I’m still mulling over a meeting I attended last month at Esalen, the spiritual retreat center, on “exceptional experiences” that challenge conventional science. More specifically, I’m mulling over imagination. What generates it, and what are its limits, if any? Is it sometimes more akin to revelation than invention?

Imagination is arguably the quintessential human trait. Our capacity to imagine the consequences of our choices gives us free will. Lacking imagination, we’d lack art, science, mathematics, technology and social progress, which comes about only after we imagine a better world.

I’ve been brooding over imagination since telling Lindsey Swindall, a friend and colleague at Stevens Institute of Technology, about how the Esalen meeting tested my open-mindedness. One talk focused on mediums, who “channel,” or serve as mouthpieces for, the dead. Some mediums spout information that they could not have learned through conventional means. Allegedly. I don’t buy channeling, I told Lindsey. 

To my surprise, Lindsey, an authority on African-American history, said she sometimes feels like she’s channeling when she writes. She wrote her second book, a biography of the great performer and civil-rights activist Paul Robeson, over the course of a single summer. The words just poured out of her, and the writing seemed better than what she ordinarily produced. She felt as though she had tapped into a deeper part of herself, to which she didn’t ordinarily have conscious access. Her editor validated her judgment. He loved the book and published it with virtually no changes.

My only experience of this sort, I told Lindsey, occurred not while writing but while tripping. In 1981, a potent hallucinogen catapulted me into a trance that lasted almost 24 hours, during which I was disconnected from the so-called objective world. I was immersed in elaborate narratives laden with metaphysical and theological significance. I gradually reconstructed these hallucinations after I emerged from the trip, dazed and exhausted.

The visions (which I describe in detail here) seemed produced by a director gifted with infinite talent and resources. They seemed far too artful, and grand, to have been invented by my puny little brain. They were utterly unlike my dreams, which, when I can remember them, tend to be dumb and clunky, as if made by a talentless teen with a smart phone. Experiences like Lindsey’s and mine suggest that the imagination might occasionally draw upon sources beyond the ordinary self. Could that be true? Here are a few responses to that question, in order of descending plausibility:

Nothing but Sense Impressions. In Principles of Psychology William James, my favorite mind-scientist, asserted that all our imaginings, no matter how seemingly inspired or transcendent, stem from “sense impressions” stored in our memories. “Fantasy, or Imagination, are the names given to the faculty of reproducing copies of [sense impressions] once felt,” James wrote. “The imagination is called 'reproductive' when the copies are literal; 'productive' when elements from different originals are recombined so as to make new wholes.”

According to this view, Lindsey’s book, and my trip, were just artful rearrangements of our prior knowledge. This is a sensible hypothesis, which probably accounts for the vast majority of cases of inspiration, visions, channeling (when it isn’t fraud) and so on. But it still raises the question of why our powers of invention sometimes become especially potent.

The Collective Unconscious. Several speakers at Esalen were proponents of transpersonal psychology, which posits that our individual selves are embedded in a vast, transcendent mind or spirit. Carl Jung, a pioneer of transpersonal psychology, proposed that we all share a “collective unconscious.” We may tap into this hidden realm during periods of creative inspiration, dreams, trances, madness and other altered states. At Esalen, I told the transpersonal folks that the collective unconscious might account for my drug trip.

If you find the collective unconsciousness hard to believe, try thinking of it as the instinctual knowledge encoded in our genes. Although each of us is genetically unique, we also share a common evolutionary heritage, like the hidden root system that links far-flung aspen (except unlike us the aspen are genetically identical).

Platonism. Plato posited the existence of an eternal realm of perfect forms, of which our material world is just a shadowy simulacrum. Many mathematicians and physicists tend toward Platonism, which suggests we don’t really invent pi or the theory of general relativity so much as we discover them. One modern Platonist is polymath Douglas Hofstadter. In the 1970s, he showed that the fluctuations of electrons in a magnetized crystal correspond to a fractal object, now called the Hofstadter butterfly.

Hofstadter likens the fractal to a beautiful shell that he stumbled upon while strolling on a beach. He feels similarly about his books, notably his stunningly original 1979 work Gödel, Escher, Bach. Or so Hofstadter told me when I interviewed him several years ago.  “It’s not like I’m really inventing anything,” he said. “I’m sort of just discovering things that work.”

Divine Inspiration. The Greeks invented deities, the Muses, to account for creative inspiration of the sort that Lindsey described, when something beyond your ordinary self seems to help you produce a poem, song, painting, theorem or scholarly work. Clio is the Muse who inspires historians like Lindsey. I don’t know any modern theorists who invoke Muses except as a metaphor. 

Now back to William James. He emphasized in Principles of Psychology that imaginations vary. “Until very recent years it was supposed by all philosophers that there was a typical human mind which all individual minds were like, and that propositions of universal validity could be laid down about such faculties as 'the Imagination.' Lately, however, a mass of revelations has poured in, which make us see how false a view this is. There are imaginations, not 'The Imagination,' and they must be studied in detail.”

Yes, different people have different imaginations. I would add that even a single individual, like Lindsey, me or you, might harbor different imaginations. Most of the time your imagination is limited to your personal experiences, as James said. But now and then, during an exceptional experience, perhaps, a souped-up imagination emerges, which serves as a kind of portal to transpersonal realms. Call it the Transpersonal Imagination.

James’s classic work Varieties of Religious Experience can be seen as an exploration of the Transpersonal Imagination. The book investigates experiences in which people feel they are encountering God or some other entity or force that transcends their individual selves. James was even open-minded about the possibility that some mediums might channel the dead. I still can’t go there, but I agree whole-heartedly with James that our imaginations are deep, diverse and mysterious and “must be studied in detail.”

My thanks to Lindsey for stimulating my imagination.

Further Reading:

Mind-Body Problems (free online book, also available as Kindle e-book and paperback). For reflections on imagination, see especially chapters on Alison GopnikStuart Kauffman and Douglas Hofstadter.

Can Mysticism Help Us Solve the Mind-Body Problem?

Mysticism and the Mind-Body Problem: Other Views

What Should We Do With Our Visions of Heaven and Hell?

My Go-to Arguments for Free Will

Meta-Post: Posts on the Mind-Body Problem

See also my recent conversation with transpersonal psychologist Steve Taylor on Meaningoflife.tv.