beerProfessor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

A few years ago, one of Boston’s most prominent psychiatrists lived in my neighborhood. At a block party, I asked him if he specialized in any particular sort of patient.

“I take only the patients that other psychiatrists have given up on,” he said.

“Do they tend toward any particular line of work?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied, “most of them are professors at MIT or Harvard.”

He went on to say that the imagination involved in creativity is not much different from the hallucination involved in delusions; both involve thinking about a world that doesn’t exist.

Even ordinary common sense seems to involve a lot of imagination. A few days ago, a friend of mine, a cabinetmaker, told me not to wear gloves when I use my table saw. I asked him why. He said a glove could get caught in the blade.

That was all it took. No further explanation was needed because I could imagine what would follow. It didn’t feel like I was doing any sort of syllogistic reasoning; it felt like I was visually witnessing a grisly event of a sort no one ever told me about before.

I think one reason for slow progress in my field, Artificial Intelligence, is that we have failed to recognize the role of imagination in ordinary thinking. Somehow, our language system seems able to conjure up imagined events, and we use our perceptual apparatus to look at those imagined events as if they were real.

Maybe that’s why controversies erupt, especially when constraining facts are incomplete, as they were when Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. up the street. Consistent with what I’ve read, I can imagine a scene in which Professor Gates was wrong, and I can imagine another in which Sergeant Crowley was wrong, and, as I prefer, I can imagine yet another in which an unfortunate accident of nature occurred, like a sudden downpour at an outdoor wedding.