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Andrew Shtulman — Learning to Imagine: The Science of Discovering New Possibilities

Learning to Imagine: The Science of Discovering New Possibilities (book cover)

Imagination is commonly thought to be the special province of youth―the natural companion of free play and the unrestrained vistas of childhood. Then come the deadening routines and stifling regimentation of the adult world, dulling our imaginative powers. In fact, Andrew Shtulman argues, the opposite is true. Imagination is not something we inherit at birth, nor does it diminish with age. Instead, imagination grows as we do, through education and reflection.

The science of cognitive development shows that young children are wired to be imitators. When confronted with novel challenges, they struggle to think outside the box, and their creativity is rigidly constrained by what they deem probable, typical, or normal. Of course, children love to “play pretend,” but they are far more likely to simulate real life than to invent fantasy worlds of their own. And they generally prefer the mundane and the tried-and-true to the fanciful or the whimsical.

Children’s imaginations are not yet fully formed because they necessarily lack knowledge, and it is precisely knowledge of what is real that provides a foundation for contemplating what might be possible. The more we know, the farther our imaginations can roam. As Learning to Imagine demonstrates, the key to expanding the imagination is not forgetting what you know but learning something new. By building upon the examples of creative minds across diverse fields, from mathematics to religion, we can consciously develop our capacities for innovation and imagination at any age.

Andrew Shtulman is Professor of Psychology at Occidental College where he directs the Thinking Lab. His award-winning research has been featured in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. His previous book was Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong. His new book is Learning to Imagine: The Science of Discovering New Possiblities.

Shermer and Shtulman discuss:

  • Are we rational, irrational, or both?
  • Did our senses and brain evolve for veridical perception or just fitness to get our genes into the next generation?
  • Are children natural-born scientists experimenting with the world?
  • Imagination defined: the capacity to generate alternatives to reality
  • Imagination evolved
  • Imagination’s purpose
  • Imagination’s structure
  • Anomalies
  • Counterfactuals
  • Expanding imagination by example: Testimony, Technology, Empirical Discovery
  • Expanding imagination by principle: Scientific, Mathematical, Ethical
  • Expanding imagination by model: pretense, fiction, religion
  • Children

    • Children and development of imagination: are they natural-born innovators?
    • Are children highly gullible or skeptical? Rational or emotional/intuitive?
    • How children understand causality
    • How children develop morality and moral principles
    • Pretend play’s purpose
    • Children’s preference for nonfiction vs. fiction, prosaic stories vs. unusual ones, realism vs. fantasy
    • Why children do not have a more expansive imagination than adults
    • Are children more exploratory than adults?
    • Are children natural-born scientists?
  • Religion

    • Images of God, Heaven, Hell, the afterlife, etc., from anthropomorphic to abstract
    • Children’s images of God etc.
    • Theory of mind and the mind of God
    • Baptism
    • Faith Frame: Tanya Luhrmann: religious practices are not byproducts of belief but means of achieving it by turning vague abstractions into palpable experiences
  • AI and creativity
  • The Beatles and creativity
  • Education: Montessori.

This episode was released on December 12, 2023.

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