Penn institute stimulates study of imagination

The human imagination has no boundaries. It is capable of traveling at the speed of light to galaxies far, far away, and falling, very slowly, down, down, down the rabbit hole. It has put a man on the moon and in the deepest parts of the ocean. It has built the computer, video games, and the internet. It has made phones that are smart, self-driving cars, and unmanned aerial vehicles. It is a world without end.

The Imagination Institute, a research area in the Positive Psychology Center at Penn, is a nonprofit organization established in 2014 that is dedicated to the development and measurement of imagination across all sectors of society.

With funding from the John Templeton Foundation, the mission of the Institute is to stimulate the field of imagination, says Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Institute.

“We feel as though imagination is a very neglected, yet very valuable skill in the 21st century,” he says.

The Institute grew out of the work of Martin Seligman, executive director of the Positive Psychology Center, and his research on prospection, or thinking about the future.

“Memory is about the past,” Seligman says. “Perception is about the present. Imagination is about the future. Psychology has been rich with stuff on perception and memory—the present and the past—but really impoverished about thinking about imagination.”

The Institute was funded with two main goals: to award grants to researchers around the world to study the measurement and development of imagination, and to bring about some of the most imaginative people on the planet to Philadelphia to pick their brains about how their imagination works, how they think imagination can be improved in their field, and how imagination can be developed in young people.

Kaufman says all human beings are wired to create, and all have a basic human need for creating meaning out of their experiences. He says a key element of imagination and creativity is daydreaming, “which is a fundamental human capacity that has been neglected.

“We should definitely allow for more opportunities for daydreaming,” says Kaufman. “Daydreaming is a natural part of life. Daydreaming involves imagining. It often involves imagining the future and dealing with unresolved issues and concerns.”

Kaufman says there are multiple factors to explain why one person may seem more imaginative than another. He says there is a biological component to imagination that can partly be changed or improved, and environmental elements, such as the extent to which a person is given the resources and encouragement to imagine and create.

Creativity, Kaufman says, is not left-brain or right-brain only, but “involves the coordination and efforts of many different brain networks that are activated and deactivated at various points during the creative process.”

The Institute’s grant competition called for proposals from individuals or groups with an idea about how to measure and improve imagination, and create a new imagination test. Sixteen projects were selected and will be funded around $200,000 each. Winners will be announced later this month.

The Institute’s first event bringing the world’s most imaginative people to Philadelphia will be held in November and feature psychologists Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, Therese Rein, Leda Cosmides, and Roy Baumeister.

“These are the five people in psychology I think of as the geniuses of imagination,” Seligman says.

Subsequent programs will feature imaginative individuals in the military, education, mathematics, physics, film, the novel, music, government, and religion, and polymaths who excel in more than one field.

Kaufman says imagination is “absolutely essential to the progression of society,” and there are very few fields in which it is not of great importance.

“To me, creativity and imagination are two of the most important skills necessary to thrive in this economy, and for personal fulfillment and wellbeing,” he says. “We just really don’t value them as much as we should.”

The Imagination Institute