The Captured Thought

Posted on November 5, 2012 by Nicola Clayton

Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins

Do you know what happens when a behavioural scientist interested in how humans and animals think gets together with an artist whose prime interest is in the nature of imagination and consciousness? Are you interested?

Nicky Clayton and Clive Wilkins have had a lifetime’s experience in their respective disciplines. Society supposes they would be poles apart but in actual fact they are closer than one might imagine, as the audience at their Royal Institution Discourse discovered recently. In “Imagination: The Door To Identity” Nicky and Clive explored some of the many areas of their interests, which have evolved out of their analysis of the subjective experience of thinking[1]. The ability to imagine future scenarios and relive our past experiences lies at the heart of humanity; it is what we all do for a living and it is integral to our identity, to who we are and how we think.

They argued that human beings have a fundamental interest in navigation, which is used not just externally to explore the planet but internally too. Within us there is a hidden compass that orientates us in space and time. Ask virtually anybody which of these two compasses is the most important, and they will probably tell you it is the external one, for that is where movement can be seen and measured. However there is a counter argument suggesting that we have an imagined internal compass describing a bigger landscape which contains past, present and future, all of which can be accessed at the same moment, allowing for a unique orientation of points. This throws any landscape thus seen into sharp relief ~ were 4D specs available this might be the world they described! Using past, present and future as sign posts, and triangulating their points, we develop, or allow ourselves to find, some of the most interesting places possible.  By virtue of our imagination, we can create new scenarios and anticipate potential realities, ones that may or may not come to pass. This process of imagination is both disadvantageous and opportunistic in equal measure. For imagination impedes and disorientates memories, whilst also creating multiple realities that can coexist side by side. Nicky and Clive went on to discuss what it is like not to have imagination at all, and to ask whether we are unique among the animal kingdom in having the ability to travel mentally in time.

In becoming expert within a specific discipline (in the arts or sciences), one might argue that it is all too easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. We know how it works. In terms of navigation many of us take the same routes through the cities that we devise for ourselves, both literally and metaphorically. We forget there may be alternative routes that we may know of, never question that there may be other routes that we have not yet thought of and modes of transport that we do not consider or are too lazy or scared to invent. It is easy to forget that we all share remarkably similar mechanisms for seeing our worlds. No matter what our discipline may be, do we not all share the same maps to see and distinguish the reality around us? These facets are fundamental features of the human brain. The opportunity to share these realities with alien minds is fascinating. Even amidst the safe jurisdiction of an artist talking to a scientist there are so many new things to discover, as Nicky and Clive are realising.

In essence they are fascinated by the fundamental features of the thinking mind and have formulated a series of six talks, which explore the cognitive abilities of humans and animals. They use a variety of techniques to provide insight into how thinking works and has evolved. The lectures include: the self, the altered self, the social self, perspective-taking and metacognition. By integrating the sciences and the arts Nicky and Clive are exploring new ways of thinking and methods of analysis, in search of a better understanding of the cognitive and conscious processes that encapsulate our humanity ~ in the hope of illuminating The Captured Thought.

Nicky Clayton is Professor of Comparative Cognition in the Department of Psychology at Cambridge University and Scientist in Residence at Rambert Dance Company. Clive Wilkins is a creative writer, fine artist, performer and teacher living in the UK. They share a passion for Argentine Tango.

[1] You can hear the Royal Institution podcast at

About clivewilkins

Artist & Writer
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1 Response to The Captured Thought

  1. Pingback: The Captured Thought « Nicky Clayton

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