Our Imagination Deficit

The biggest problem facing American cities is a lack of imagination, and it is rooted in a clinical diagnosis.

The human brain is well suited to two basic tasks: raw survival and creative problem solving.

Raw survival is mediated by the amygdala, a small almond-shaped segment of the early human brain. The amygdala well suited at playing zero-sum games (ones where there can be only one winner and one loser).

Our frontal cortex, by contrast, is relatively new, and is the center of imaginative and creative thinking.

It turns out that prolonged stress diminishes the function of the frontal cortex and shifts more brain function to the amygdala.

Neuroscientist Bruce McEwen coined the phrase “allostatic load” to characterize the condition of being under continual stress – particularly stress for survival. Being in this state of hyperarousal floods the body with adrenalin and cortisol, and it can be quite energizing.

Unfortunately it has the effect of diminishing the function of our frontal cortex, and enhancing the fight-or-flight impulses mediated by the amygdala.

Many city leaders in the United States have been raised and trained under conditions of allostatic load. This kind of prolonged stress causes people to make defensive, pragmatic choices rather than perform the kind of long-term, imaginative thinking required for good leadership.

“Failure of Imagination”

The 9/11 Commission Report concluded that the reason that the September 11, 2001 attacks were not prevented was because of a “failure of imagination.”

Is it surprising that the government of the United States, embroiled as it was in name-calling and a plethora of stop-the-other-guy tactics, failed to imagine the possibility of a motivated terrorist organization next?

How imaginative can the country be when our primary concern is beating out the other party? Our amygdalas have been in charge when our frontal cortexes should be front-and-center.


When I hear government officials, including our current Mayor, talk about how schools, services, and safety are all that people want, I hear allostatic load talking. It favors expedient answers, not the best answers. The best answers would be those that used creative problem solving to realize a new future that few dare envision.

Competent services efficiently delivered are not enough. We need imagination. We need creativity and the power of a dream state. We need politicians and press that have the ability to look beyond the day-to-day bickering of politics and into what it means to be an effective city on planet Earth in the year 2020.

To do otherwise is to sell our city short. I don’t know about you, but I want my leaders to use their whole brains, not just their flight-or-flight reflexes.

You can read more about allostatic load in this article, “Is the life you’re living worth the price you’re paying to live it?” in Harvard Business Review, as recommended to me by my friend Shuchi Rana.


#1 Jcutonilli on 07.08.11 at 10:04 am

We don’t have an imagination deficit, we have a perception of reality problem. 

Prior to 9/11 we knew about al Qaeda and could find someone that imagined a terrorist flying a plane into a building. The perception was that al Qaeda was not a big deal and flying a plane into a building was not a realistic situation.

I can imagine a utopian Baltimore and I am sure most politicians can imagine one also. The reality is that we cannot afford a utopian city. When politicians stand up and talk about how schools, services, and safety are all that people want, they are really talking about their perception of what people want. If they correctly perceive what people want, they will most likely be reelected.

When you find failure, you will most likely find that the perception of reality differs from the actual reality of the situation. While I agree that our brains have a lot to do with our perceptions of reality, I am not sure that raw survival and creative problem solving are the two tasks its suited for.


#2 Kate Bladow on 07.08.11 at 3:06 pm

I wasn’t aware of the science, but this is something I’ve noticed and thought about–particularly about children & education and people who are homeless & long-term planning. When you have so much stress going on about finding the day-to-day essentials (food, housing, safety), you can’t move beyond that level of planning to think about the future and devote resources to items that don’t pay off immediately.

Stepping back, it makes complete sense that employees, volunteers, and others who can’t step back from stressful situations also can’t bring their creativity to the table and effectively burn out when they don’t get the support from boards, managers, funders, etc. that they need. 

So, how do we rejuvenate our leaders and put in place systems that prevent future leaders from getting so burnt out on the tactical that they can’t brainstorm and experiment to make the real changes needed? – K