Sometimes ideas for posts arrive via a circuitous route and this is an example. Throughout my online community there has been a recent flurry a communication around the current political landscape in the US. Specifically relating to how people are trying to cope with their fears of what ‘might be’.

Through this network I was introduced to the work of Byron Katie and an approach she has developed called The Work. The Work is focused on supporting people to develop a deeper understanding of what is causing them hurt. It introduces exercises to help reframe the situation, bring a different perspective and examine the underlying cause. The link I was given, which I am sharing here, was to her work with women anxious about how the election of Donald Trump will influence their lives. An aspect of this approach is grounded in exploring the ways in which our imagination can conflate a situation and move us away from the actual reality.

I haven’t dived deeply into this approach but the discussion around the role of imagination caught my attention. How do things we have experienced in the past shape what we imagine our future to be? How do things we are exposed to via, for example, the media inform our imagination about what our future might be?

Reading around this led me to discover the work of Prof. Molly Andrews and this podcast (14 minutes long) of an interview with her from the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM). The interview provides an overview of her book Narrative Imagination and Everyday Life. The publication focuses on the role of imagination in ageing, education and politics all areas of interest to health professionals and researchers,

Prof. Andrew’s work is has drawn upon the work of Martha Nussbaum who described narrative imagination as:

“understanding the world from the point of view of the other until we see the meaning of an action as the person intended it in the context of that person’s history and social world”. 

If you are a qualitative researcher this should resonate strongly with you.

Narrative imagination and research

Whilst the book is not focused specifically on research methods some interesting points are raised in the podcast about the role of imagination in the research process.

“One of the key challenges in my work, which often involved In-depth interviews with people who have very different lives experiences to me, is, as a researcher, that of putting yourself in their framework of meaning and trying to understand life from their perspective.

In a sense here it is a challenge of belief. When someone tells you something which is so wildly different from your own experiences and from your own knowledge of life how is it that you process that?

I think that one of the temptations, as researchers, is to remake what we hear to fit our own expectations. So the challenge then is to try to think from what perspective is this seemingly impossible thing believable and how does that impact on the different stages of our research.”

Prof. Andrews suggests that whilst there has been increased focus on narrative research less attention has been paid to the imagination. How as researchers do we tap into our imagination to make sense of narratives when they are outside of our scope of experience? What has shaped our imagination to enable us to move beyond that which may seem unbelievable?

“If you are going to move beyond the “real’ in people’s lives and look at how people come to envision alternative possibilities then you can’t help but think about the imagination. And here I don’t really mean imagination as it’s often used as something which is juxtaposed to reason but rather imagination which is very much connected to reason, imagination that is part of daily life.”

Imagination in clinical practice

There are also points in the podcast of relevance to clinical practice and here I was prompted to reflect on how imagination is used to inform a person’s thinking around their future self.

“The role of stories in connecting the real to the not yet real, how people construct the stories of their lives and how they can use that as a transformative experience. How the inability to do that can block people’s ability to move beyond the circumstances which are in their lives”

This comment caused me to reflect on my work with people with long term conditions. Their imagined future at the time of diagnosis and the factors which influenced this. How a person’s ability to imagine their future might influence their engagement with healthcare or self-management. How often do we, as health professionals, explore a person’s imagined future and support them, if required, to imagine an alternative narrative? Is this territory that we enter?

The pod casts also provides interesting insights into the impact of narrative imagination in our ability to imagine our future self and how President Obama drew of narrative to create storytelling enclaves in support of Obama Care.

So lots of thought provoking ideas if you have 14 minutes to listen and to reflect on the influence of imagination in your practice or research.

Imagination helps us to thinking not only about the lives that we live but the lives that we might lead.