The Power of Imagination to Shift Culture & Consciousness

The Power of Imagination to Shift Culture & Consciousness

By Dana Lynne Andersen MA


Imagination and the Body

We’ve learned something extraordinary.  Our body responds as much to the images inside our heads as to the images in the world.  In a convergence of insight across disciplines that include athletics, medicine, psychology and sociology, the power of imagination is revealed to significantly affect the human body- its health, vitality and performance.  Athletic performances improve dramatically with merely imagined practice.  An ‘anticipatory image’ of a stressful event can raise one’s blood pressure as much as the event itself. The stress response of the body does not distinguish between the actual event and the vividly imagined event. Our brain informs our body and together they react accordingly. While positive images can help the body to heal, negative images can erode health, depressing immune function and other neurochemical processes. 

The Placebo Effect

            This is made vividly clear in the well-documented ‘Placebo Effect’. A placebo is a medicine that is presented as an efficacious remedy, but is actually inert. It is pharmacologically inactive.  It works only if you believe it will. The Placebo effect is used in clinical trials as the control, yet the Placebo response rate can rival or exceed the effectiveness of whatever drug is being tested. Many conventional drugs fare only slightly better, or no better, than the results of their Placebo imitations. Prozac, for instance, is proven to be no more effective than a sugar pill in the treatment of depression- yet the sugar pill has no side effects. (Unless you believe it does- because the placebo effect can also produce the anticipated unwanted side effects of whatever drug they masquerade!)  Of course drugs like Prozac generate billions of dollars for the pharmaceutical industry, while sugar pills are notably less profitable.[1] But perhaps more importantly, the mystery of the placebo effect doesn’t fit the reigning paradigm.  Its tremendous power is not to be found in its material ingredients, but in the mind of its user.  

The Nocebo Effect

image by visual cortexThe placebo has a pole in the ‘Nocebo Effect’.  Patients die on schedule.  Patients given dire diagnosis live them out even when they are made in error.  As instantly as faith can heal, fear can harm.  Dr. Deepak Chopra tells of a colleague who is handed an X-ray showing a black spot on the lungs.  Fully understanding his dire predicament, he put his affairs in order and died 3 weeks later.  When they are cleaning out his office they found an x-ray taken 20 years earlier with the same black spot – not a whit larger after 20 years.  The Placebo and Nocebo reveal that imagined realities are as real to our mind and body as actual experience.   Our bodies respond to how emotionally charged images and narratives make us feel. And this affects us all the way down to the cellular, molecular and quantum levels.  The whirling atoms have no story, they have energy. The sparkling realms of vibrating molecules await the flow of information.  Cellular receptors await the elixir of emotion. The bones, muscles and tissues of our body are pulsating in readiness to receive the intelligence that will instruct their function.  We provide this information through the stories we tell ourselves- triggered and directed by our own imaginations.  

Imagination and Collective Consciousness

“The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive.”    Historian Fred Polak

 The power of imagery is not only applicable to the health of our individual minds and bodies; it is also true for the health of the body politic. A decay in cultural imagination corresponds to deterioration in the health of a culture. “Where there is no vision, the people perish”[2]  Despair and apathy serve entrenched interests;

“ Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in Western popular culture, but, in reality, cynicism in average people is the attitude exactly most likely to conform to the desires of the powerful – cynicism is obedience. Optimism, by contrast, especially optimism which is neither foolish nor silent, can be revolutionary. Where no one believes in a better future, despair is a logical choice, and people in despair almost never change anything. Where no one believes a better solution is possible, those benefiting from the continuation of a problem are safe.” Alex Steffen

It is not naïve to see the light.  “Naivety and cynicism are opposite ends of a defense against life. They are both moves that deny the soul- naivety by refusing to see the depth dimension that is given by darkness, and cynicism by refusing to see the redeeming and transfiguring power of the light”[3]  Hope and optimism can be revolutionary. A culture’s imagination of the future not only acts as a barometer- it becomes self-fulfilling.  It is not an exaggeration to say that our capacity to vividly imagine a POSSIBLE future makes it a more PROBABLE future.

New Stories for a New World

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” – Muriel Rukeyser

“Never before has the power of human storytelling been so important to the fate of all life on this planet…the story attracts the molecules of its manifestation.”  Carolyn Casey

“To the empowering principle that people can withhold legitimacy, and thus change the world, we now add another. By deliberately changing the internal image of reality, people can change the world.” [4]  Willis Harmon

The stories we tell ourselves create the world we experience. This recognition invites ‘a future creating activism’. How we use our imagination can uplift or erode the future of humanity. Human beings are ‘heliotropic’. As plants grow toward the light of the sun, people grow toward the positive images set before them.[5]  What are the seed crystals of the new world?  What stories, myths, images and metaphors will evoke the upward evolution of humanity; “new art forms of a society in which humanity lives, not innocently in nature nor confidently in cities, but apocalyptically in a civilization cracking up to the universe.”[6]

 Our current images of the future are often dark cyber futures, post-apocalyptic nightmares, despairing futures of reversion and degeneration. How are these images affecting the body of our culture? What are the consequences to our pervasive emotional states, our deep-seated motivations, our sense of hope or futility?  What is the moral responsibility of the artist as writer, scriptwriter, filmmaker, storyteller, painter, poet or image-maker?  Where are the images that come from a future worth living?  When we begin to imagine these new realities we will shift the rudder of our collective course with the magnetism of positive potentials. 

“Today it is impossible to imagine the magnitude of the climate crisis that faced humankind just 50 short year ago….”so begins a documentary from the future, explaining how global warming was successfully averted.  “Climate Counts: A Crisis Averted” is a 4 minute video report from the year 2056 describing in retrospect how the planet was saved.

Scientists and activists reflect nostalgically on our current time as the turning point when the whole world galvanized to shift toward renewable energy and sustainability. We see McDonalds pioneering “McFuel’s” –a chain of gas stations that serves up the used vegetable oil from their restaurants.  We see Martha Stewart’s line of pastel solar panels as environmental ideas become mainstream.[7]

The video was a foray into the future, using imagination to impregnate possibility.  The particular ideas themselves are not as important as the work of opening our minds to question, consider, wonder, and ultimately ‘Imagineer’ futures that make a lot more sense. 


Seeds of A New Civilization

“You never change something by fighting the existing reality.  To change something build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” Buckminster Fuller

“Every human transformation has rested on a new metaphysical and ideological base; or rather, upon deeper stirrings and intuitions whose rationalized expression takes the form of a new picture of the cosmos and the nature of man.[8]   Lewis Mumford

We are called to give substance to emerging visions that kindle the wildfires of imagination.  It is time to plant many seeds of vibrant new worlds- new stories, new archetypal images, new myths and metaphors, new perspectives and paradigms.  Not every seed is fertile and that is not important.  Our audacious ideas are tools for bushwhacking into a more expanded collective consciousness.  

Each ‘picturing’ sends an electrical arc of vision across the abyss.  First slowly, and then suddenly, the magnetism is shifted.  Who knows which particle will precipitate a critical mass. We can’t predict when which particle will arrive where. But we can know with certainty that where the wave flows, the particle goes. Every time we imagine a plausible way through the challenges we are blazing trails to that future. Every time we generate a vividly inspiring vision of what it’s like to be on the other side of the crisis we are building the bridge that takes us there.

In 2019 we performed a multi-media performance piece for a conference on climate change and consciousness[9] at the Findhorn Community in Scotland. In a mythopoetic narrative of ritual theater we told the story of the soul’s journey through tumultuous times. ‘Ancient Future; Seeds of a New Civilization”  began with the ‘end of the world’, enacted in a staged evacuation that brought our audience to the refuge of the theater.  Here we followed a journey through grief and despair to discover the seeds of a new civilization.  We sent our electric arc of vision across the chasm, imagining beyond the crisis.

This is our work. All of us. The hope we need does not pretend that we will avoid the dissolution of the world we have known, but rather envisions a new world beyond it. Cracking open in the fires of destruction, germinating in the dark soil; NOW is the time to seed the field of humanities collective consciousness.  NOW is the time to ignite the tremendous power of our collective imagination and turn our shimmering possibilities into shining new worlds.








Artwork by Dana Lynne Andersen


See also:

Short Video: The Making of Ancient Future

Article: “The Spirit of rEVOLUTION”

[1] American Cancer Society website discussing the placebo effect

[2] Proverbs 29:18  Bible Old Testament King James Version

[3] Swami Kriyananda in Hope for a Better World

[4] Willis Harman  in Global Mind Change 1998  p. 1

[5] David Cooperrider

[6] William Irwin Thompson

[7]  Link (Debuted in 2005, the film had an uncanny prediction of the future candidacies of Barack Obama and John McCain, undreamt at the time.)

[8] Lewis Mumford in The Transformation Man (1956)

[9] Climate Change and Consciousness; An International Conference, Findhorn Scotland April 2019  Link