“A collection of neuroscientists, philosophers and linguists is converging on the notion that imagination, far from a kind of mental superfluity, sits at the heart of human cognition. It might be the very attribute at which our minds have evolved to excel, and which gives us such powerfully effective cognitive fluidity for navigating our world.”
That quote effectively introduces a fascinating essay at Aeon.co which discusses the evolutionary value of imagination, noting that
“it enables you to suppose, picture and describe not only things you won’t ever have experienced, but also things you never could experience, because they violate the laws that govern the world. You can probably imagine being the size of an ant, or walking on air, or living on the Moon. “
The author goes on to note that imagination seems to have little use as a tool for survival when compared, say, to tool use or walking upright. But,
“[t]he more we understand about the minds of other animals, and the more we try (and fail) to build machines that can ‘think’ like us, the clearer it becomes that imagination is a candidate for our most valuable and most distinctive attribute … evolutionary psychologists might suppose that there’s some reason behind our ability to imagine the impossible. Since the laws of physics weren’t known to our species when our brains were evolving, should it surprise us that imagination wilfully breaks them? A mind that can conceive of possibilities beyond its own experience can prepare for the unexpected; better to overanticipate than to be surprised.
Imagination gives us an extraordinary freedom:
“In our mind’s eye, we can project ourselves ‘anywhere in imaginary spacetime’ – into medieval France, or Middle Earth, or The Matrix. In that inner theatre, any performance can take place. As Theseus said: ‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, / Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends.’”
There is a great deal more in this fascinating article and I recommend it.