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The Death of Imagination

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In digital media, seeing often is believing. As technology delivers more realistic and explicit images, little is left to the imagination anymore. Art director and industrial designer Duane Loose shows how the increasing visual reality of film, TV, and games might well be destroying our ability to imagine.
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"Seeing is believing" is a common phrase, the meaning and power of which we do not fully understand. Most people think that it is an exhortation to believe only the reality that can be seen or touched. But the secret truth behind the words is far more powerful than a mere invitation to provide visual evidence to support belief. Because of the way the mind works, we cannot help but believe that what we see is real. Regardless of the source—TV, film, or games—as digital artists we create addictive experiences. And our audiences willingly suspend their disbelief to accept what we put on the screens before them.

The addiction to believing only in things that can be comprehended by the physical senses is a subtle and ancient problem. It is a cognitive disease of the highest order. The prognosis is not good. And the result of the death of our individual and collective imaginations can be seen in every segment of society: business, family, military, government, and entertainment. What is the cause? More importantly, what is the cure?

The Explicit Addiction

In his book Sibling Society, author Robert Bly writes about the pandemic decline of our imaginative abilities. At the core of the problem and the solution lies the current scientific research concerning the parts of our brain and what role these parts play in the creation of pictures in our mind's eye.

When we read the written word, images begin to form in our imaginations. The images, the perceptual meaning of the images, and our emotional response to that meaning are formed by an interaction between three distinct parts of our brains: the reptile brain (reactive instinct, fight or flight), the midbrain (cognitive sensory processing), and the neocortex (higher-order reasoning). When all three parts of the brain are interactively engaged, ideas, images, and emotional and physiological responses are generated in a speed of light neural bungee jump. Nothing is faster than the jump to conclusions.

Bly suggests, and many scientists agree, that the measurable decline in the imaginative process of forming imagery in the mind is a direct result of the power of TV, movies, and other intense visual media to bypass the imagination by feeding explicit images directly into the visual cortex—without the neural bungee jump. No jump, no brain workout. This results in a slow atrophy of the muscles of the mind. Because there is no need to form images when explicit images are provided, there is nothing left to the imagination anymore. In time, this destroys the ability to imagine.

Consequently, the decline of imagination leads us to rely ever increasingly upon the very cause of the problem. It takes more of the same visual gluttony to be entertained. If all we know is excess, where will we find the beauty of balance and simplicity in the stories that we tell?

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