In my grandparents’ dining room, there was a painting of an unassuming and impossibly elegant woman dressed in a red velvet jacket. The Woman in Red, as we liked to call her, greeted us on Friday nights for our weekly dinners. She was a part of our family, or at the very least, a part of our familial landscape. So when the work of William Merit Chase, the artist who brought this woman—our woman—to life, was showcased in a special exhibition, I was anxious to see what else his artistry brought into this world. When I went, interestingly, it wasn’t his work on the dozens of canvases displayed across several rooms that captured my attention, but rather what I learned about his artistic process and teaching techniques. The curator explained that Chase would often end tours of his lush studio by pointing in the direction of a blank canvas. He would say, “This is my masterpiece, my unfinished work.”
Chase passed this message to his students—that the best is yet to come, and the imagination is the best path to realizing that potential. And with students like Georgia O’Keefe and Joseph Stella, among others, imagine what power his influence had, as he taught these artistic luminaries how to access their imagination and use it to develop their own voice on the canvas.
I’ve learned from research (and shared with you) how using the imagination can help us refocus attention on what is possible, thrusting us out of our stuck place and forward toward our goals. But standing in that gallery, I found myself questioning, how can imagination tap into my creativity? I’m no painter, but the idea that there is something inside me that, if accessed, could help me better express my voice on my personal or professional “canvas,” really intrigued me. Research was needed. After a few months of digging, I am happy to report that the imagination is one of our most easily accessible yet woefully untapped powers!
Scientific studies show that our thoughts, and especially our imagination, affect our actions and ultimately, what we achieve. The brain and body have a beautiful symbiotic relationship, thanks to a vast and complicated network of cells running from the brain to the body and back to the brain. This network binds them. If the brain is fed positive thoughts, the body generates positive actions. Of course, the opposite is true as well. This oversimplification of how the body works does not diminish the truth in this principle. In fact, recent studies have shown that, to some extent, our thoughts even change the state of our brain.
But one Harvard study on the power of the imagination made me stop in my tracks. Three groups of people who could not play the piano were studied. The first group was paired with a teacher who gave them intensive lessons for five days. The second group was placed in a room with a piano, but told to do nothing. The final group was also placed in a room with a piano. Although they, like the others, had never played the instrument, they were instructed not to play the piano, but instead to imagine playing it. At the end of the five-day study, the first group could play at a rudimentary level, the second group could not play at all, and the third group could play about as well as the first group. It’s astonishing! Without ever playing the instrument, the third group could play. Even more interesting is that the changes in the areas of the brain that control finger movement were identical in the first and third group.
So it’s that process of imagining accomplishing something that may lead us down the right path. I can only imagine the techniques that Chase used to bolster the imagination of his students. I would like to think he asked his students to imagine what they envisioned on their canvas. And in doing so, he helped them use that image to inspire and direct their brush strokes. In the same way, I would like to believe that imagining how to accomplish an endeavor, whether it be an artistic project or a scientific or business problem, starts us on the right path to painting our own canvas. At least we know, from the Harvard study and others, that starting with our imagination has potential far beyond what we’d expect.
This week, get daydreaming. Where do you want to go? What do you want to be? To help spur your imagination, take a look at this week’s challenge, “Forget Logic! Free Your Mind.”
Make A Change Today,