We have three house cats: Elvis, Gracie, and Oscar. Of the three, only Elvis loves to play alone. He plays with people and the other cats, too, but the other cats don’t play alone.
Watching Elvis play, it is clear that he has imagination. He tosses his stuffed mouse in the air, loses it behind himself, and then starts swatting at nothing in front of him as if that’s the mouse. Then he turns around, finds it, and tosses it into the air before running away at high speed. That is imagination, and so imagination is not what sets us apart from animals. By “sets us apart” I mean nothing more than imagination is not a quality unique to humans. It is a shared trait.
And yet animals are unimpressed by fine arts. They have not built the bomb. They don’t read or work out math problems. It’s easy to surmise that logic, reason, and creative passion are our gifts, but animals work out logical solutions to their needs and wants, too. Some have them built in as instinct or reflexive action. They have beauty built-in as well—some in appearance; others in the homes they create, and so forth.
Real Triggers To The Unreal
Once we notice an animal has imagination, we may also notice something else: imagination can be triggered. In the case of Elvis on this day, a big meal triggered it. Rather, it triggered a joyful burst of energy that took form as play. Play, whether alone or with others, always involves imagination. Sticking with cats as our example, when they play with each other it is usually a wrestling match or a game of hide and seek. If not for imagination, they would simply be fighting and stalking each other. But the ingredient of imagination turns their interaction to interplay. To play. To joyful lessons that hone their hunting and fighting skills.
Let us return to triggers. If imagination is a shared trait, then are triggers also shared? Yes, they are. As an adult, something “puts you in the mood” for wild imagination. It can be a whole host of things from deep discussion to seeing an old friend or relative with whom you have a playful bond. It can be playing with children. It can be drinking a cup of coffee, sitting outdoors in the forest or alone on the toilet. Watch for your personal triggers and see if there are few or many.
Then think about other types of traits we often assume are uniquely human. Are they? Are there any traits that are not shared with the animal nations?
Perhaps there is one buried beneath the pile of shared traits we assumed were also uniquely ours. Perhaps we buried it there so that we would not discover it. Perhaps we are afraid of our true nature.
Make that two traits.