higher-level thinking such as I’ve described above.
So there’s a very rudimentary sketch of executive function and so far very little mention of imagination…
A few days ago I was introduced to Steiner Learning and Steiner Education. Ultimately, the aim of this educational system is to encourage children to love learning and so curriculums and rigorously planned lessons are ousted in favour of allowing children to dictate subject matter of lessons. Instead of being forced to write times tables out in their numeracy text books, read in silence and trace letters in their literacy text books, children are told stories to foster a love of learning, sing times tables and play games with numbers, and sand and carve objects to learn the motor skills required for writing. Computers, colourful ‘complete’ toys and television are discouraged in favour of more basic toys or simply natural materials. Perhaps this sounds rather ‘hippy-dippy’, even at some level unfair – aren’t children allowed the biggest, brightest, fanciest toys? Don’t children need to know how to read by themselves and write early on? Shouldn’t they learn about computers to keep up with tech-savvy contemporaries? Steiner advocates say that children with basic toys learn to be more creative; the story for the toy must be invented by the child. They argue that children who have learnt to love stories by listening and reciting oral narratives will have no issue with learning to read and write because they will have a desire to do so. They present computers and televisions as providing too easy a platform for children, which hinders their creativity, their imaginations, and these are important developments in the road to becoming a healthy, successful, happy adult.
A year or so ago, I had a discussion about children with behavioural difficulties due to emotional and physical neglect and cruelty in their very early years. Recently the typical behavioural challenges seen in this demographic have been at least partially attributed to poorly developed frontal lobes. Young children and babies suffering neglect and abuse live in their primal brains: their basic needs are not being met so resources cannot be diverted to less vital developmental stages. If food, shelter, safety and crucially love are not readily available then the brain cannot advance out of it’s primal functioning. The frontal lobe is one of the last areas of the brain to develop so it is understandable that children with disturbed and dysfunctional early years will have stunted growth here. A lot of the social difficulties displayed by these children can very easily be framed as disorders of executive function: ADHD, poor reasoning skills, inability to plan effectively, compulsivity, lack of inhibitory controls, inflexibility of thought.
Clearly neglected and abused children are extreme examples, but the rise of disorders such as ADHD, the rise of challenging behaviour in classrooms, are not extreme examples and between Steiner Learning and neglected children there is perhaps a key to better understanding.
Steiner Learning promotes play-based learning, creativity and psychological development of the child above curriculums, test scores and conventional educational achievement. Playing, sculpting, story-telling (or story-hearing), imagining, are important factors in healthy development. A child unable to feel secure in it’s environment, because that environment is cruel, neglectful, abusive or dangerous, is unlikely to engage in play – afterall, play with whom? – s/he is unlikely to develop creative skills and unlikely to develop imagination. Perhaps the issue is that by not developing the ability to imagine, a child is unable to develop executive function skills.
The link between imagination and executive function is not so hard to see; indeed it has been linked already within developmental literature. Engaging in pretend play, developing story telling skills and “indulging” children’s fantasies, whether santa claus or imaginary friends, are well trodden boards in parenting books. However, outside of developmental neuroscience and developmental psychology, imagination seems underrepresented. In 4 years of studying philosophy with a strong interest in philosophy of mind, followed by a year studying cognitive science I haven’t before come across a theory of imagination. Executive functioning clearly makes use of the imagination: planning a future course of action – as simple as a navigational route or as complex as a ten-year life plan – requires an ability to imagine a physical or temporal space you are not currently in; inhibiting your automatic response to a piece of chocolate because of a desire for a future goal involves being able to understand that future goal despite not being able to directly see it; error correction, a stereotypical executive function process, often requires thinking through multiple possible courses of action to identify the one that will work. These types of thought process obviously require an ability beyond thinking about our immediate surroundings. They require a creative instinct, an ability to reason beyond the obvious, they require heavy brain power. In short, they require an active imagination. Executive function is a rich and wide area of study, understanding it via imagination could perhaps allow a sharper, better defined understanding to emerge.