Welcome to stren #79, The Use and Abuse of Fantasy. The wisdom offered in this stren is that fantasy can serve as either a substitute for action or a preparation for action. A lack of understanding of this distinction is the reason we create most of our problems.
Through the power of interpretation, we make ourselves godlike creators who increasingly influence our destiny and everything about us. We assign meaning to symbols that become signals to turn on action. Our symbols create a second mental signaling system that empowers us to activate our physical first signaling system. Imagination is the means by which we create ideas and phenomena not present in nature. We then transform our private mental creations into the physical reality we share in common. The mental freedom to create alternatives and choose the course of action that determines our destiny is among our highest values. The management of our exclusive second signaling system to interpret consciousness is critical to elevate us to humane species to which we aspire.
Fantasy and imagination, like all powerful tools, need to be understood and wisely directed. Fantasy is mental action that is a component of our personal, private, conscious world; it co-exists with the physical world shared in common with other life forms. Fantasy is a synonym for imagination; they are often used interchangeably as I will do here. I offer the slight distinction that fantasy has a greater automatic or involuntary driving force whose energy source is the animal portion of our human brain, whereas imagination has a larger component of intention energy initiated by the portion of our brain that distinguishes us as human, our matured cerebral cortex.
Fantasy and imagination refer to the power of the mind to form images of things not present to the senses or within the actual experience of the person involved.
Fantasy - an imagined event or condition fulfilling a wish; vivid imagination; the natural conjuring of mental invention and association.
Imagination - forming a mental image or concept of that which is not real or present; the ability or tendency to form a mental image or idea; the ability to deal creatively with reality.
“Fantasy is applied principally to the product of imagination given free rein, especially to elaborate mental representation having little similarity to the real world.”
- Fantasy as preparation for action: Most people already understand and accept that conscious manipulation of symbols is our most important source of creativity. We discover universal wisdom and knowledge of cause-and-effect through the common sense use of fantasy. Einstein said “The gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge,” and concluded, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
- Fantasy as a substitute for action: Most people do not realize that fantasy, properly directed, is also our most effective means to control the prewired instinctive demands of our animal brain and the traditions inscribed by our nurturers that are no longer effective or have become dangerous. When we learn to apply common sense to imagination to mentally project the likely outcome of our physical action, we can wisely choose to “switch” to an alternative action. This powerful use of fantasy to prevent what we don’t want is called “cognitive rehearsal” or “no-trial learning.” The logical action pathways we rehearse in our private consciousness envision the outcome of multiple alternatives, thus allowing us to create and select the action most likely to succeed.
Here is the fun part. The mental action we take in our fantasy can provide us a source of amusement and pleasure, and it hurts no one. We are free to do the most outrageous things in our fantasy without paying for our primitive or harmful imaginings. This is why humor and laughter help us deal with the most difficult life situations. Fantasy has the power to relieve our tensions so that we can substitute the intelligent response for established action pathways that are no longer in our best interest.
When fantasy is directed by our animal brain, the portion of our brain that is prewired to sustain the life cycle, we can expect a bias towards fight or flight, survival for our self and our “family,’ and shortsighted goals that satisfy the desire for immediate relief from frustration. For example: “Road rage” and other expressions of rage are quite common. While I’m driving, someone cuts me off. My first fantasy is that my car turns into a tank and I roll over the *>%;! and flatten him to the road to teach him a lesson. A second, more civilized possibility is to say a few nasty words or “give him the finger.” In my fantasy, both provide short term satisfaction. After enjoying the moments of fantasy that also dissipate my frustration, common sense and civility lead me to conclude I am not the highway police. My goal is to get to my destination and not respond in a way that is likely to delay me and start a process of escalation that would result in mutual harm. Fantasy is a marvelous substitute for physical action that provides short-term gain at the cost of far greater long-term pain. It allows us to neutralize the destructive aggression demanded by our animal brain and unleash it only when wise mental rehearsal confirms its necessity.
Misunderstanding or misuse of fantasy is a common source of trouble. During my professional career, a colleague remarked how he liked meditation because it provided him a number of patients. He was referring to the small number of individuals who develop a psychotic or panic reaction as they suddenly cleared their mind of external stimulation to be confronted with the destructive fantasies uncaged from their deeper mental recesses. (Of course this is not to dismiss the great value meditation can provide in most cases.) Another example of the misunderstood fantasies that invade our consciousness is a young woman who, with the encouragement of her fundamentalist minister and family, was convinced she was possessed by the devil and could only find a solution in suicide. Mislabeling the “inner voice” as magical or supernatural is a common source of harmful behavior.
Common sense thinking (ANWOT) + imagination lead to the “magical” problem-solving sentence that empowers us to reach our highest level of function: “What is most likely to make things better for me and you (us and them), for now and the future?” Wise people substitute this universal problem-solving sentence for the self-serving sentence prescribed by instinct and, nearly as often, by tradition, “My way, the only way.”