Imagination is one of our most powerful tools as human beings. Our ability to see, feel, taste, touch and dream up realities that do not yet exist allows us to avoid much time spent in basic trial and error processes. This power of imagination comes with a hidden cost however. Every tool loses usefulness when it is employed exclusively and imagination is no exception.
There are many times when information that leads to the correct conclusion simply isn’t available and more basic methods of discovery are superior. Imagination can also increase the tendency to procrastinate, forming a barrier between thought and action. Without experimentation and true exploration of your world you remain stuck in one of only fantasy.
I’m not here to dissuade you from using your imagination. I’ve already pointed out how powerful a tool it can be. The problem arises when you start using your imagination to solve problems that it cannot. Worse, because imagination is always viewed through the beliefs, biases and prejudices of the present, it has subtle limitations in truly envisioning a new reality. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Similarly, when you rely only on your imagination you remain stuck in a single frame of reference.
Experimentation may be a far more expensive tool to use, but there are many situations where it is the only one that can arrive at the correct solution. Although forming a hypothesis for how any change will affect you is relatively easy to perform, there are many times when your original hypothesis is dead wrong. Without basic trial and error you may never know the truth.
Imagination is Corrupted by the Present
Each of us has beliefs, biases and prejudices that form a lens from which we view the entire world. These beliefs are limited in scope to the experiences we have had. For example, if you have never been skydiving before, your beliefs about how it would feel to go skydiving would be based on more limited knowledge than if you had already done it in the past.
The beliefs we have limit our ability to imagine. Where there is no direct experience to substantiate a belief, the mind simply has to make a best guess at the result of a new situation. Imagination can only extrapolate from the present, it can’t make new jumps in belief or experience. However, as we gain more experiences we shift in ways that our imagination couldn’t predict. The more experiences we gain the less accurate our original imagination becomes.
This property of imagination, that it can only extrapolate from present experiences and can’t create new ones, results in the “outside looking in” effect. This effect is the result when you imagine a situation from your current paradigm rather than the paradigm you would have if you were actually in that situation.
How would it feel to be a vegetarian if you aren’t already? Chances are you will come up with some expressions marking it as being more limited as your omnivorous diet and that you would feel sacrifice all the time. Unfortunately this is the “outside looking in” effect at work. Actually experiencing a vegetarian diet felt quite different for me than I had expected. I don’t feel sacrifice or even limitation just as you wouldn’t feel limitation if you chose not to eat sewage.
Imagination in this case has created a false reality since it predicts you would have the same paradigm of beliefs that you do in the present. But for radical shifts in behavior or experience your paradigm often becomes so different than it was before that your past imagination doesn’t come close to the reality. In this case, running an experiment testing a vegetarian diet against your current one would be a better predictor of the actual experience.
Experimentation is More Accurate
Not only does imagination get corrupted by your beliefs and prejudices, but it is simply less thorough and effective than experimenting. Visualizing a result can’t possibly take into account the millions of variables that go into creating an experience. As a result your brain decides what the most critical factors are and bases a reality on that. This approximation method doesn’t have even close to the accuracy you need.
What Should You Experiment?
There are three rules for deciding whether to experiment on an idea you are unsure about. Of course you can’t possible experiment everything, but these three rules help you decide whether something is a good candidate for experimenting:
Rule One – There is Little Potential Downside: If there is a very small downside if you are wrong, then the experimentation should be worthwhile. This kind of thinking is called taking intelligent risks. Unless conducting the experiment could be very damaging to you, it is probably a good idea to experiment.
Rule Two – There is a Huge Potential Upside: Decisions that involve your health, finances, spiritual beliefs, happiness and relationships often ripple to every facet of your experience of life. Conducting an experiment here is very useful.
Rule Three – You Feel Strong Emotions About the Issue: Strong emotions are often an indicator that you have heavy, irrational biases towards an issue. If you truly understood both perspectives from a logical standpoint you wouldn’t have intense emotions. If you knew that asking someone on a date was going to be very damaging you would just avoid it, you wouldn’t fear it. If you knew that trying a new religion would be disastrous, you would ignore it, not hate it.
Following these three rules you can generally find situations that warrant an experiment. Some experiments can be done immediately and take very little time. Other experiments may require months or years of study. Experimenting everything is impossible, but these three qualities are usually a good place to start in deciding what to try.
I want you to think back to some decisions you made recently where you didn’t do an experiment first. Look back and see if any of these decisions could have involved these three rules. Some of those decisions were made subconsciously as well, so be especially careful of all the decisions you made by default. My challenge to you is to take one of those decisions that the three rules apply and try conducting your own experiment.