Imagination is more important than intelligence. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is possible, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. It is arguably the most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to imagine and synthesize experiences we have never shared. Creative thinkers can imagine themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places, can even imagine forces of nature.
Think of how Albert Einstein changed our understanding of time and space by imagining people going to the center of time in order to freeze their lovers or their children in century-long embraces; this place is clearly reminiscent of a black hole, where, theoretically, gravity would stop time. Another time he imagined a woman’s heart leaping and falling in love two weeks before she has met the man she loves which lead to the understanding of acausality a feature of quantum mechanics. And still another time he imagined a blind beetle crawling around a sphere thinking it was crawling in a straight line.
Try to solve the following thought experiment before you read the paragraph that follows it.
One morning, exactly at sunrise, a Buddhist monk began to climb a tall mountain. The narrow path no more than a foot or two wide, spiraled the mountain to a glittering temple at the summit. The monk ascended the path at varying rate of speed, stopping many times along the way to rest and to eat the dried fruit he carried with him. He reached the temple shortly before sunset. After several days of fasting and meditation he began his journey back along the same path, starting at sunrise and again walking at variable speeds with many stops along the way. His average speed descending was, of course, greater than his average climbing speed. Prove that there is a spot along the path that the monk will occupy on both trips at precisely the same time of day.
If you try to logically reason this out or use a mathematical approach you will conclude that it is unlikely for the monk to find himself at the same time of day, on the same spot on two different occasions. To solve it, visualize the monk walking up the hill, at the same time imagine the same monk walking down the hill. The two figures must meet at some point in time “regardless” at what speed they walk or how often they stop. Whether the monk descends two days or three days it makes no difference it all comes out to the same thing.
Now it is, of course, quite impossible for the monk to duplicate himself, and to be walking up the mountain and down the mountain at one and the same time. But in the visual image he does; and it is precisely this indifference to logic, this superimposing one image over the other that leads to the solution.
The imaginative conception of the monk meeting himself blends the journeys up and down the mountain and superimposes one monk on the other at the meeting place. The ancient Greeks called this kind of thinking “homoios” which means “same.” They sensed that this was really kind of a mirror image of the dream process which led to art and scientific revelations.
Whenever I think of the power of the imagination, I remember a story my grandfather Dido told me. At the time, he was thinking about the nature of time and space and wondered if time is linear or circular. The imaginary story he told was so effective that to this day I still contemplate it when I think about the nature of time.
He told me to imagine a time traveler who went back in time to shoot his younger self to see what would happen. How would this effect the future? He took a rifle with him, sought out his younger self and raised the rifle to shoot his younger self through his heart. But his aim was poor, so he hit his younger self in the shoulder instead, merely wounding him. The reason his aim wasn’t so good was because he had this shoulder wound from an earlier shooting incident!