The Limits to Our Imagination

Is there a limit to what we can imagine? We’ve been tackling this issue in our Advanced Theory class recently and it’s been a particularly interesting topic to address.


It seems a strange question to ask, “what are the limits to imagination?” After all, the imagination is seemingly free to wander where it may. However, there are many invisible blinders that we either cannot see or comprehend that impose limits to the imagination’s freedom.


Our imagination is limited by the words we use to both speak and think. When I took Spanish in high school, I distinctly remember having a dream where everyone was speaking in Spanish. At the time I was elated about the dream. It felt like a rite of passage and it gave me the feeling that I was actually learning. But looking back, I have to ask — was the dream actually in Spanish? I know the nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. were Spanish for sure but was the syntax correct? Or was the language spoken in the dream Spanish jibberish?

One of my favorite quotes comes from George Bernard Shaw:

“The sinlge biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

We imagine that the vision in our brain which we communicate with words, gestures, and symbols perfectly translates to another person. This, of course, is a fallacy of our device. It’s comfortable to believe we are understood perfectly but anyone who’s played a game of Telephone knows this is never the case.

Steve Rathje writes about how metaphors are more pervasive in our culture than we generally acknowledge. We not only use metaphors to relate to external phenomena but think in metaphors as well which affects the output of our thoughts. In his remarks at the dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center in San Antonio, JFK famously said:

“America has tossed its cap of the wall of space.”

To think of space as a wall is absurd, especially since that wall is assumed to be low enough to toss something over. The metaphor he evoked allowed his audience to view space not as the vast expanse in which we exist, but a hurdle to a new era of science and exploration.

The way we communicate also has an effect on the way we view topics closer to home. Hugh Dubberly writes about how new doctors are limited by the language in the health care field.

“The way we usually think about health today is bound up in the language of our health care system.”

Interestingly enough there is a metaphor in the quote above: our thoughts are bound in language. Health care is a field with huge amounts of asymmetric information. Because of this, patients tend to believe the doctor is always right. Dubberly proposes that the doctor-patient relationship should be a two-way learning experience instead of the current, traditional paradigm where doctors wield all the control.

“The System”

Systems that exist, that we are born into and inherit from our predecessors, place limits on what we can imagine. It’s human nature to follow the herd. This is not true for all, but certainly it is for some portion of the population.

The health care field provides examples of this type of limitation as well. April Starr and Byron Good write about the medical field and the doctor-patient relationship. Byron Good shares a story about a medical student who was chastised by a superior for “telling the wrong story” about a patient. The superior was frustrated that the student didn’t ‘get to the point’ fast enough, only looking for a very short synopsis of the patient’s status. Here the system is limiting the way that this particular student thinks about people. More specifically, the student is being trained to view patients as an object rather than a social/emotional being.

Another example of a system limiting our imagination is the human body itself. Ray Kurzweil tells us that the brain has a limit to the number of computations it can complete per unit of time. He believes that one day we will merge with technology in a Singularity that will forever change the course of humankind. Reading Kurzweil’s writing evoked images of Captain Pickard when he was assimilated by the Borg (a reference for fellow Star Trek nerds).



We are limited by our past experiences. As humans, we are products of our past experiences and use that knowledge for the everyday life decisions we face.

For designers, I believe it is particularly important to embrace methods that allow for the defamiliarization of things we usually take for granted. This is the point of Genevieve Bell’s essay, “Making by Making Strange: Defamiliarization and the Design of Domestic Technologies.” She states:

“The challenge for researchers and designers is to see beyond the naturalizing of devices and experiences to their cultural roots.”

Part of the reason this is so difficult is due to the nature of culture. When culture changes, it is often so subtle that we don’t realize it. We generally don’t view culture as something that changes quickly, especially in comparison to the speed at which technology has evolved in our lifetime. This is a subject that Tom Vanderbilt addresses. We can see concrete examples of innovation and technological leaps and therefore extrapolate what form future innovation may take. However, when we do this type of forecasting, we often insert our current culture into that scenario and ignore how that innovation will affect our society.

Predicting who we will be is harder than predicting what we will be able to do.”

My Thoughts

I agree with many scholars that there are limits to our imagination, especially as it pertains to what we can design. One limit that stands out to me is our economic system. Viability is king. If a project doesn’t have a positive ROI, there’s almost no chance it will be undertaken. This is potentially problematic for systems that have had round after round of technological bandaids appended to “fix” problems within that system. A full redesign may be the best course of action in the long-run, but businesses tend to focus on short-term gains.

Many of the things limiting our imagination are unknown. When we identify a limit, we could begin finding a way to exceed it. An example of this from above is Genevieve Bell’s call to defamiliarize ourselves with everyday objects and experiences. We acknowledge that limit, and we find ways to break it. Therefore, living life with a focus on reflection and the experiences of others is the best way to recognize limitations and free our imaginations from their bounds.