John Malouff | No clowning around: on managing the imagination

I recently read It by Stephen King. This 1986 novel describes a murderous monster that often takes the appearance of a clown. The plot includes two titanic clashes between good and evil.

I admire Stephen King for his imagination. Even my nightmares are not as wild as his horror stories.

I read the book because I recently met two adults who developed clown phobia after watching a 1990 It mini-series as children. Their imagination made the monstrous clown seem real.

King’s imagination allowed him to write a bestselling novel that led to that mini-series, a 2017 movie, and an upcoming 2019 sequel.

The 2017 movie was the highest grossing horror movie of all time. King raked in money at every step. Imagination can pay!

The imagination that led these two individuals to fear and actively avoid clowns did not pay.

I would guess that King’s It has led to many individuals needlessly fearing clowns.  

Imagination can be powerful – for good or ill. When we imagine something, we react almost as if we are dealing with reality.

One of the most amazing facts I have learned as a psychologist is that imagination can be a powerful treatment for phobias.

Usually I treat a phobic client with gradual exposure to the feared object or situation.

However, if real exposure is difficult, I use imaginal exposure. In that, the client imagines being in the feared situation, such as in a plane that is landing.

Studies have shown imaginal exposure is almost as effective as exposure in real life.

You can see the power of imagination for yourself. The next time you are about to speak to a group of people, imagine giving the presentation in one of these situations: 1) You speak fluidly and capture the interest of everyone present; 2) you speak haltingly and lose the interest of everyone. 

Check how you feel after you complete your imagination experiment. Another way you can test the power of imagination is to listen carefully to someone telling you a heartfelt story, e.g., about a romance gone wrong, or a great accomplishment. Then imagine being that person and going through that experience.

Do you feel emotions as your imagination operates? Do you understand the person better? You are using your imagination to go down Empathy Lane.  

Today, I imagined myself becoming a great writer – another Hemingway. What’s in your imagined world?  

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England.