Imagination: The Vital Problem Solving Tool

Most of us link imagination and creativity, a writer, musician or artist, anyone who creates something must have imagination to do these things that trigger our emotions and indeed can send our own imaginations soaring into new places.

Although this is true, to create often does involve imagination, making something does require the ability to visualise the end product. The question is, can you be creative without much imagination?

In my work with people with Autism one of the key factors of what is called the Triad of Impairments[1] is Flexibility of Thought. Flexibility of Thought can affect every aspect of an Autistic person’s life. It basically means what it says: That a person without Flexibility of Thought will have a rigid way of thinking and behaving, that they struggle and often cannot change their thought patterns, this has similarities to people who suffer from OCD type disorders where an insistent pattern of thoughts drives their compulsive behaviours, even if those behaviours don’t necessarily appear linked to the thoughts.

In Autism this inflexibility affects how people perceive others, they may expect people to always be the same, they may use routines to ensure changes are minimised, they may lack the ability to visualise an end result in something which could be as simple as making a sandwich or as complex as writing a story.

I always relate this to writing a mystery novel, the standard is to come up with the end (who killed who?) then work towards that, but if you can’t imagine the end how do you take the journey to get there?

Let’s take making a sandwich as an example, something most of us take for granted as a basic and easy life skill. A person without Flexibility of Thought may struggle, they have eaten countless sandwiches and they know that a sandwich contains bread, butter, ham and cheese but given the task of making one they struggle. They may get the ham and put the butter on that, they may not get all the items out of the fridge, they may not know they need a knife to spread the butter or cut the cheese and as far as they know sandwiches are always cut in triangles, because that’s their experience and when someone cuts one into rectangles they do not see it as a sandwich. This is an extreme example but it is true for many people.

One of the clichés of Autism is that all people with the condition are math or IT genius’, some are, some have remarkable mathematical skills, but those same people may find it difficult to make a sandwich, or wash their clothes or interact with people. Flexibility of Thought most definitely relates to a person’s beliefs, sense of humour and opinions. People with Autism often struggle with people who think something different to them. This is called Theory of Mind, the idea that someone else can think differently. Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory[2] is a perfect example of this.

All of those things, making a sandwich, writing a story and meeting new people are problems, and problems need to be solved for us to progress. Not necessarily problems in the sense that something has gone wrong and it needs fixing (although, that is an aspect) But problems as in the puzzle sense, every problem is a jigsaw that requires putting together to see the picture. Think about this, you are hungry, that’s one problem to solve, and you know you need to eat, but what? Second problem, you had a sandwich yesterday, you decide to have another, that’s one problem solved but you don’t have the ham, cheese, bread and butter, third problem, you know you buy these things from shops, you go to the shop, but you need to get dressed, another problem, you need money… you finally get dressed and get your wallet, how much will it cost? You won’t know till you get to the shop (if you have imagination, you can probably picture a rough figure) you go out, where is the shop? You find one, you then need to select which bread (do you need a whole loaf? Wholemeal? White? Maybe a roll? Which ham (honey roasted? Dry cured? Breaded?) Then the butter, (do you want salted or unsalted? Maybe oil spread?) And finally cheese (sliced? Processed? Cheddar? Stilton?) You eventually select the same ones you had on your sandwich yesterday; your mind is boggled by the array of choice. You take your items to the counter, now the next problem, interacting with a new person, they have a strong accent you cannot understand, and they ask you how your day is? They ask you if you want a bag. He tells you the price, you have to count your money, you don’t have enough, and you didn’t think to bring your card with you…

This is a relatively simple day to day interaction, but when you break it down you can see that every single thing we do is a series of small problems to solve. Now think about something more complex, buying a house or car, starting a relationship, doing a job interview… most of us have done one or more of these and have likely experienced the stresses that can be involved and know well the many problems that need solving within any of those. When faced with a problem, most of us can imagine several possible outcomes. You are on your way to work, your train is cancelled, you know there are two buses that will get you there, or you can walk, go home and get your car, or work from home. Each of those will have their own issues, but you can improvise around your normal daily routine. Without imagination you might get stuck at your train being cancelled, and might struggle to think of an alternative.

When supporting people with Autism we use many ways of helping them navigate the world without flexibility of thought. Making lists helps, you might teach someone to write down what to do in case of… I make lists to help myself systemise my tasks, I often have several “things to do” lists which I work through, where I can prioritise. Often the time creating the list helps to save more time later. The reason people make shopping lists is to problem solve before even getting to the shop. Teaching a person alternatives is good, people with Autism often think very literally (without imagination you would!) so helping them in very literal ways is best, words like “if” and “maybe” aren’t very helpful but you can’t eliminate “If’s” and “maybe’s”. You are helping a person to learn the travel route to their new job, you teach them the most efficient way possible, fastest with least interchanges, but you also need to teach them another way in case of that train cancelation, you might write these down, maybe an A and B card with the two ways to travel. A phone reminder or alarm is a simple way to remind someone of something.

The point I am making is not about helping people with Autism, it’s about the rest of us. I have met people who appear to have little imagination, people who get stuck. Like any aspect of using our brains it all comes in degrees, some people are good with technical things, others not, some are good at cooking others not, some are socially very able… you get the idea. Imagination is much the same, some of us are gifted with as much as we want others not so much. I often think that what stops many people from achieving something, making a positive change is a lack of imagination. A change of any sort is another problem to solve. You are stuck in a job you don’t like, you want a new one. You need to consider a huge number of possibilities in changing your situation; you probably need to take some risks. Do you quit then look? What job do you want? Is it about money? If you take a pay cut for a better job, can you afford to live? You’re going to have to meet a huge range of new people, you’re going to have to do an interview, do you get a haircut before your interview or does it look better slightly grown out? And on and on, most of us don’t like change because we can’t imagine the outcome, if you can see an outcome that is positive, preferably several you can get past those potential problems, you can solve your way around the risks. A simple way may be to make a “pros and cons” list, it’s just writing down what is in your imagination. Can you imagine the balance between happiness and less money versus unhappiness and good pay? It’s difficult to go through life being risk averse, but you do need imagination to reduce the impact of risks.

Most day to day tasks, getting out of bed, making breakfast, getting to work are problems but we have completed these tasks so many times that we no longer need to solve them, it’s become automatic, it’s only when faced with an unexpected event that we need to consciously think about it. We still solve these problems every day, it just happens in the back of our heads, in our subconscious. It’s when faced with change that we have to employ our imagination actively, who hasn’t mulled over a choice? Do I quit my job? Do I stay in my job and try to make it better? Do I have poached eggs or scrambled eggs?

The problem for people with little imaginative skills or limited flexibility of thought is that this becomes harder, you may only imagine a small number of outcomes, and you may be pleasantly surprised to encounter one you hadn’t considered, or the opposite.

It’s partially about managing risk; it’s significantly about managing anxiety. Anxiety is one of the trickiest problems to solve, because for many anxious people thinking about something just causes more anxiety but I would certainly suggest people do utilise their imagination to systematically work through potential issues. Another problem with imagination is the “what if” factor, along with the good qualities, the good ideas you may imagine you may also imagine a series of unlikely worst case scenarios. On your way to a job interview, what if I sweat too much and smell, what if I’m late, what if I should have cut my hair… these pessimistic imaginations can create barriers as much as no imagination at all. There’s nothing wrong with considering the negative outcomes, using a “what works and what doesn’t” thinking process is a good way to deal with this. Sometimes having a pessimistic outlook means you are pleasantly surprised by successes, but it may also mean you don’t try something because you expect the worst. Expect nothing and never be disappointed, or expect everything and always be anxious? We want to be somewhere in-between.

I can’t offer ways to become more imaginative, I don’t think that’s necessary. A phrase I have always taken issue with is “thinking outside the box” which basically means, be more imaginative. Some people really do struggle to do this, it doesn’t mean they don’t have something else to offer. I’ve often thought I’m better at conceptual things and others are often better at making them happen, I’m an idea’s person. But having imagination means that I have to restrict it at times, otherwise I’d never get anything done, I have to be systematic with my imagination as much as the person with little imagination needs to be systematic to problem solve.

[1] Established by Lorna Wing and Judith Gould in their work creating a diagnosis for people with Autism

[2] Popular sitcom about a group of socially dysfunctional physicists. Sheldon clearly has Autism even though they never directly call it that.