Imagination: It’s Not What You Think. It’s How You Think by Charles Faulkner (Transcript)

Charles Faulkner at TEDxIIT

Here is the full transcript of neuro-linguistic expert Charles Faulkner’s talk titled “Imagination: It’s Not What You Think. It’s How You Think” at TEDxIIT conference.

Charles Faulkner – Author of Success Mastery with NLP

This idea is at least 275 years old. But moreover, it has been rediscovered at least 50 times that I can find, often found in fields and by people who would be very famous if I were to mention them.

And they all call it something different, but I don’t think that’s why the idea is unknown. I think it’s unknown because it goes against our cultural ideals, our personal experience and the way the brain works.


That imagination isn’t what we think, it’s how we think.

Now, I’d like to go to the originators of this, and that would be David Hume and Immanuel Kant, who noted that the imagination is situated between our perceptions and our understanding.

As Kant wrote in 1780, that we do not see the world the way it is; we see the world according to our instruments. This also could have been a quote from Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” in 2011. Which kind of gives you an idea of where we are with this.

Well, first, most people wouldn’t disagree with that. They’ll go, “Yeah, of course, I don’t see as well as an eagle. I don’t hear or smell as well as my dog does.”

Our perceptions are limited. But Kant and Kahneman are saying something much more important. They’re saying that our instruments of perception, our instruments of understanding are such that some things are going to be easy for us to perceive and understand, some of them a little bit difficult, and some of them are going to be impossible.

It means the universe around us is hidden in plain sight; we can’t see it. And this might raise some disagreement because you can see me standing up here, I can see you, we’re in this room, and that’s reality, right?

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That’s what is real. And yet most of you, I’m sure, know about Piaget and his experiments in which he would find out that young children saw a different world. He would take a glass of water, and he’d take a container, and he’d pour the water into it, and then he’d ask the small child, “Which one has more?”

And the child would point at this one and go, “Well, this one has more because it’s higher.” And of course, higher is more, and as we all know, more is better.

There were other experiments that are not as well-known. One of them involved a ball, and it’s on a string. And if you spin it around and let it go, my question to you, “Will it go straight or will it curve or will it do something else?”

Think about that because we’re going to try it.

Now, it’s Styrofoam, so mostly safe. So, did it curve or did it go straight?

Now, if you saw it curve, you’re actually in good company. Leonardo da Vinci saw it curve. Galileo, in his experiments, saw it go straight, and repeated that. And I’m afraid that’s what the physics is.

The thing is that: Why would we not see it that way?

Well, it turns out in the cognitive sciences, we can see things we already know and won’t see things that we don’t know.

Now, how does that square with reality? If you were able to see them, the cards are the wrong colors. This is an homage to Jerome Bruner who found that if it looks like a duck, if it sounds like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

The thing is that we might not have that perception. Okay, it’s a cheap trick, but it points out this mental process, which is that our mind, our imagination, will pick out a bit of what we know and will fill in the rest of the picture.

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And the thing is that we do this by the way we dress — what do we do? We’re trying to suggest something about ourselves that’s more than just the clothing.

Now, this idea is that some surface quality is going to reflect some inner essence. So, shiny will mean new, and something is young will mean fresh, and if a dog growls, it’s best left alone.

The idea is that from that little bit, we spread out, and we have a reality, and this is the illusion of objectivity.

Well, in the field of anthropology, this is known as sympathetic magic. And if you know anything about anthropologists, they study prehistoric people, our species, so these are patterns and abilities that have been going on for a very, very, very long time, and particularly one they call “the law of similarity,” which has to do with this: that like produces like, that like attracts like, that like causes like.

Now, you look across other fields, you see the same idea, of how do two things connect? In literary studies, this is called metaphor. In social psychology, this is called stereotyping. In behavioral economics, this is called representativeness, and in many other fields, something else.

There’s a lot of jargon to go around. What we call it is, “That reminds me …” “You know, that’s just like …” “You know, I remember when …” “You know, last week we had the same kind of problem.”

If you begin to listen for this, you find out that we use it, and we use it practically everywhere. This is one of the principal ways that we make sense of the world.

What gets you to think that this is a duck? Is it a bit of the bill? Is it the yellow? Or the tail? Let’s try something else here: What do you make of this?

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Now, at this point, you may notice that your resembling, trying to find out what it’s like, is slipping back and forth. It gives you an actual experience of that moment that we don’t get very often.

Well, is it — by the way, those of you who are sure that it’s a horse, what about that beak? Of course, you can resolve this problem by simply going, “It’s a toy.”

And that puts it in another category, and you can calm down. The thing is that we do this much more quickly with people, and without a second thought.

We elect leaders who are taller. We think that attractive people are more honest, and we pay them more, and we forgive them more often.

And if we find people that we don’t like — to be polite about it — we generally will lean into thinking they’re bad or at least they’re suspect.

And again, we take some little bit of behavior, and we build it out to a trait: “Oh, that person’s shy,” “Oh, that person is competitive,” “Oh, that person …” and so on and so on.

Winners and losers; introvert, extrovert; athletic, uncoordinated; risk-takers, wallflowers.

When we apply those to ourselves, it limits our identity, it limits what we might choose to do. When other people apply them to us, well then, it influences how they perceive us and how they respond to us.

And it’s taking something that’s ambiguous and open to interpretation and grabbing ahold of one part of it. This is a natural ability, and it happens very quickly, and it happens very unconsciously.

It also, from the work of Michel Foucault, a post-modernist, naturalizes our environment. Of course, being French, we wouldn’t know what that means, but I’ll tell you that it’s where something is taken as real that may or may not be, that we made up.

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