Ideas for a brighter future for all

Reframing the thought ­experiment

Revolution in the head

It was only recently that I learnt about aphantasia, a condition in which people cannot conjure up or visualise mental imagery. A friend explained that if she asked her children to imagine seeing an apple, they could describe exactly what they saw in their mind’s eye. She, on the other hand, could think about an apple, but could not bring an image – of an apple purchased, an apple eaten, an apple in a picture – to mind. 

As someone who’s spent some time conjuring imaginary characters, places and events into being through fiction, not to mention trying to evoke passable versions of the real world in essays and journalism, this felt like a fascinating and fearsome proposition. In the current world, with its aspects of physical distance, separation and pre-industrial mobility, it presents as even more precarious.

I know it grabbed me as a concept because I find myself testing my internal visual acuity, springing small challenges on my own mind’s eye: can I picture this person? Can I picture this object? Can I recall and see this place, this painting, this creature? Tonight, I throw myself the challenge of Thomas More, author, lawyer, philosopher, executed in 1535 and canonised 400 years later.

Sir Thomas More

And there he is, conjured up as Hans Holbein painted him in 1527: strong features, expensive trimmings, velvets and furs; a darkly direct gaze. I can conjure, too, the version created by Hilary Mantel to navigate hundreds of rich pages with Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall.

What’s this thought experiment about? It’s about imagination. It’s about the series of steps that links Thomas More to me here now – through history, through creativity, through the steps that his creations in his world have made and still make possible in mine, centuries later. Because tonight, I’m conjuring – through his image – the multitudinous atlas he made possible when he created a name for one perfect, unattainable nowhere. 


"Because tonight, I’m conjuring – through his image – the multitudinous atlas he made possible when he created a name for one perfect, unattainable nowhere.  Utopia."

The starting point of Sir Thomas More’s imagination matters here, as the progenitor of subsequent utopian creations. And Hilary Mantel’s imagination matters too because she returns More to the imaginative vocabulary, the imaginative populace of all her readers’ minds. 

We can orient ourselves differently in this world – where we are and where we might be – by building out from each other’s imaginations. We need the place Thomas More imagined. We need the Thomas More Hilary Mantel imagined. We need the many disparate imaginations of each other, and then each of us can create new dot-points of no-places – or good-places – afterwards.

Remaking, transforming, reshaping and interpreting our own worlds, one train of thought at a time. 

Please read the rest of the article ‘Reframing the thought experiment‘ at Griffith Review


Dr Ashley HayAshley Hay is a former literary editor of The Bulletin, and a prize-winning author who has published three novels and four books of narrative non-fiction.

Her work has won several awards, including the 2013 Colin Roderick Prize and the People’s Choice Award in the 2014 NSW Premier’s Prize. She has also been longlisted for the Miles Franklin and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and shortlisted for prizes including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Kibble. In 2014, she edited the anthology Best Australian Science Writing.

She is the editor of Griffith Review.


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