Why did humans evolve an imagination?
The ability to imagine possible scenarios before they happen has obvious survival advantages, but has also allowed us to dream about fantastic worlds beyond reality.
Asked by: Zachary Beattie, Kenilworth
Imagination underlies our ability to anticipate different futures and to reflect on alternative pasts. Arguably, it’s what distinguishes us most profoundly from other animals. It means we can learn from past experiences (“If I’d taken a spear with me, I could have caught the deer”) and we can hypothesise about the possible outcomes of future scenarios (“If I trek across the desert without any food or water, I will get hungry and thirsty”). This makes us incredibly adaptive and is the secret to our superlative planning and problem-solving skills. Once imagination evolved, it also unlocked the gifts of storytelling, fantasy and wonder.
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.