by Jack Martin Leith

Synthetic imagination and creative imagination

Napoleon Hill’s groundbreaking self-improvement book Think and Grow Rich! was first published in 1937, during the Great Depression. By 2011, more than 70 million copies of the book had been sold worldwide.

While the book’s title and much of the writing concerns increasing income, the author insists that his philosophy can help people succeed in any line of work, to do and be anything they can imagine.

Source: Wikipedia, which cites the following passage:

Riches cannot always be measured in money!

Money and material things are essential for freedom of body and mind, but there are some who will feel that the greatest of all riches can be evaluated only in terms of lasting friendships, harmonious family relationships, sympathy and understanding between business associates, and introspective harmony which brings one peace of mind measurable only in spiritual values!”

Source: Think and Grow Rich!, by Napoleon Hill, 1938 edition published by The Ralston Society, Meriden, Conn., USA | Download the book (pdf; 253pp)
In the Think and Grow Rich!, Napoleon Hill writes about a faculty he calls synthetic imagination, whereby existing ideas are combined to create a new one. (This is approach is now called combinatorial creativity.) He contrasts synthetic imagination with creative imagination, through which truly original ideas are conceived.

“Through the faculty of synthetic imagination, one may arrange old concepts, ideas, or plans into new combinations. This faculty creates nothing. It merely works with the material of experience, education, and observation with which it is fed. It is the faculty used most by the inventor, with the exception of he who draws upon the creative imagination, when he cannot solve his problem through synthetic imagination.

Through the faculty of creative imagination, the finite mind of man has direct communication with Infinite Intelligence. It is the faculty through which ‘hunches’ and ‘inspirations’ are received. It is by this faculty that all basic, or new ideas are handed over to man.”

Source: Think and Grow Rich!, by Napoleon Hill. He is not suggesting that the source of these hunches, inspirations and ideas is God or some other mystical being. In The Sixth Sense, Chapter 13 of Think and Grow Rich!, he writes: “I do not understand the method by which this principle is operated.”

Creative imagination at work

I collect quotes from people, most of them writers and composers, who report experiences of creative imagination in the course of their work.

David Arnold is a British film composer best known for scoring five James Bond films, the 1994 film Stargate, the 1996 film Independence Day, and the cult television series Little Britain, and who was appointed Musical Director for the 2012 Olympic Games and the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
David Arnold
During an appearance on the BBC Breakfast show, he was asked how he goes about composing music. He replied: “You walk around with your aerials out and it gets delivered to you. It’s more about feeling it than thinking about it.”

See also David Arnold: The Hollywood composer on the scores that came to him in dreams, Puff Daddy, and why an MP3 is no match for a live orchestra, on The Independent website.

Visit The Red Hand Files website
The musician, singer and songwriter Nick Cave was asked:

“I’m a songwriter. I’m seriously blocked. Do u have any spare lyrics I can have?”

This is part of Nick Cave’s response:

“My advice to you is to change your basic relationship to songwriting. You are not the ‘Great Creator’ of your songs, you are simply their servant, and the songs will come to you when you have adequately prepared yourself to receive them. They are not inside you, unable to get out; rather, they are outside of you, unable to get in. Songs, in my experience, are attracted to an open, playful and motivated mind. Throw my song away – it isn’t that good anyway – sit down, prepare yourself and write your own damn song. You are a songwriter. You have the entire world to save and very little time to do it. The song will find its way to you. If you don’t write it, someone else will. Is that what you want? If not, get to it.”

View the entire answer on The Red Hand Files website

Marianne Elliott-Said (punk rocker Poly Styrene) said “I just channel my songs like a medium.” Source: The Guardian, 26 April 2011 (view).

Interviewer: What is your recipe for writing such vivid characters?

Quentin Tarantino: This is not in any way a facetious answer to this, but: I am a writer. That’s what I do. It’s a writer’s job not just to write about himself but to look at the rest of humanity and explore it – other people’s way of talking, the phrases they use. And my head is a sponge. I listen to what everyone says, I watch little idiosyncratic behavior, people tell me a joke and I remember it. People tell me an interesting story in their life and I remember it.

Interviewer: And if you don’t remember it?

Quentin Tarantino: Then it was probably not worth remembering. The thing is, it’s in there – whether it’s six months or fifteen years later, when I go and write my new characters, my pen is like an antenna, it gets that information, and all of a sudden these characters come out more or less fully-formed. I don’t write their dialogue, I get them talking to each other.

Source: The Talks.
Novelist Ian Rankin said “I’m not really in control at all of what I’m writing. It’s almost as though before I start writing there’s a shape sitting there that I’ve not seen yet, and when I start to write the novel the shape will reveal itself to me, the novel will decide which way it wants to go.” Source: The Guardian, 26 March 2011.
Lionel Richie was asked “Where do your melodies come from?” He replied: “I wish I knew. It’s like radio stations playing in my head. I’m in the shower singing along to this great song, and then I stop one moment and go, ‘Hey, it’s not on the radio.’ What’s frightening about it is I’m not singing a song, I’m singing along with the song that’s playing in my head.” Source: Deseret News / Parade magazine, 31 January 1993.

When you write a song it’s almost mystical. It feels as if the words just come out and it can be months or even years later you realise: “That’s what was happening.”

Haim | Credit: Raph_PH | CC BY 2.0

Danielle Haim (centre), ‘It shook me to my core’: 50 years of Carole King’s Tapestry, on The Guardian website, 12 February 2021 | Photo credit: Raph_PH | CC BY 2.0
Bryan Ferry was asked by the singer and radio presenter Cerys Matthews about his approach to songwriting. He said “When you get it right, it’s like someone is writing it for you.” Source: BBC Radio 6 Music, 30 December 2012.

“Lyrics emerge in a spontaneous and revelatory fashion, going through many revisions before [Leonard] Cohen is satisfied that he can “get behind” their ideas. You kind of keep your tools sharp by working all the time. We are professionals. You can’t wait for inspiration. I try to do it every day. When something good comes, you have to be prepared to polish it, carve it and chisel it, that’s the work. But the actual intention, what you are really going to be writing about, that’s going to come up from a really authentic place that is deep and over which you exercise no conscious control.”

Source: Leonard Cohen at 80: “The other side of the hill is no time to tarry”, by Neil McCormick, in The Telegraph.

Now-to-new practitioners must be able to activate creative imagination on demand.

Sometimes a derivative idea is all that’s required. Let’s say you work in an office, you’ve been given the job of organising the Christmas party, and you need to choose a suitable venue. There are only so many places where it can be held. The answer is out there somewhere. So you assemble a group of volunteers, brainstorm a list, evaluate the options, vote with sticky dots and choose the one with the most dots. Job done.

But when a breakthrough idea is required, the answer is not out there somewhere. Creative imagination must be activated. One way of achieving this is through the Readiness process. Readiness is the first stage of the Creative Lifecycle, illustrated here:

The Creative Lifecycle
Read more about Readiness work

More quotes about imagination

“The great gulf that divides mankind is not political. It is not the gulf between religions, between religion and science, between science and art. It is not the gulf between rich and poor, between the privileged and the underprivileged. Not the gulf between the practical and the theorist, between those who would work and those who would dream. It is not the gulf between management and those that are managed, between the possessive and the philanthropist, between the saints and the sinners. All of these things are important, yet none so important as men often suppose. They are all streams that flow towards the same sea. All would meet and be reconciled except for one division that is greater by far then these – a division that is far more fundamental. It is the split between those persons who would hang on to old forms and those who wish to see new ones.

Two spirits are at work in the world. It is they who are the cause of the great divide. One would drive the world along at an ever-increasing rate, one would have the world stay precisely where it is. One has its foot hard down on the accelerator, the other is trying hard to apply the brake. One has his eyes fixed firmly on the future, the other has his eyes fixed firmly on the past (he does not realise that the ground that he thinks he is standing on disappeared many years ago).

What is it that has to be preserved? Every form that still equates to needs. What is it that has to be built in addition? New forms that equate to needs that either were not present earlier or that have not been satisfied. What does this have to do with the person who is doing the creating? Everything! At every moment, within himself, the same ceaseless battle must go on. He must destroy every form (ideas, beliefs, visions, attitudes, values etc.) that is no longer needed. He must preserve every form that still equates to needs. He must build new forms within (new ideas, new beliefs, new visions, new attitudes, new values etc.) that equate to needs that either were not present earlier or that have not yet been satisfied. To the extent that he does this within he will be able to do it without. Neither more nor less; it is all very precise.”

Source: Edward Matchett legacy website (defunct).
Edward Matchett

Read about Edward Matchett

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine, and at last you create what you will.”

George Bernard Shaw

“My brain is only a receiver. In the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength and inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know that it exists.”

Source: Nikola Tesla, via Higher Perspective.

“An alternative Bergsonian understanding of the function of the brain is that it acts as a type of “receiver,” somewhat similar to a radio or television set. Drawing upon this second metaphor, Bergson postulates that the neurochemical activity of the brain does not produce consciousness, but rather enables the brain to “tune into” appropriate “frequencies” of preexisting levels of consciousness—that is, the states of consciousness that correspond to waking life, dreaming, deep sleep, trance, as well as, at least potentially, the consciousnesses of other beings. Just as the programs received by a television set are not produced by the electrical activity within the television itself, but rather exist independently of the television set, in the same way, this Bergsonian understanding of the brain/consciousness relationship postulates that consciousness is neither contained within nor produced by the brain.”

Source: G. William Barnard in his book Living Consciousness: The Metaphysical Vision of Henri Bergson, p. xxxiii, citing philosopher Henri Bergson.

“Imagine that you are a Kalahari Bushman and that you stumble upon a transistor radio in the sand. You might pick it up, twiddle the knobs, and suddenly, to your surprise, hear voices streaming out of this strange little box. … Now let’s say you begin a careful, scientific study of what causes the voices. You notice that each time you pull out the green wire, the voices stop. When you put the wire back on its contact, the voices begin again. … You come to a clear conclusion: The voices depend entirely on the integrity of the circuitry. At some point, a young person asks you how some simple loops of electrical signals can engender music and conversations, and you admit that you don’t know—but you insist that your science is about to crack that problem at any moment.”

Source: Incognito, by David Eagleman, quoted in Your Brain Might be a Radio, by Jeffrey Kripal, in The Chronicle Review and republished in Utne Reader. David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and writer at Baylor College of Medicine, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law.

“Imagination lets a person know what could exist but doesn’t now exist. Imagination lets a person know what could be invented. Imagination lets a person know that, despite claims to the contrary, the future is open and unwritten. Imagination lets a person know that he can think thoughts that have never been thought before. The journey of individual liberation is, therefore, much more than discovering what already exists in one’s own mind.”

Source: The individual is not the group, by Jon Rappoport.

“All human accomplishment has the same origin, identically. Imagination is a force of nature. Is this not enough to make a person full of ecstasy? Imagination, imagination, imagination. It converts to actual. It sustains, it alters, it redeems!”

Saul Bellow, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts.

Further reading

Creative Action: The Making of Meaning in a Complex World, by Edward Matchett | Facsimile reprint of the original edition; hardback | First Published: 1975 by Turnstone Books | £20.00 from Systematic Innovation

Inner creative power and Outer creative power, by Ken Ferlic.

Think and Grow Rich!, by Napoleon Hill. Free download of entire book (pdf; 253pp)