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

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?

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?

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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Let me give you an example: the zero. That is, a lot of civilizations didn’t come up with a zero. They knew what nothing was — okay, they had nada, zip, so forth — but they didn’t have something to represent nothing — why would you? It’s like a Seinfeld episode.

The thing is that Fibonacci comes along, brings the zero to Europe in the 12th century, and we’ve been finding it really useful ever since then.

So here’s the question: Is the zero natural and we discover it or is it an act of imagination?

Now, these same skills, these same abilities, are at the basis of our creativity. That whenever something is invented or created, it’s always: what is this in terms of that?

And Tesla, for example, figured out alternating current by watching the spinning of a water spring. Picasso invented modern art by looking at primitive art, and of course, famously, Steve Jobs thought of the personal computer as an appliance.

So it would seem like we’d want more imagination — we’d want to unleash the imagination. Except you can find a lot of places where the imagination is unleashed. They’re called “conditions under uncertainty.” They’re places where the outcomes are not predictable.

And in those places, which include gambling, athletics and investing, you see superstitious thoughts and behaviors. You see elaborate rituals that people go through.

You see where they have talismans, objects and magical thinking. Michael Jordan, famous in Chicago, wore his college basketball uniform under his NBA uniform his entire career.

The mathematical trader who made black swan famous, he found himself trying to go in a side door of the Chicago Board of Trade because the day before, he had gone in through that door and made a lot of money.

And in our times, more and more of us experience the world as uncertain — our careers, our lives — and we see a rise in magical thinking. Even to the point now where it’s institutionalized and become a profit center.

So what to do? Well, we still have our rational thinking mind, what Kahneman and colleagues would call “System 2.” It’s where we deliberately think things through in our own voice.

And this is a curious thing because we’re thinking with our own voice and we’re figuring things out. So clearly this is the most important mental ability we have, and it’s obviously in control.

You know there’s a number of fields questioning that right now. And we get down to, how do we control? By language.

Each of us grows up in a language, and we learn words, and this word means that. And we learn things like, well, a pig is called a pig because, well, it wallows in the mud and it’s a sloppy eater, right?

Well, at least, you know, pig seems like a really good word for a pig, right? The word is the thing. The word is like the thing. Like attracts like. We’re right back in the imagination.

It turns out that our reasoning and our rationales are steeped in the imagination. But that’s hard for you to believe, I’ll bet.

So I want to show you something. I have here some ordinary Morton salt.

[Cyanide] [Salt]

What just happened? As you look at them on the screen, is your willingness to use one or the other changed a little bit? And even though you laugh, and you would do it because you saw me, but you have a reluctance suddenly.

And that reluctance is signaling to you something about words — that words we have are like things, and moreover, what we’re getting at here is that in a heartbeat, our imagination makes reality different.

What I’m getting at here is that words don’t reflect reality; words are actually making things what they are, in a certain sense. We go to the examples of how we think of ourselves, and the words like “winner” and “loser” and “success” and “failure” and so forth, and we take that little bit of experience that we named, and we put a whole reality around it. Or somebody else does that as well.

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And so words evoke experiences, not realities. And if you listen to that, and you understand it, then if we use a number of words, what will begin to emerge as we put those experiences together, what do we use? A story. Another act of imagination.

Stories, by the way, are our first information storage and retrieval device, and they’re also our favorite way of reasoning and a favorite past time.

Let me demonstrate to you how quickly you can build a story. Some of you may be familiar with the studies that show whatever it is that you’re doing now, in 10 years, you’re likely to be doing something else.

So if you were to imagine that it’s 10 years from now, and what you’re doing is that you’re an architect — how do you make sense of that? What led up to that?

You’re noticing that your mind can very easily begin to pick out episodes in your life and string them together. And the thing is that if you think about that, if you share that with friends, if you naturalize it, then that begins to feel real, and then it becomes something called fate or destiny.

I hope in these and other ways, I’m pointing out the fundamental power and persuasiveness of this unconscious process, our imagination, which is running all the time.

This is where we turn to Albert Einstein. He noted that imagination is more important than knowledge. He went on in that passage to write that knowledge could be great, imagination greater.

Any knowledge we have came from something we previously imagined. Let me give you an example.

Aristotle knew of the universe that in the heavens, it was eternal and perfect, and on earth, it was changing with time. Newton thought, well, if the heavens and the earth have the same rules, then the laws of gravity would work everywhere.

In other words, Newton had a leap of imagination. Now he was assisted in this by Galileo. Because Galileo had seen that the moon was imperfect.

Remember what Kant and Kahneman said, which is that we do not see the world the way it is, we see the world as our instruments allow. And the instrument in this case was the telescope.

And so Newton was able to reimagine the universe, and the celestial mechanics were so successful that people took them as real and true. They naturalized.

Until a couple centuries later when our instruments became electric, and it was worked out that the speed of light was constant, and then the universe needed to be reimagined, and we have Einstein’s theories of relativity.

Marshall McLuhan wrote that our technologies extend us. They extend our instruments. And so then, we have a way of understanding what’s happening. That is that technologies and science advance as our instruments exceed our imaginings.

And at that point, it’s time to reimagine the world. I hope you see by now that imagination and knowledge are complementary and complete each other.

It’s like they’re in an endless dance in which imagination leads.

Thank you.


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Resources for Further Reading:

Transcript: Patti Dobrowolski on Imagination Changes Everything at TEDxSacramentoSalon

Think Like a Storyteller: Jared Rypkema at TEDxFSCJ (Transcript)

How Language Shapes the Way We Think: Lera Boroditsky (Transcript)

Think Faster, Focus Better and Remember More: Dr. Michael Merzenich (Transcript)