The Echoes of the Mind – Imagination


Reality leaves a lot to the imagination. ~ English musician John Lennon

Imagination is the faculty for forming counterfactual perceptions and mental images. There are different kinds of imagination: events that did not happen; scenarios of the future; daydreams and fantasies, including imaginary friends; and creative endeavors.

Even very young children consider possibilities, distinguish them from reality, and use them to change the world. ~ Alison Gopnik

Imaginative musings may come close to the facts or approach absurdity, but imagination typically has a practical bent.

Counterfactual thinking commonly construes alternatives to events. Considering how the past might have turned out differently is a counterfactual exercise.

Thoughts of what might have been are a pervasive feature of mental life. ~ American psychologist Neal Roese

People reason by considering possibilities. Counterfactual thinking is the basis for problem-solving, judgment, and emotional states.

People show extraordinary similarities in their imagination of alternatives to reality. ~ Irish cognitive scientist Ruth Byrne

The perceived quality of actuality is appraised through the looking glass of the imagination. Life is largely imaginary; necessarily so.

Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life. ~ French philosopher Simone Weil

While imagination is requisite for evaluation and learning, it is also the source of all suffering. Anguish is an extended exercise in counterfactuality.

As with other cognitive functions, imagination can be effortless, even involuntary; but imagination is readily leashed to volition.

The cognitive processes that underlie the counterfactual imagination and other sorts of creative thoughts operate in an unconscious manner. ~ Ruth Byrne

Imagination employs the same cognitive processes as reasoning. Hence, imagination appears rational in creating counterfactual alternatives.

Counterfactual processing plays a central role in judging causality. ~ American psychologist Gary Wells & Canadian psychologist Igor Gavanski

Philosophers have long noted that to think counterfactually is to think casually. Comprehension of causality influences the counterfactuals that people imagine. The relation is reciprocal: by eliminating other imagined potentials, causality is sussed through counterfactual thinking. There are many situations where the only clue to causality comes from counterfactuals.

The counterfactual thought that if an antecedent had not happened then the outcome would not have happened increases the judgment that the antecedent caused the outcome. ~ Ruth Byrne

Everyday counterfactual thoughts tend to focus on potentialities rather than impossibilities. In general, people tend to create plausible fantasies, with plausibility adjudged by consistency with beliefs.

Plausibility is often determined via the simulation heuristic, in which the likelihood of an event is based upon how easy it is to imagine. This innate bias – the imagination validating itself – puts counterfactual thinking at a remarkable remove from actuality.

Counterfactuals are frequently conditional propositions and, as such, embrace both an antecedent and a consequent. ~ Neal Roese

In thinking “if only…,” the antecedent if is necessarily false. At issue is the power of the antecedent to alter the consequent. Would the imagined if have been sufficient to overcome the actual outcome?

Events under counterfactual consideration are necessarily subject to amendment. Hence, the dynamic reference frame in which situations are perceived is critical to counterfactual thinking. Circumstances considered immutable are not examined.

For an event to be judged as causal, it must be psychologically mutable. ~ Gary Wells & Igor Gavanski

The consequent typically imagined is the most obvious alternative: something that might have happened, or an aim that could have been attained.

Sometimes counterfactual thinking strays beyond what might have been to what should not have been. People more easily imagine alternatives to social transgressions than they do socially acceptable behaviors.

People can readily create a counterfactual alternative to a forbidden possibility. ~ Ruth Byrne

Counterfactual evaluation seldom ventures into the complexity of how altered dynamics might create a new realm of possibilities. Such wide-reaching imaginative musings only occur in the creation of paracosms: detailed imaginary worlds.

People imagine alternatives to actions more than failures to act. Imagining counterfactual alternatives to inactions only happens in special circumstances: when the imagined alternative for inaction (an action that might have succeeded) has a better outcome than an imagined alternative action which would likely have failed.

In considering counterfactuals, the search is for a different consequent. People do not imagine alternative antecedents to arrive at the same outcome. Counterfactual thinking is aimed at altering a consequent, not at finding fate.

That said, divining destiny – that no mutable antecedent could have changed an outcome – can be comforting. Inevitability absolves blame.

More generally, by comparing what is with what might have been, counterfactual thinking helps find meaning in life.

Reflecting on and mentally undoing moments in which life was profoundly altered is critical for appreciating life transitions. By reflecting on how knowledge, relationships, and events from one’s past are interrelated, personal meaning emerges. ~ American psychologist Laura Kray et al

There is an ironic relationship between the perceived mutability of life events and the sense that certain events were destined, which infuses them with greater significance.

Construing alternate paracosms reminds that life could have turned out differently. This enhances the perception that the path taken was somehow “meant to be,” hence, giving greater meaning to the supposed juncture events that took place. Life’s story emerges from disparate experiences into coherence by imagining what might have been.

The capacity for language is innate. But its elaboration into expression invariably involves imagination.

Counterfactuality is essential in creating narratives. Explanation of autobiographical events is akin to imagination in tailoring content to appeal to an audience, especially considering the sketchy nature of memory in the first place.

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Decisions and events that were unusual, that have proved less than ideal, or that have prematurely closed off important life options most often generate counterfactual thinking. ~ American psychologists Janet Landman & Jean Manis

Routine occurrences do not incite the imagination, nor are pleasant moments apt to. Rather, lamentable events provoke a counterfactual attack, as the mind naturally kicks into problem-solving mode, imaginatively grinding away after having an accident or a near-miss of one.

Even young children rely on counterfactual thoughts to figure out how an outcome could have been prevented. ~ Ruth Byrne

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The evolutionary advantage of counterfactual thinking is in preparing for the future. But the counterfactual coin is always minted in the past.

People create a counterfactual alternative to reality by mentally altering or “undoing” some aspects of the facts in their mental representation of reality. ~ Ruth Byrne

While imagining can help prepare for the future, considering what might have been can be depressing. To feel better, people might think about how things might have turned out worse or might get better. But amid the counterfactuals that whiz through the mind, rational plausibility may weaken the case for positive outcomes being achievable, or at least within one’s control.

Downward counterfactuals, which worsen reality, provide comfort. Upward counterfactuals, which improve on reality, prepare one for the future. ~ American psychologist Keith Markman et al

While counterfactuality can construe causality, it can also deny it, by realizing that an imagined scenario would have made no difference in the outcome.

Because alternatives of what happened are easier to imagine than fabricating scenarios from scratch, people tend to regret their actions more than their failures to act. But this is just within the context of certain situations.

When people reflect upon their lives over a longer term, it is their inactions they tend to regret, such as failing to spend more time with loved ones or other enjoyable activities, or not taking advantage of opportunities. It is easy to imagine more good times, and feel pangs of regret for not having done something that might have led to a better life.

People control their actions to avoid potential regrets, leaving themselves vulnerable to regrets from inactions. ~ American psychologist Julie Feldman et al

Whereas autobiographical regrets in retrospective are more often about inactions than actions, regrets for actions taken are felt more intensely. Mistakes actively made are hard to take, especially when viewed in hindsight, where the outcome is already known.

It is easier to imagine having done nothing instead of what was done than it is to fabricate actions and alternate outcomes when nothing was done. Hypothetically removing an act takes less mental effort than adding one out of myriad possibilities. For the same reason – ease of imagining – people more often imagine alternatives to actions and events within their control rather than those outside their control. Further, for social situations, counterfactual thinking tends to focus on unacceptable behaviors.

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“Imagination is an inner resource.” ~ American author Suzanna Beth Stinnett

Exercising the imagination is important to a developing mind. Youngsters naturally have fertile imaginations.

“However much we as adults imagine, we don’t do it nearly as much as children.” ~ Alison Gopnik

Pretend play begins around 2 years of age. 2/3rds of children under the age of 7 have imaginary friends, which are paracosmic constructions with a positive purpose.

Besides providing companionship, an imaginary friend may help a child cope with real-life difficulties. Children with imaginary friends are better adjusted and tend to have a more developed theory of mind.

There is no typical imaginary friend: their diversity is matched by the psychological uses of imaginary friends.

“Children with vivid and beloved imaginary companions know perfectly well that those companions are really imaginary, just as children know the difference between reality and fiction, in general.” ~ Alison Gopnik

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Imagination is an important tool in decision-making. It affords exploring potentialities without experiencing them.

“Counterfactual thought can help people make discoveries and deal with novelty.” ~ Ruth Byrne

Imagination is the ethereal substitute for experimentation. Whereas crows commonly solve problems without fiddling about, humans are prone to trial and error. This suggests that corvids have better imaginations. They certainly have superior specificity of memory.

“Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone, and the automobile, for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities.” ~ American author Frank Baum

Every invention is the product of imagination, as is every scientific hypothesis. Imagination is critical to developing correlations and causal links, as alternatives must be explored to assure the mind that it is on the right track.

‘Science does not know its debt to imagination.” ~ American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Imagination is essential to satisfaction. Counterfactual analysis aids the feeling of accomplishment, as the mind imagines what might have been.

“We are all of us imaginative in some form or other, for images are the brood of desire.” ~ English novelist Mary Ann Eliot

Imagination is important in relationships. Imagination is the fountainhead of pleasurable sex and marital bliss, as well as the wellspring of jealousy.

Emotions such as anticipation, hope, relief, regret, guilt, and shame are elicited from thinking of counterfactual possibilities. Contemplating comparative scenarios also generates social attributions, including responsibility and blame.

“Counterfactual thoughts can amplify emotions, and the emotions people experience may be affected by the sorts of counterfactual alternatives they create.” ~ Ruth Byrne

When people think about what they might have done differently, they sometime ponder what they should have done. Cultural mores, social norms, and obligations weigh heavily on behavior, doing so through counterfactual thinking which is itself constrained by these conventions. Morality is a product of the imagination.

“Imagination rules the world.” ~ French military and political leader Napoléon Bonaparte

As paracosms strengthen theory of mind, they were essential to the evolution of cooperative sociality and political thought. The creative fruits of imagination were key to the technological, cultural, and social innovations that created the human milieu.

But counterfactual thinking is more than the fruiting tree of sociality. Civilization was founded upon imagination: of concepts that have no tangible existence. Fairness, for example, is an abstract equivalence.

“If you want to have large-scale societies, you have to move to a transcendental level of social cognition.” ~ English anthropologist Maurice Bloch

In stringing beads of thought together into a necklace of faith, belief systems are invariably paracosms. Religions and political beliefs are nothing more than cultural flights of fancy.

“Idolatry of words plays a large part in the history of all ideologies.” ~ French political philosopher Georges Sorel

Shared fictions begin by naming an imagined concept, around which myth may be woven.

“The tendency has always been to believe that whatever received a name must be an entity or thing, having an independent existence of its own; and if no real entity answering to the name could be found, men did not for that reason suppose that none existed, but imagined that it was something peculiarly abstruse and mysterious, too high to be an object of sense. The meaning of all general, and especially of all abstract terms, became in this way enveloped in a mystical base.” ~ John Stuart Mill

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“Imagination changes how we perceive the world in the same way experience does.” ~ American psychologist Christopher Berger

The utility and unavoidability of imagination does not detract from the fact that it is always a divergence from actuality. To whatever purpose, indulging the imagination weakens one’s mental grip.

Mental illness invariably involves counterfactual overdosing, as nattermind reels unabated. Not being able to overcome a trauma by living in the past, endlessly tormented by hypotheticals about what might have been, is a psychological disease rooted in the imagination. The most debilitating mental illnesses involve an inability to distinguish between actuality and a paracosm.

“Imagination is a powerful deceiver.” ~ English musician Elvis Costello


Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last, you create what you will. ~ George Bernard Shaw

Tinged with mysticism, creativity is an expression of novelty in problem-solving. Creativity invariably involves imagined environmental interaction.

From a historical perspective, creativity is a recent notion. Early civilizations – the ancient Chinese, Indians, and Greeks – lacked the concept altogether. Art was viewed as a form of discovery.

The modern conception of creativity dates to the Renaissance, after recovery from the social devastation of the Black Death.

Creativity has been a darling of psychologists in recent decades, as it is presumed to epitomize the apex of human intelligence. Yet statistical evidence does not correlate intelligence with creativity. Instead, many studies link creativity and mental illness.

The links between mental illness and the creative arts are well-established. ~ American psychologist James Kaufman

Meantime, post-industrial businessmen praise the innovative fruits of creativity as a means to spur more sales of things that people didn’t know they needed.

Creative individuals are typically talented, hard workers who parlay their expertise into insight that the dimmer or less-disciplined simply cannot.

Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is the result of good work habits. ~ American dancer Twyla Tharp

The imagination imitates. It is the critical spirit that creates. ~ Oscar Wilde


Humor is reason gone mad. ~ American comedian Groucho Marx

Humor is a specific creativity: a mental form of play that diverts the expected toward absurdity. The surprise of incongruity in frames of reference is the essential element of humor.

I have a large seashell collection, which I keep scattered on beaches all over the world. ~ American comedian Stephen Wright

The capacity for humor is innate. Healthy babies are naturally bubbly and playful. Infants begin to laugh in response to the actions of others at 4 months. Laughter is among the earliest social vocalizations.

Young children like slapstick for its accessibility. Maturity and knowledge bring a greater appreciation of subtlety and sophistication in wit, where social norms and mores may be satirically skewered.

Other animals possess senses of humor. All apes laugh, as do dogs. Rats chirp as they play in a way that resembles giggles. Kookaburras laugh. Crows are known for their mischievousness, often at their target’s expense. We do not know how far humor extends as being characteristic of enjoying life, but cells may chuckle in their own way.


The term humor today has a generally positive social cast. But this connotation is recent.

The etymology of humor traces to the ancient Latin for fluid (humorem). The ancient Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen conceptualized temperaments and psychological states as being brought about by a balance of fluids (humors). From this came the medieval use of humor to mean mood; such as being in “ill humor.” Until the 16th century there was no association of humor with fun or laughter.

During the 16th century the association of humor with an unbalanced personality led the English to use the term for an odd or eccentric person. Because such people were often objects of ridicule and laughter, the term humor edged into the field of comedy.

By the 18th century a peculiar character who was the object of laughter became known as a humorist. Someone who took pleasure in imitating the peculiarities of a humorist was a “man of humor.” Humor came to be seen as the talent to make others laugh.

The term humorist as synonymous with comedian did not become common until the late 19th century. Mark Twain was one of the first humorists in the modern sense.

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.” ~ Mark Twain

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Popular conceptions of laughter and the laughable followed the evolution of the term humor. Most references to laughter in the Bible were linked with mockery, derision, and contempt.

The philosophic conceptualization of laughter as a form of aggression can be traced to Aristotle, who believed it was the standard response to an ugly or deformed person if the overwhelming impression was not of anger or pity. Thomas Hobbes adhered to the Aristotelian tradition in thinking laughter was based upon a feeling of superiority; not that he sanctioned it.

Much laughter at the defects of others is a sign of pusillanimity. ~ Thomas Hobbes in 1651

A proliferation of English terms for laughter sprouted in the latter part of the 17th century. Terminology settled somewhat in the early 18th century, with the word ridicule used as a generic term for anything that incites laughter. (ridicule: from the Latin ridiculum = joke and ridiculus = laughable.) The aggressiveness of the term ridicule remains in full flower today.

Whereas laughter was a passive response, ridicule was an active attack. Throughout 18th-century Europe ridicule was a popular debating technique for humiliating one’s adversaries by rendering them objects of laughter (ad hominem).

Related terms at the time were raillery and banter. While both referred to aggressive witty repartee, banter was viewed as a coarser, lower-class form of ridicule. Raillery was more refined, and so more socially acceptable.

With the growing view of ridicule as a respectable art form, the idea of laughter as an expression of scorn evolved into it being viewed as a response to cleverness. In the mid-18th century Hobbes’ superiority theory was supplanted by the idea that laughter sprang from incongruity.

The cause of laughter is the bringing together of images which have contrary additional ideas, as well as some resemblance in the principal idea. ~ Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson in 1750

A more civil sensibility was blossoming in the British middle class, as exemplified by Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1859). Social reformers argued for a more humanitarian take on laughter, based upon empathy rather than aggression.

This paradigm shift required a new term. Humor was co-opted for the benevolent interpretation of laughter. Meanwhile, the word wit began to be used for the aggressive laughter-evoking remarks for which ridicule had been used. (wit: from the Old English witan = to know.)

By the early 19th century ridicule had been replaced by the contrasting words wit and humor in reference to laughter. Over the course of the 20th century, humor took the crown for provoking laughter away from wit, which was relegated to a cleverly apt expression via keen perception.


Humor and laughter are a universal aspect of human experience, occurring in all cultures and virtually all individuals throughout the world. ~ Canadian psychologist Rod Martin

Though universal, humor’s appreciation is personal: dependent upon maturity, intelligence, context, and culture.

The sound of laughter is unmistakably distinctive. Though different cultures have their own norms of what subject matter is suitable for humor, laughter is universal.

Humor is most often expressed as a social interaction, but its roots lie in ecological psychology: the conceptual bending of actuality in a way that manufactures mirth.

Solemnity is the shield of idiots. ~ French lawyer and political philosopher Montesquieu

 What’s Funny?

A guy is sitting at home when he hears a knock at the door. He opens the door and sees a snail on the porch. He picks up the snail and throws it as far as he can. 3 years later, there’s a knock on the door. He opens it and sees the same snail. The snail says: “What the hell was that all about?”

Mentalizing involves understanding others’ unspoken intentions. Typical adult conversations sharing facts involve 3 levels of intentionality.

Mind perception is mentally taxing. An adult can comprehend up to 5 levels of intentionality before losing the plot of an intricate story.

The funniest jokes are those involving 2 characters, and at most 5 back-and-forth levels of mind perceptions between a comedian and his audience. The best jokes build on expectations, with a punchline that updates the knowledge of the listener in an unexpected way.

Expectations that entail the minds of people other than the joke-teller or the audience – such as the characters in the joke – are difficult to comprehend, as too many mind states are embroiled. Clever complexity is not funny.

A guy shows up late for work. The boss yells: “You should’ve been here at 8:30!” He replies: “Why? What happened at 8:30?”


Humor’s momentary release from the mundane is incandescently transcendent: a brief exercise of energetic bliss blended into a context. Spiritually, in helping to see the artifice of existence, humor is a proverbial breadcrumb on the path to enlightenment.

“The highest state is laughter.” ~ Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who laughed a lot (so much that he was called “the giggling guru”).