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Foundations of fantasy

tree pathway


According to the much quoted story, Albert Einstein once advised a woman to read him (her?) fairy tales “if you want your child to be intelligent”. True or not, the connection between the imagination and intelligence is undeniable. Just like some of the latest AI machines, the brain is a device for making connections, and making any sort of imaginative leap requires venturing away from familiar, known territory to places that may not seem even promising. This may be how the wheel was invented (how could something with a hole in it be useful?), or even the jet engine.

Imagination begins in early childhood, when the mind takes nothing for granted, and questions everything. From this starting point it is an easy step to ask ‘what if …?’ And so fancy begins. Humans fantasise. Other primates, along perhaps with dolphins and a few others, may play in a way that suggests an active imagination (nursing a piece of wood as if it were a baby, for example), but making the next step, the one that can lead to ‘other world’ possibilities, is certainly beyond them.

Humans, like other creatures, construct the world they live in. It is built up from earliest childhood out of impressions, sensations, emotions and memories, along with things told and things read. Every world is a little different, even within the same family, and every world is constantly changing. Environments change, technology changes, along with circumstances, friends, social interactions. To survive and grow requires a certain dexterity, alertness, and openness, whether to business opportunities or personal relationships. Ideally, we live in the moment, and the context of that moment is our place in that flowing stream we call time. Clinging to past pleasures and traditions restricts our vision of what might lie ahead, particularly in this present age with its multiple threats of climate change, soil deprivation, and nuclear war, along with the doubtful blessings of artificial intelligence. A mind that makes use of imagination can think laterally and look beyond the obvious, seeing possibilities which others are blind to, or creative potential in areas where others see only danger.

It all begins with fantasy, playing pretend games in childhood or asking “what if …?” Folk tales build on this, and those that survive, passing through many generations, have embedded within them the dreams from ancient times: hopes, fears, threats, magic, beauty, and much else. It was as if the whole world was once a living, breathing creature. We have killed off that world, for the most part. Even our religions, which should have kept us alive to it, have mostly converted into dogma, things to be


‘believed’, rather than experiences to be had. Stuff, other than ourselves and other people, have become ‘things’ subject to the laws of physics and chemistry. This is true even of trees, which for many are motionless objects. We forget, most of us, that plants, like all other living things, are in continuous interaction with their environment; adapting often in the most ingenious ways to both threats and rewards.

From the eighteenth century onwards some of us have thought we knew just about everything of significance that was to be known about the world. Rather, it is the contrary that is true. The world, the universe, becomes ever more strange, and this without having to consider all that ‘dark energy’ and ‘dark matter’ that lie outside the horizons of our knowledge. Familiarity takes away mystery, but asking ‘why’ such and such is the case may return it. Many of the old tales were about the consequences of breaking rules: eating food while in fairyland, or running the wrong way around a church, for example. We are breaking rules now every day, and the consequences could be far more terrible than they were in any folk tale.


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