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The International Writers Magazine: Creativity

Curioser and curioser!
Annie Lalla


What's the latest book you read? Which people catch your eye? What do you think of while falling asleep? Inquiry and creativity are quintessential human traits. I'm going to suggest that what makes each of us unique is our particular brand of curiosity and imagination. This signature combo, which defines our essence, is the optimal place from which to source our power, our beauty and our highest sense of self.

Take that recent book you read -curiosity made you pick it up, read the words, turn the pages; imagination let you bring it to life. Curiosity had the book get written in the first place. The writer's imagination found its way onto the page because some force compelled her towards those ideas. Writing, either fiction or non-fiction is often a kind of study, a pioneering inquiry into the unknown.

cu·ri·os·i·ty [kyoor-ee-os-i-tee]
–noun
o the desire to learn, know, explore anything; inquisitiveness.
o an object that arouses interest by being novel or extraordinary
o a strange, odd or interesting qualityim·ag·na·tion [i-maj-uh-ney-shuhn]
–noun
o the faculty or action of forming images in the mind
o the ability to think new ideas, be creative or resourceful
o the faculty of the mind which conceives ideas based on information from sense organs
o an act of creating a semblance of reality

The forces of curiosity and imagination pull us towards pleasure, expansion and integration with the rest of the world. Together they form a character profile in each of us. If you follow their lead, boldly and triumphantly, they will take you everywhere you want to go.

Creativity is not always obvious; it lingers, it lurks, it jumps out when you least expect. As lofty as a sonnet or as mundane as a post-it note, art is pervasive. Ancient Balinese had no special word for 'artist'. Painting, dancing, sculpting, making music were just things they did between chores.

Every sound you hear, flavor you taste or thought you think is an original act of creation. You're collaborating with sensory input to generate a brand new experience, occurring for the first time in the history of the world. Each day you invent at least one sentence that has never been uttered before - and do so effortlessly. Creativity is our birthright, it eludes no one.

If we viewed every creative act as art, what would be your magnum opus?

Imagination, a realm of infinite possibility, gives rise to all we can ever conceive, comprehend or concoct. It is the mother of all novelty and the source of creativity. Seemingly poised between inner and outer worlds, it mediates between the mind and body; bridges sensation to thought. Imagination makes sensory experience meaningful, enabling us to interpret and contextualize it, assisted by the psyche's inevitable bias. This shaping of awareness by our inner storyteller lays the foundation of all knowledge.

Just as imagination informs knowledge, what we know or don't know affects our imagination. When Watson & Crick dreamed up the double helix for DNA it was on the back of much study into the molecular structure of genes. Newton's mastery of math & physics afforded his creative insights in optics. Joan Miró's exposure to surrealist thought and Freud informed all of his art. The more you know, the more fodder for imagination.

Knowledge and imagination seem to have a sort of symbiotic relationship; each is essential for the other. Yet, according to Einstein, "imagination is more important than knowledge." I am driven to agree, not as a rejection of knowledge, but because imagination is a current act of creation –emerging, organic and alive. Knowledge is based on historic facts. The past, inert and fixed, is already obsolete.

Imagination generates hitherto unseen mental imagery, making it possible to probe beyond the confines of our perceptual reality. It helps us weigh alternatives, solve problems, rehearse scenarios, combine facts and stretch knowledge in novel ways and so devise new possibilities for action.

I've never believed intelligence is simply a matter of knowledge. Rather, it's a measure of our ability to learn. Since imagination is the engine for making new connections between disparate areas, it's crucial to learning. And it's long been my own private measure of intelligence in others -the more creative a person's cognition, the more I admire their mind.

Imagination allows us to think about what is, what's been and what will be.

Take our present moment, humans do not record sensory data unbiased as with a camera or computer. Perceptions are assimilated by an inventive, agenda driven mind. We actively generate our subjective experiences. A study at Northwestern University monitored subjects' brains with fMRI to track real and imagined memories. They concluded that parts of the brain used to perceive an object overlap with those used to imagine it. Your brain often cannot distinguish between imagining and actually experiencing.

Our past is informed by imagination, both in how we lay down memories and conjure them up. We all know memory fades with age. Recent neuro-imaging studies conducted by Harvard psychologist Donna Addis show that brain mechanisms used to imagine are also used to remember. Older subjects with a lack of imagination were more prone to suffer a declining memory. Similar studies of severe amnesiacs with impaired imagining also affirm the link between these two processes.

All thoughts of a future are inherently creative acts -ideals, goals, predictions and fears, even the idea of our own death. Imagination blurs the boundaries between actuality and fantasy. All our beliefs, contexts and mental constructions form our framework for reality, which governs what we view as possible. This in turn generates dreams -our call towards actualization.

It seems we cannot escape imagination's pervasive contributions to our past, present and future. But would we want to? As imagination forges our reality it funds our ability to create stories, identify with others, assess minds, model motivations and develop moral awareness. The ability to recognize our self in the reflection of others is central to the experience of being human.

Maybe the 'I' is an elaborate narrative, a useful fiction we develop primarily in a social context, especially with our first 'other': M(other). It is, I believe, the most instinctive story we have, perhaps the most powerful. In a way, we actually imagine our selves into existence.

Now why might we do that? If imagination is the repository for all that's possible in human experience, then perhaps we're part of a universe which itself can be viewed as a giant experiment in design space, evolution its minion and each phenomenon a hypothesis for testing. Could we be a series of curious questions posed by the cosmos? Imagine that.

All scientific experiments are driven by curiosity. To discover who and what we are, we investigate our context -that is the world, its patterns and our uncanny ability to have an inquiry at all.

Curiosity moves from inchoate yearning-to-understand to concrete requests-for-information, either in the form of actions or questions. The actions often involve observance of sensory data; like a parent checking a diaper. The questions take the form of how, who, what, where, when, why in some combination; like a first year philosophy class.

A relentless, mysterious driver, curiosity is an ancient channel for life force. Children stare, dogs sniff, bats listen. Even the amoeba has a yen to explore; with pseudo pods, selective membranes and cytoplasmic assessments. Every exploration is a unique created act, stemming from a primordial core.

Imagine this: On a park bench you spy a red envelope and wonder what's inside.  Looking around there's no one in sight.  Moving closer you notice it contains a letter. As you lift the envelope questions cascade through your mind:  What kind of letter is this?  Who wrote it?  Why?  What does it say?  Should I read it?  Should I not? 

As quick as the questions appear, answers follow:  Perhaps it's a love letter, or a poignant farewell note.  It could be a break-up or an epic confession.  Maybe it's erotica or an elaborate to-do list.  Mystery beckons.  Even before unfolding the page you've already conjured an array of stories –all vying to be true.  As curiosity and imagination mingle in creative abandon, you are revealed in the process.

Unfolded, the missive displays a strange spiral of foreign symbols spinning out from the center.  It doesn't look like English, and none of it makes sense.  Our curiosity is unsatisfied and so fires off inquiry and imagining, as we seek to dissolve confusion.

Uncertainty is threatening  –a knife at the throat.  If there are questions left unanswered or a gap in information, the mind desperately seeks to fill it in…even if it has to lie.  Curiosity, in its endless urge to make sense of the world, calls imagination into action.   Always demanding observation, it's why we attend to the new, the strange and the unexpected.  For every question we pose, we tacitly assume there's an answer.

Ever notice how children are insatiably curious?  Their minds have a gravitational pull towards understanding, almost at any cost (a great adaptation for memetic transference).  What kids choose to ask about is a useful indicator of their character; it allows you to read their minds.  In some ways, who one is is a series of questions.  Curiosity –our unique, individual curiosity– is a major factor in the fingerprint of our identity.

Like hunger, pure curiosity is a primal drive.  Yet it seems to me that much of the world is starving.  All kids start out asking questions.  So why do they stop?  Do they run out?  Does curiosity dry up with age?  As children mature, less and less ask the questions they actually want answered.  Even fewer realize they're riddled with questions unasked.  Have you ever wanted to know something but were afraid to inquire?  Why?

During childhood, grown-ups start responding differently to our queries, reinforcing some, discouraging others.  We're trained to ask only those questions that are appropriate.  Over time our wide-eyed sense of wonder wanes, leaving fear & doubt in its wake.  This reduced daring depletes the urge to step beyond the bounds of social protocol, cultural paradigms and conventional thought.  Curiosity persists, but bravado may not.  The questions may still occur, we just don't ask them.  We stop heeding this compass built in by Nature to guide us though the vast confusions of reality.

Fear is the main limiter of freedom.  Yet curiosity itself can offer the courage to negotiate around it.  When intrigue supersedes trepidation, we act despite our concerns.  The desire to know that which we don't already know may be the most powerful tool for transcending fear.

When you stop asking questions to the world, you stop asking questions to yourself.  Once that happens, the mysterious allure of life evaporates.  Curiosity keeps the mind alive, moving in some direction.  It is our access to openness and transformation.  Without it we become closed, stagnant and dated.  To be a human being is to be in an inquiry.  I ask, therefore I am.

At some point people give up and sell out for easy answers or comforting truths.  To me, this is the saddest thing to witness.  For once we do that, what we give up is our rawest self; the part of us that's most engaged, most alive.  To betray our curiosity is to betray our inner truth.  I see every unasked question as a kind of lie.

It's much easier to be honest than afraid.  To honor your curiosity and unleash your imagination does take courage.  Doing so may breach social mores and draw odd looks.  But freedom always comes at a cost, if the price of feeding your own private wonder is the demise of your status quo, I'd consider it a bargain.  Besides you don't even have to think, just listen close for the next question your imagination whispers…hear it, revere it, succumb to it, then follow its lead.  Trust is essential; seeing your questions as expressions of your intelligence will give you courage.  You have no idea where a question might take you; but remember, not knowing the outcome is a prerequisite for adventure.

Like hunger, pure curiosity is a primal drive. Yet it seems to me that much of the world is starving. All kids start out asking questions. So why do they stop? Do they run out? Does curiosity dry up with age? As children mature, less and less ask the questions they actually want answered. Even fewer realize they're riddled with questions unasked. Have you ever wanted to know something but were afraid to inquire? Why?

During childhood, grown-ups start responding differently to our queries, reinforcing some, discouraging others. We're trained to ask only those questions that are appropriate. Over time our wide-eyed sense of wonder wanes, leaving fear & doubt in its wake. This reduced daring depletes the urge to step beyond the bounds of social protocol, cultural paradigms and conventional thought. Curiosity persists, but bravado may not. The questions may still occur, we just stop asking them. We stop heeding this compass built in by Nature to guide us though the vast confusions of reality.

Fear is the main limiter of freedom. Yet curiosity itself can offer the courage to negotiate around it. When intrigue supersedes trepidation, we act despite our concerns. The desire to know that which we don't already know may be the most powerful tool for transcending fear.

When you stop asking questions to the world, you stop asking questions to yourself. Once that happens, the mysterious allure of life evaporates. Curiosity keeps the mind alive, moving in some direction. It is our access to openness and transformation. Without it we become closed, stagnant and dated. To be a human being is to be in an inquiry. I ask, therefore I am.

At some point people give up and sell out for easy answers or comforting truths. To me, this is the saddest thing to witness. For once we do that, what we give up is our rawest self; the part of us that's most engaged, most alive. To betray our curiosity is to betray our inner truth. I see every unasked question as a kind of lie.

It's much easier to be honest than afraid. To honor your curiosity and unleash your imagination does take courage. Doing so may breach social mores and draw odd looks. But freedom always comes at a cost, if the price of feeding your own private wonder is your own status quo, I'd consider it a bargain. Besides you don't even have to think, just listen close for the next question your imagination whispers…hear it, revere it, succumb to it, then follow its lead. Trust is essential; seeing your questions as expressions of your intelligence will give you courage. You have no idea where a question might take you, but remember, not knowing the outcome is a prerequisite for adventure.

It's not clear that we're born with imagination; curiosity on the other hand is there from the start. Nothing characterizes wonder more than a baby. Eyes wide and dazzled, they drink in their surroundings. Every room is a festival of color and motion, a sensational parade. It's been said their consciousness resembles the giddy synaesthesia of psychedelic space. How wild to start life as an acid trip.

Curiosity generates knowledge, knowledge expands imagination and imagination manufactures meaning. As humans, we are meaning-making machines. Our response to the persistent question "What does this mean?" is to make up a story. And to do this we're eternally invoking imagination. Something happens, you observe it, then you make up a story. We forget we do this and pretend our stories are true. All the stories you conjure are signature patterns that create context. This semantic framework governs your mood, outlook and quality of life. Since your imagination conjures your reality, it characterizes your particular pattern of being, so makes the perfect place to stand when you wonder who you are.

Wonder is where curiosity collides with imagination. It means to be struck with mystery and awe. Gazing up from the desert to a starry black sky, watching the birth of a calf, tasting your first mango –all these conjure fascination. A state of wowed disbelief, wonder is the womb from which every question is born.

won·der [wuhn-der]
–verb
o to think or speculate curiously
o to be filled with admiration, amazement, marvel (at)
–noun
o something strange & surprising, a cause of awe & reverence
o the emotion excited by what is strange, amazing & astonishing

Finding ways to embody wonder and be moved by the world is our key to staying open. It keeps your psyche soft and heart supple. The mind wants to move; it's always moving. Pulled forward by the subtle calls of curiosity, propelled further by imagination, your story is a special dance -unique to you. Alive, organic, expanding, this is an excellent way to identify your self and others. Your wonder is what makes you a wonder, and is the ideal place to source your beauty and your brilliance.

© Annie Lalla January 2009
Annie Lalla lives in New York
lallabird at gmail.com

She has started a new zine www.wonderzine.net

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