Adult human beings are chronic sense-makers. Surrounded by dizzying ideas and sensations, we work to make them manageable: we classify things so that when we encounter something new, we can drop it conveniently into a folder in our mental file cabinet. When we’re working on a project, we focus on that exclusively and block out all “distractions.” This narrowing and organizing is necessary, of course; without it, we’d too be confused to ever get anything done. But might such confusion also be an asset?
For years I was an avid spelunker—that is, I liked to explore caves. My experiences visiting them have taught me a valuable lesson about imagination. Let me explain. When you enter a cave, you turn off your everyday sensory expectations; you step into a dark, mysterious world different from the one to which you’re accustomed. But as you spend six, eight, ten hours underground, you adapt to your environment and acquire an alternate way of seeing. When you finally emerge, however, the real shock comes: after hours of blackness, the colorful aboveground world is more vivid than ever. It stimulates your visual receptors. But in that moment you’re too overwhelmed for your usual organizational mechanisms to kick in. Instead of defined objects, you see floating blurs of color and texture. This may be disorienting, but it’s also liberating and, literally, eye-opening! (more…)