“I hadn’t yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one.”
—Baudolino, Umberto Eco
I recall once hearing a story about a concert pianist who fought in the trenches in World War I. He was out there for several years and never once had access to a piano. Nevertheless, every day he found a couple of hours to practice the pieces he had learned and memorized up until that point in his life – entirely in his head. When the war finally ended and he sat down at his piano again, he was noticeably better than when he had left. I couldn’t find a reference to that story when I went looking for it as I started writing this post, but I did find a similar one about a prisoner who learned to play the piano when he only had access to a piano for an hour each week. He made a “piano” out of a recycled piece of cardboard and practiced on that for the rest of the week.
So here’s a question: is this real practicing that the pianists in these stories are doing? They’re not using real pianos, for any normal definition of a real piano, and they’re not actually producing any sound. Not many people would bother learning to play a cardboard piano if they could never play a real piano (what would be the point?). But they’re getting definitely and measurably better at what they’re practicing, which certainly sounds like it has to be practicing to me.
As a matter of fact, it seems like the act of pushing the keys on a physical piano and hearing the sound come out is secondary. The physical piano is the part that isn’t important. If you’re committed enough to your practice and you work hard enough, you can practice on a cardboard piano, or in your head, and get better at playing piano. Meanwhile millions of people every day sit at real pianos which cost thousands of times what a cardboard piano does, play for an hour without applying much effort or using focused practice techniques, and learn practically nothing at all. What really makes you good at playing the piano is repeating the necessary skills in your head. Everything else is just a way of exercising those skills in your head.
Greta and I have been doing quite a bit of work on possession and co-fronting over the past month, and it’s made us think a lot about exactly what the role of the physical in human relationships is. Most people, for instance, like to hug their close friends. That’s a very physical gesture, which on the surface cannot be replicated without two bodies involved – yet most people can get essentially the same effects with their tulpas without a whole lot of difficulty. What gives?
I’d like to suggest that the real part of the experience is the state of mutual comfort and togetherness expressed by the action of hugging. The physical action, as in the case of practicing the piano, is the most obvious and common way of creating that mental state, but certainly not the only way. Note that I’m not claiming that the physical act here is meaningless or random; there is obvious symbolism involved, for one. Beyond that, close physical contact presumably aids in communication of ideas and feelings between bodies in various ways, many of them subconscious, that are otherwise very difficult. But again, there are other ways of creating the same effect; in the case of tulpas, we can shortcut the physical channels and share those thoughts directly. Adding the imagination of a physical hug (or actually physically holding something and projecting Greta onto that) allows me to start that process in a way my mind is already familiar with.
I think it follows that it would be possible, with some practice, for the two of us to circumvent the imagined-situation part entirely and still feel the same way. But then there’s really not a lot of point; imagining the physical contact works, it works very well, and there’s no reason we need to get away from it and expend a whole lot of effort on finding another way to do it.
To return to the question in the first half of this post: if Greta and I hug, is that a real hug? Obviously there’s nothing physical happening between us. But the essential elements of emotional connection are there, and in the case of the piano anecdote we concluded that the real part of practicing is the part that happens in the player’s head, not the physical, key-pressing, note-hearing part. It seems to us that the same thing applies here. In both cases, the experience is missing something and is a little less rich, unless perhaps we can generate an incredibly complete and vivid sensory experience in our head on demand – but because the critical part is outside of the physical realm, the experience is good enough that in practice most of the time we hardly even notice the difference.
That’s the power of “imagination”: so much more than we usually realize depends entirely on our consciousness, not the physical world. That consciousness can be under the control of our imagination, and from there it spreads quickly to the “real” world.