Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

8.19.2011

Are Knowledge and Imagination Dichotomous?

On the wall next to my bed hangs an Einstein quote: Imagination is more important than knowledge. (Follow the link for an interesting article, by the way.) I obviously like it. But that doesn't mean I discount knowledge, because without it all we have is truthiness. I think both are important and work together. Endorsing the quote, however, implicitly endorses the idea that imagination and knowledge are at odds with each other. The memory advocates at the heart of Moonwalking with Einstein would deny that dichotomy, though, and say they are more closely linked than we normally assume:

"In our gross misunderstanding of the function of memory, we thought that memory was operated primarily by rote. In other words, you rammed it in until your head was stuffed with facts. What was not realized is that memory is primarily an imaginative process. In fact, learning, memory, and creativity are the same fundamental process directed with a different focus," says Buzan. "The art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas. Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new and hurl it into the future so it becomes a poem, or a building, or a dance, or a novel. Creativity is, in a sense, future memory." If the essence of creativity is linking disparate facts and ideas, then the more facility you have making associations, and the more facts and ideas you have at your disposal, the better you'll be at coming up with new ideas. As Buzan likes to point out, Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, was the mother of the Muses.

The notion that memory and creativity are two sides of the same coin sounds counterintuitive. Remembering and creativity seem like opposite, not complementary, processes. But the idea that they are one and the same is actually quite old, and was once even taken for granted. The Latin root
inventio is the basis of two words in our modern English vocabulary: inventory and invention. And to a mind trained in the art of memory, those two ideas were closely linked. Invention was a product of inventorying. Where do new ideas come from if not some alchemical blending of old ideas? In order to invent, one first needed a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on. Not just an inventory, but an indexed inventory. One needed a way of finding just the right piece of information at just the right moment.

That is what the art of memory was ultimately most useful for. It was not merely a tool for recording but also a tool of invention and composition. "The realization that composing depended on a well-furnished and securely available memory formed the basis of rhetorical education in antiquity," writes Mary Carruthers. Brains were as organized as modern filing cabinets, with important facts, quotations, and ideas stuffed into neat mnemonic cubbyholes, where they would never go missing, and where they could be recombined and strung together on the fly. The goal of training one's memory was to develop the capacity to leap from topic to topic and make new connections between old ideas. "As an art, memory was most importantly associated in the Middle Ages with composition, not simply with retention," argues Carruthers. "Those who practiced the crafts of memory used them--as all crafts are used--to
make new things: prayers, meditations, sermons, pictures, hymns, stories, and poems."

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