We tend to think of imagination as an interesting but auxiliary capacity of the mind. We talk about how children and artists have such great imaginations, while some people have no imaginations at all. If you do have a healthy imagination, you have to remember not to let it run wild or get the best of you. You’ve heard that sometimes it may not be possible by any stretch of the imagination, but that sometimes all it takes is a little imagination. And although you can hopefully tell whether or not something is a figment of your imagination, what if it all really is just in your imagination?
That’s a trick question, because we could say that imagination is an essential part of cognition. The brain can only interact with information from the world via our senses. What we perceive, we perceive indirectly, in our minds. And what is simulated in our minds is a copy of what is real in the world. Everything we experience is actually imagined.
The concept of imagination is commonly confused or considered to be interchangeable with creativity. Both are related to the realization of something that does not already exist within a given context. As a form of internal representation, the most basic function of imagination involves processing our perceptions of the world, as these perceptions do not exist outside of our representations of them. In contrast, creativity involves the production of something that did not previously exist within the context of one’s experience. It is dependent upon imagination but, while imagination can involve creativity, imagination is not also dependent upon it.
Although creativity could be considered a kind of cognitive luxury, imagination is not. Imagination is what allows us to see the world. Creativity allows us to manipulate what we see — both in our own minds and in the world.