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Imagination: It's Not Just for Children

Personal Perspective: How thought experiments are saving my sanity.

Key points

  • Imagination is the underrated superhero that can make life infinitely more interesting.
  • Idle moments offer opportunities to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.
  • Thought experiments can be used to transform perspective.
Pexels/David Mcelwee
Deer Staking Its LIfe on Zeno's Paradox
Source: Pexels/David Mcelwee

My college philosophy professor loved thought experiments. Just loved them. Loved them as much as the cinnamon rolls with sticky white frosting that he ate every Friday at the start of our 9 a.m. class. In our small seminar, he taught us about Schrödinger’s cat, the Ship of Theseus with its replaceable planks, and the infinite monkeys at their typewriters. But his favorite thought experiment was Zeno’s paradox.

Zeno’s paradox, he explained, states that for an arrow to travel from its starting point to its endpoint, it must first bisect the distance between the two points, then bisect that distance, and so on indefinitely. Therefore, theoretically, an arrow will never actually reach its target; it will only get infinitely closer.

One day, with a mischievous glint in his eye, my professor told us that tone species holds a deep and unwavering belief in Zeno’s paradox: Deer. With deadpan delivery, he claimed that deer stake their lives on Zeno’s proposition every day. They stand stock still in the middle of roads, convinced they are safe from oncoming cars because, logically, a car must infinitely bisect the distance between them and the car, and that could never happen. Unfortunately for the deer, my professor continued, wiping frosting from the corner of his mouth until only a small bit remained, there is a deeper truth that Zeno was pointing to, and tragically, deer are being cut down by automobiles on a mass scale.

Thought experiments are not just for philosophy classes.

I’ve started doing my own thought exercises when I’m bored—in line at a store, stopped at a stoplight, or waiting in a waiting room. One exercise, which I call my “photo exhibit” exercise, came after reading about photographer Edward Weston and his mission to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. What a great way to look at the world, I thought.

I began imagining my field of vision as the frame of a “photo,” taking a mental “shot,” and then picturing it in an art gallery.

This exercise prompts a sort of “gallery regard” for what is in front of me. When viewing a photograph in a gallery, the fact that an artist has taken it, developed it, framed it, and exhibited it suggests there is something worth noticing. We approach the photograph with respect or even reverence. I figured every view has something worth noticing if regarded with curious attention, like viewing art.

From Urgent Care to Art Gallery

Last week, I engaged in this exercise while at an urgent care facility with my husband, who had a bronchial infection. The waiting room was overcrowded; I went outside and leaned against the metal railing lining the steps. From my perch, I looked out into the parking lot, at a dumpster in the corner lit by the hot sun, and several feet away, a discarded space heater. The space heater had been through a rain or two, covered in a dried salty film with rusty metal at its base.

The pavement was broken in places, and through the cracks, weeds pushed up with prickly green stems, prickly enough to draw blood if roughly handled. Some of these stems had little white flowers, pigweed or gumweed maybe. One flowering weed had grown beneath the space heater by the dumpster, through the heater’s open vent, and out through a hole in the control panel, reaching up towards the sun. Plucky little thing, I thought, thriving in this inhospitable environment, the concrete parking lot of an urgent care clinic in Hollywood. If I saw this photo in a gallery, it might evoke thoughts about survival or rising in difficult circumstances, an indomitable spirit, or finding opportunities in bleak settings.

Source: Pexels/Hissetmehurriyeti
Weed Rising Through Pavement
Source: Pexels/Hissetmehurriyeti

Contemplating my “photo” made the waiting time for my husband to see the doctor pass not unpleasantly. It’s a small thing, but I find this experiment, and others like it, to be a better use of my mind than the mental alternative, which would likely have been internal complaints about why the urgent care didn’t have more chairs, why the wait was so long, or why my husband didn’t seek care earlier as I had insisted.

I think about how little we respect the power of our imagination as adults, how we demean it as mere escapism, considering it the province of children and fools. As modern sophisticates, we neglect the potential of our “imaginariums” in favor of practicality and efficiency.

How very unfortunate.

Imagination, I’ve come to think, is an underutilized means to fundamentally change our conversation with the world.

That’s my theory, at least. I’m trying it out.

Next, I might spend some time contemplating Zeno’s paradox. Maybe I can crack it and tell the deer what they’re missing.

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