The Imagination Institute

The Imagination Institute logo
A new venture in the scientific study of imagination

One of my theological interests is in the theology of creation — creation understood both as noun and verb — and through that, the theology of imagination.

Imagination ties together my theological and spiritual interests. I believe it is crucial to giving a rich account of discernment. I wrote a piece some time ago for Thinking Faith on the Faithful Imagination outlining some of those ideas.

Now the Scientific American blog reports a new venture, The Imagination Institute ‘dedicated to making progress on the measurement, growth, and improvement of imagination across all sectors of society’.

Our ability to overcome the constraints of the present environment and travel to distant places and hopeful futures all in the mind is a skill that is hugely neglected in today’s society. With our intense focus on enabling students and employees to master what is, we are missing out on the huge opportunity for them to also imagine what could be.

That ‘all in the mind’ worries me!

The executive director of The Imagination Institute is Martin Seligman– founder of the field of positive psychology. The lead scientific consultant is Marie Forgeard, and I am the scientific director. Our board of scientific advisors consists of psychologists Angela Duckworth, Rex Jung, Dean Keith Simonton, Robert Sternberg, and Philip Tetlock, novelist Richard Powers, and Major General (ret) Robert Scales. We also are building up an excellent team of researchers here at the University of Pennsylvania, including Jeanette Elstein and Jane Reznik.

To help achieve its mission, the Imagination Institute is holding a grants competition titled Advancing the Science of Imagination: Toward an “Imagination Quotient” to test, validate and develop measurement tools and interventions for imagination and perspective (download Request for Proposals). In 2015, up to fifteen (15), two-year grants in the range of $150,000 to $200,000 will be awarded to scholars from around the world.

The awards are intended to generate new scientific information in order to further clarify the construct of imagination and its measurement for the purpose of advancing an understanding of the human mind and its role in the optimization of human potential and flourishing.

Very interesting. I wonder whether it will engage with imagination in its fullest sense. In my article, Faithful Imagination, I say:

Whenever the imagination poses a choice, faith is implicated – and not just when the subject matter is explicitly religious as in the Exercises. Something akin to discernment is going on within our artist and our scientist too, some faith is being deepened or not. I do not mean this in the trivial sense that religious pundits sometimes use when they accuse scientists of relying on their own version of faith: this goes deeper. Whenever the imagination gets involved – which is everywhere – we are faced with the question of quality, of value. Where does value come from? We are inclined to be split between a scientific imagination that systematically omits value from the world – despite the pattern-perceiving acts upon which science is built – and the imagination of the humanities that conjures a profusion of possible culture-relative values. But the naturally religious imagination – which has rather been marginalised for the last few hundred years – insists that value is to be discovered in the world in a way that moves the human heart. Or, perhaps better, between the world and the human heart when they are engaged together in imagination. The religious imagination insists that imagination does not just run wild but that imagination is always faithful or unfaithful to something real, and that we can register the difference in how it moves the heart.

It would be a shame if the Imagination Institute focussed so closely on the psychology of imagination that it missed it cosmic dimension.

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