The Imagination Gap

March 28, 2017


In his new book, The Imagination Gap, Brian Reich argues that imagination provides a window into the world of what is possible.

In his new book, The Imagination Gap, Brian Reich argues that imagination provides a window into the world of what is possible helping us to navigate in times of uncertainty and come up with new ideas. While everyone has an imagination, he writes, most of us do not use our imaginations to their fullest potential or apply our imaginations to the challenges that we face. Reich goes on to explain how the most creative thinkers, forward-looking entrepreneurs, and influential change agents in every sector of our society harness the power of their imaginations to achieve their goals, and outlines how the best leaders also show others how to use their imaginations to expand their individual and collective potential. The book features in-depth interviews and examples from a range of industries and settings with guidance and steps on how to stop thinking the way you "should" and start making extraordinary things happen.

Below is an excerpt from the book:

Science Without the Experimentation

It would be easy—and in fact it is quite common—for imagination to be associated solely with arts and creative pursuits. But that would diminish the valuable role that imagination plays in every sector of our society.

Science relies on the use and application of imagination to prompt new questions and uncover breakthrough interpretations of new or unexpected findings. The role that science plays in exploring, and ultimately proving new theories about our universe is possible because a basic structure exists to govern the conduct of science—namely, The Scientific Method.

The Scientific Method has been the subject of intense and recurring debate throughout the history of science. Different philosophers and scientists, from Aristotle to Descartes to Isaac Newton to Richard Feynman have all offered their own variation on the most appropriate way to determine what is provable, verifiable, and appropriate in our quest to understand the natural world. In recent years, as new research methodologies and sources of data have become available, the questions about whether a universal methodology can be applied have surfaced again, and with further advancements, such debates will likely continue.

The basic components of the Scientific Method demand that a scientific experiment must include a series of steps, including:

  • Determining the question or a problem;
  • Collecting all the facts about the problem;
  • Proposing a theory or possible explanation (a hypothesis);
  • Testing the theory with an experiment;
  • Repeating the experiment to test if it will always be true.

If those steps are followed, and the hypothesis proves to be always true, it becomes scientific law. If it doesn’t, it is rejected, and you start over. As long as those steps are followed, a standard exists and the experimentation can be reviewed and shared.

But everything else—beyond the basic structure of the scientific method—not only is open to the imagination of the scientists, but demands their use and application of imagination in order to be worthwhile. From Einstein’s theory of relativity to the present day discussion of Climate Change, the absence of certainty fuels the imagination of scientists and drives endless discussion and experimentation.

The most important scientific theories and discoveries began as ideas—hypotheses that were imaged by someone then proven through experimentation. Galileo. Newton. Einstein. Their genius was as much a product of imagination as it is procedure. The determination of the questions, the hypotheses they develop, the tests they run—and in some cases, the meaning of the results, are all the result of their capacity, and willingness, to use and apply their imagination.

Every day, in the field and in the lab, scientists use and apply their imaginations to the job of wondering, noticing, questioning, investigating, and making sense of the natural world. They can’t rely solely on their imagination—they draw on previous knowledge and continuously integrate the results of their ongoing experimentation. They are also subject to secondary or tertiary review of their work by peers.

Ideas begin in the imagination, but become real and provable through adherence to scientific method. Our willingness and ability to integrate imagination into the scientific method is a model for how we might consider ways to use and apply our imagination beyond science as well.

Imagine Everything; Don’t Decide Anything (Yet).

The practical examples of using one’s imagination includes creating mental images, exploring counterfactual conjecture, entertaining alternative pasts, daydreaming, fantasizing, pretending, and simulating other people’s experiences, mental rehearsal, and creating or inventing things that haven’t existed before. What connects all of those different outputs is that they embrace “anything is possible.” For that to work, however, you have to truly believe that anything is possible and not let logic or evidence influence your thinking and curb your imagination.

We try to use our knowledge to prove or disprove ideas—but often end up passing judgment before something is able to be considered. Think about it: just because something is true doesn't mean it can be proved. And just because something can be proved doesn't mean it's true. As Jonah Lehrer wrote in his book Proust was a Neuroscientist:

“Every brilliant experiment, like every great work of art, starts with an act of imagination. Unfortunately, our current culture subscribes to a very narrow definition of truth. If something can’t be quantified and calculated, then it can’t be true. Because this strict scientific approach has explained so much, we assume that it can explain everything. But every method, even the experimental method, has limits. Take the human mind. Scientists describe our brain in terms of its physical details; they say we are nothing but a loom of electrical cells and synaptic spaces. What science forgets is that this isn’t how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not like the machine.) It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness.”

All we do by pre-deciding something is eliminate options that might be worth pursuing later. Knowing something about how the world works also suggest we know the reasons the world does not operate in some other way. But, we don’t know why one thing happened or didn’t, not with any certainty. We use our imagination to fill in the blanks and create a version of reality that makes sense to us. We not only become numb to the possibilities of something new, we actively suppress ideas that challenge what we have been told is reasonable.

Instead of trying to keep new ideas from forming, we should be training our brains to constantly put new ideas together and share them widely. We should prime our brain into thinking in a way that is more imaginative. You can try to tell yourself to be more imaginative, but it won’t work. The better option by far is to change what your brain believes it is doing.

The idea of priming is simple: you can train a person’s brain to do certain things without directing a specific, or even conscious, action. Take one of the most famous experiments demonstrating the power of priming: Two groups of people were given the task of unscrambling some sentences. One group’s sentences included words like wrinkles and Florida and shuffleboard. What those sentences were meant to do was evoke an image of elderly people and old age. That’s the priming. The actual experiment happened when people were asked to walk down the hall to a different room for the second part of the experiment. The dependent variable was how fast they walked. People who were primed to think about old age overwhelmingly went slower.

Darya Zabelina, a cognitive researcher, told me about another experiment conducted by psychologist Michael Robinson to test the effects of priming on imagination and creative thinking. Robinson randomly assigned a few hundred undergraduates to two different groups. The first group was given the following instructions: “You are 7 years old, and school is canceled. You have the entire day to yourself. What would you do? Where would you go? Who would you see?” The second group was given the exact same instructions, without the guidance regarding age. As a result, the second group of students didn't imagine themselves as seven year olds. After writing for ten minutes, the students were then given various tests—they were asked to invent alternative uses for an old car tire, or to list the things you could do with a brick. The students who imagined themselves as young kids scored far higher on the creative tasks, coming up with twice as many ideas as the control group.

In one summary of the report, Robinson explains: “When you play a role of an adult, you take yourself and life very seriously. Spontaneity, lightheartedness, and joy are not part of that role.” His results show that we are able to tap into our imagination, even if it has been diminished by criticism, or lack of use over time. We just have to pretend we’re a little kid.


Brian Reich is a strategist and writer for executive leaders at global brands, media companies, startups, nonprofits, political, and advocacy organizations. He speaks regularly on the impact of media and technology on society and gives keynote speeches on these and other topics for major conferences and events.

He is the author of three books: The Imagination Gap, Shift & Reset, and Media Rules. Brian’s work and views have been published in leading media publications, including The New York Times, Wired, AdAge, and the Chronicle of Philanthropy. He has delivered analysis of digital and political trends on NPR and Fox News and been an expert contributor for Fast Company.

Brian has taught consumer behavior and marketing strategy at The George Washington University and Columbia University. He has held senior roles at leading digital and public affairs agencies and was briefing director for Vice President Al Gore.

Brian serves as an advisor to several nonprofits and start-ups. He attended the University of Michigan and holds a bachelors degree in political science from Columbia University. 

For more information, visit www.TheImaginationGap.com.

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