Neuroscience Says You Have an Imagination

Like many people, I’ve gotten interested in neuroscience in the past few years. New thinking, powered by instrumentation that enables new kinds of observations, is creating an explosion of new knowledge about the brain and cognition. There is still an enormous amount we don’t know about the brain, about how the brain in concert with the body creates the mind, about how we acquire a self or a feeling, but I believe we can be sure of one thing: the way that we used to imagine our thinking is not the way our minds really work. This is exciting and liberating news; it opens a field of possibilities that has no predictable boundaries. What I am trying to do here is to take a little of the new thinking about the brain and hence the mind, and turn it to the uses of art. I’m a novelist and I think like a writer; here comes neuroscience with new discoveries and I think aha, new metaphors for the creative process, new ways to talk about writing fiction. The news is good: you already have a more powerful imagination than you may even have realized.


1. Being Mr. Voight

At the center of Eudora Welty’s novella “June Recital” is a piano teacher named Miss Eckhart, an artist and foreigner who has ended up in a small Mississippi town, giving piano lessons to its children. An unintended feature of the lessons is Mr. Voight, who lives upstairs and objects to the noise by appearing on the landing of the stairs, opening his bathrobe, and flapping it while displaying his nakedness.

Cassie Morrison (one of her pupils, one of the centers of awareness in the story) sees Mr. Voight’s performance, and alone in her room she tries to think about what she has seen:

. . . Mr. Voight had done something that amounted to more than going naked under his robe and calling alarm like a turkey gobbler, it was more belligerent; and the least describable thing of all had been a look on his face; that was strange. Thinking of it now, and here in her room, Cassie found she had bared her teeth and set them, trying out the frantic look. She could not now, any more than then, really describe Mr. Voight, but without thinking she could be Mr. Voight, which was more frightening still.

About forty-five years after the publication of The Golden Apples, the masterpiece that includes “June Recital,” neuroscientists started to understand how Cassie could, without thinking, be Mr. Voight. What we now call mirror neurons were first noticed in the mid-1990’s. Mirror neurons are almost literally a case of “monkey see, monkey do,” except the “doing” is an unconscious, interior virtual event. What I see another person do, I inwardly “enact” via this part of my brain, without being aware that I’m doing so. To quote one of the discoverers, Vittorio Gallese: “the same neural circuits involved in action control and in the first person experience of emotions and sensations are also active when witnessing the same actions, emotions and sensations of others.” In short, the human brain is wired in such a way that it enables me to be, within myself, the person I am interacting with.  Neuroscientists now believe that mirror neurons are the key to our ability to sense what others are feeling and intending, because they simulate for us a bodily experience of what it is like to be the other person. If I see a friend bite into a leftover chicken leg and then make a face, apparently through the action of my mirror neurons I unconsciously experience making that face myself, and as I have that virtual experience I recognize that if I made that face, I would be expressing disgust. That, apparently, is how I instantly know I’d better not eat that chicken.

Mirror neurons don’t use or need language; they convey knowledge through the body. They don’t explain, they put on a show in an unconscious, virtual mind-theater, one in which we play the lead role as someone else. They are all about “show don’t tell.” It makes sense, then, that when I’m trying to give my reader an experience of a character from the inside, I can’t get it done by having the narrator stand off from the character and analyze her motivations; I need to plunge the reader into her life in the body. This is what Welty does when she writes about Cassie thinking about Mr. Voight: Cassie finds herself baring her teeth – her body says what she cannot put into words, and the reader feels it.

Once, when I was taking a modern dance class, we students were told to improvise in pairs, mirroring each other’s movements, without saying anything to each other. At first, my partner and I traded the lead role back and forth between us a number of times; I was always conscious of either leading or following, showing her what to do or echoing her movements. But then there came a point when I realized, and I was sure my partner realized, that no one was leading and no one was following; after that we mirrored each other, period. At that point, larger mind, incorporating both of us, took over. It was a mysterious experience that defied my assumptions about how things work; surely there had to be somebody taking the lead. But no, and now we know why.

Presumably mirror neurons are why people feel an almost irresistible urge to sing along when they see their favorite band perform: internally, they are being the singer. Mirror neurons must be indispensable to our ability to be moved by a good actor onstage. They are at work when babies imitate their mothers and vice versa; they are central to the entire process of a child’s learning to read how others feel, what others intend. They are crucial to our ability to understand that other people have an inner life. Without them, we would have a thin and impoverished theory of others’ minds.

The mirror neuron phenomenon shows that my subjectivity does not have the impermeable boundary we have long assumed. In fact, some researchers in this field believe something has to happen in the brain to maintain the separation between self and other, by inhibiting the action of the mirror neurons so that I don’t literally imitate other people all the time. Which is interesting, to say the least. This new knowledge creates a neurological basis for empathetic imagination, and says that such imagination is the default state. An action (unconscious, of course) is required, not to achieve such imagination, but to avoid being completely taken over by it.

All this, I think, has to be deeply encouraging for anyone who likes to think they possess an imagination. It turns out we all have probably an even better one than we realize, by virtue of how our brains do their thing. And this is highly relevant to the writing of fiction, whose best reason for being is that it enables us, either as writers or as readers, to imagine our way into the subjectivity of another. While Cassie is being Mr. Voight, the reader is being Cassie; and being Cassie – or Nick Carraway, or Jane Eyre, or any of countless other protagonists – is one of the fundamental satisfactions we ask of reading fiction. It is also probably the deepest reason why I’ve written novels: by doing so I find a way out of the confinement of being myself.

When we create and sustain a fictional character, we learn to use this innate part of the human apparatus in a peculiar, specialized way: we learn to be the other when there is no other present, to be an other who never existed, i.e., the character. So two things have to happen: the mirror neuron function must be cultivated, or disinhibited, so that it functions powerfully and commandingly (hence the trance state necessary to imaginative writing, enabling disinhibition), and then it must be turned on in the “presence” of an other who is not and never was present.

It makes sense that writers move from memory to imagination, from personal narrative to fiction. If you create a character from memory, you learn to turn on your mirror neuron function in the “presence” of an other who once was present, but is not now. This is already a huge remove from doing it in the presence of someone face to face now. But it’s not foreign to us, because the memory of someone’s presence can be vivid and strong in everyday life, not just in the specialized situation of writing. It makes sense that one would first cultivate the ability to create, from inside, a character who is a person one remembers, and then make the leap to creating, from inside, a character who never existed.

2. Memory, Dispositions, and Unconscious Knowledge

Antonio Damasio, in his recent book Self Comes to Mind (2010), advances a hypothesis about memory that relates directly to mirror neurons and implicitly to imagination and the writing of fiction. He argues that mirror neurons, an “as-if system applied to others[,] would not have developed had there not first been an as-if system applied to the brain’s own organism.” Not only can we neurally simulate the body states of others, we can simulate our own, and that, he believes, is what we do when we remember. This is his remarkable hypothesis about how memory works: rather than preserving a copy of what one experienced at some past time, the brain preserves a sort of recipe for conjuring up a simulation of the experience, a reconstruction of the neural events that took place back then. He doesn’t use these words, but I will: it seems to me Damasio is identifying a neurological mechanism for imagination.

The engineering challenge of human memory, as Damasio sees it, is that humans wanted to remember vast numbers of densely detailed images, but there wasn’t room to store them in the brain. Evolution found a solution which would have been mighty ingenious, had it been a human inventor’s job to think it up. Early on, in less complex organisms, the brain relied solely on what he calls “dispositions.” A disposition is a know-how about how to respond to a certain stimulus, but not in any way a representation of it – dispositions are “know-how formulas that code for something like this: if hit from one side, move in the opposite direction for X number of seconds, regardless of the object hitting you or where you are.

“For a long, long time in evolution, brains operated on the basis of dispositions, and some of the organisms so equipped did perfectly fine in suitable environments.” But as evolution continued, it came to be possible for the brain to make neural maps, patterns of neural activity that correspond to specific things in the outside world. This kind of fine-grained, specific interaction with the world meant that “organisms were able to go beyond formulaic responses and respond instead on the basis of the richer information now available in the maps. . . . Responses became customized to objects and situations rather than being generic.” Obviously the advantages to the organism were huge; for one thing, this meant that if the environment stopped being suitable, the organism might be able to adapt and survive. But with this advantageous improvement came the engineering problem: there wasn’t enough brain space to store all these maps in all their complexity. The solution, as Damasio sees it: the brain instead stores a disposition which is the know-how of how to simulate a past experience. “We humans and our fellow mammals never had to microfilm various and sundry images and store them in hard-copy files; we simply stored a nimble formula for their reconstruction and used the existing perceptual machinery to reassemble them as best we could.”

In short, then, if Damasio is right, a memory is a disposition, not a map. It is a set of directions for how to create an as-if experience of a past event rather than an actual copy or image of that event. Memory is the continual exercise of a kind of imagination. Our brains are, in a sense, always writing a novel about our lives. They do so in a “dispositional space” where all of our knowledge, our experience of life, is held in an “encrypted and dormant form,” along with “the devices for the reconstruction of that knowledge in recall.” And all of this – the encrypted knowledge and the instructions for how to reconstitute it into images – is unconscious.

When I talk about creative process, I sometimes talk about the Nagual, a term I learned from Carlos Castaneda’s Tales of Power. Castaneda’s books are now obscure and mostly forgotten, but when I was in my twenties he was on the cover of Time. He was an anthropologist who either did or did not (depending on whether you believe his story is true) apprentice himself to a Yaqui Indian shaman and eventually become a sorcerer himself. What definitely is true is that the Nagual is a central concept in the world-view Castaneda so awkwardly and haltingly absorbs. The Nagual is unknowable, unexplainable, black and blank. It’s like this: you’re floating on the surface of water that has filled an abandoned quarry. Its depth is unknown; maybe there is no bottom. The water is inky black; as soon as you put your hand under it, you can’t see your own palm. Either you become terrified and thrash about until you drown, or you realize that this inky water is holding you up and you relax and float on it. In this indescribable void, in the blackness below you, everything that has not yet been created is waiting to come into being. Don Juan, Carlos’s teacher, tells him that the Nagual is the only part of us that can create, and I have taken this advice to heart. I do not know the words to write, I say to myself sometimes, but the Nagual can write them. Let it write through me.

Isn’t Damasio saying something similar about all of our memory, all of our knowledge? The dispositional space is impenetrably dark to our conscious awareness; all we can do is work with what it presents to our consciousness by means of a process we cannot see or direct. And this is more than enough to give us knowledge of life and a sense of an abiding self. Unconscious knowledge is not the exception, is not something suspect and unreliable. It is the kind of knowledge we have.

This idea seems worthy of anyone’s contemplation, and especially a writer’s. My sense is that as writers we are always working with an unconscious capability, and one of the great challenges is learning to trust what we can’t control. The most important thing about the unconscious is also the most obvious: we don’t know what is in there. We don’t know how much we know. We don’t know how much we are capable of if we let the unconscious image-constructing capability work in freedom, in its own way, without excessive interference from us, without our trying to control what it will produce.

This is why I say that the first thing the imagination must create is itself. The way it does so is this: since we don’t know how much this faculty is capable of, why not assume that it can do far more than we know? More than we have yet done? Even if we have written novels, the next one will present some new challenge to the imagination; why not assume that it can meet this challenge as well, that it can do things we have not yet known it could do?

I’ve found this to be the case again and again.

3. “Writing What You Know” by Giving Up Ownership of Your Dispositions

In the light of all this, it is worth pondering another piece of writing advice at least as old as “show don’t tell,” namely, “write what you know.”

“What you know” acquires a new meaning: your unconscious repertory of life knowledge in the form of dispositions. And I’ll add a distinction that is particular to creating fiction. Some of these dispositions are knowledge of a kind that I could call “movable parts” –  like, let’s say, dusk in St. Louis in the summer, the feeling of loneliness, the experience of riding a streetcar. Memories of such experiences belong to me, yet they don’t have to be mine alone; I can take the me-ness out of them and they can belong to a character who could be anyone. Layered on top of the movable parts in my mind are higher-level dispositions that structure them into my memories – the structure that makes them “what actually happened to me.” It is this structure that I own with tenacity, that I am determined to hold onto because without my memories I would no longer be me. The movable parts, however, I can cease to own without threatening the integrity of my being, and this is what I do in writing fiction.

As I said, writers tend to begin by writing personal narrative and then move to fiction. If you’re writing personal narrative, you have a bedrock reference point: every memory comes marked with that unmistakable feeling of ownership. You tell the story of the Christmas when you were nine years old, when the car broke down on the way back from your aunt and uncle’s house, and you were stranded by the side of the road in a snowstorm. And because you own those memories, identify with them, have been remembering them most of your life, you can feel a solidity and definiteness to the memories which is not going to be there when you write fiction.

Of course, the truth is that it’s a feeling of solidity rather than solidity itself, because these memories are reconstructions, simulations, as-ifs. But we crave that feeling of solidity mightily; we cling to it and constantly reinforce it, yet again shoring up the construct of self. To give up that feeling is not easy. Most people, when they first start writing fiction, feel they’ve been thrown into that bottomless quarry and are drowning in an infinity of possibilities. Yet it is possible to relax and float on the surface of the unknowable, to give up the feeling of ownership and “write what you know” by letting the movable parts of your knowledge self-organize into a structure which is not your own life.

When I say self-organize I mean it. If I thought of writing as a purely conscious activity, then I would have to remain the organizer, pushing the movable parts of my life knowledge around into various patterns until I happened to come upon one I liked. But that is not how creativity works. I don’t even know what all the movable parts are, because this is unconscious knowledge I’m working with; my job is just to trust that it’s there. Much less do I know by exactly what process the movable parts come together in a new image of experience; I never will know, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is doing it; sitting in front of the piece of writing, waiting to see what the little voice that emerges from the unconscious, that just makes it over the threshold of awareness, will say next. Plenty of conscious calculation can come, and must come, in the stages of revision, but without this first process in which the characters and the story self-organize, bring themselves into being, there would be nothing to revise.

So this is my neuroscience theory of what happens in writing fiction: I make use of my repertory of dispositions under a rule that they’re free to self-organize, plus my mirror neuron capability which makes it possible for me to “be” and thus create a character who is other than myself. The neuroscientists help me to say with confidence that having an imagination is not the issue. We already have the capacity to construct an image of experience, and we are using it all the time. The issue is not finding that know-how somewhere else, by looking in some esoteric place. The creative faculty is already inside us; the technique to be learned, first of all and crucially, is how to get out of its way. The issue is learning how to give up ownership, how to use this innate ability to construct an image of experience not in order to reconstitute my own memories, not in order to reconfirm my own solidity as a self, but rather to let another human life, not my own, come into being through me. That other life is the life of the character, the protagonist, the narrator – the true owners of the book that I write, or that writes itself through me.



Eudora Welty, The Golden Apples. Harcourt Brace, 1949. p. 43.

Vittorio Gallese, “the same neural circuits” etc.: “Intentional Attunement: The Mirror Neuron system and its role in interpersonal relations.”  Published on the website Interdisciplines.,

p. 4.

something has to happen in the brain to maintain the separation between self and other: the researcher Robert Gordon writes, “The shared space idea suggests that the primary task of social cognition is, not to recognize the other as similar to oneself, but to differentiate between self and other – for one’s own brain incorporates the other in the first person, as it were.”

Discussion of an article by Susan Hurley, published on Interdisciplines.,

p. 120.

Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. Pantheon, 2010. All the quotations in this piece come from chapter 6, “An Architecture for Memory,” except for “the as-if system applied to others,” which is on p. 103. Here are some notably relevant passages, from pp. 143-144:

“The dispositional space is that in which dispositions hold the knowledge base as well as the devices for the reconstruction of that knowledge in recall. It is the source of images in the process of imagination and reasoning and is also used to generate movement.”

“The contents exhibited in the image space are explicit, while the contents of the dispositional space are implicit. We can access the contents of images, if we are conscious, but we never access the contents of dispositions directly. Of necessity, the contents of dispositions are always unconscious. They exist in encrypted and dormant form.”

“Our memories of things, of properties of things, of people and places, of events and relationships, of skills, of life-management processes – in short all of our memories, inherited from evolution and available at birth or acquired through learning thereafter – exist in our brains in dispositional form, waiting to become explicit images or actions. Our knowledge base is implicit, encrypted, and unconscious.”

Carlos Castaneda, Tales of Power. Simon & Schuster, 1974. “The Island of the Tonal,” p. 118ff.


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