Thoughts on the Heroic Imagination

This morning I woke up to news that there had been a fire in the apartment building three doors down.  It was quite a fire; the top half of the building is gone and the bottom half won’t ever be lived in again.  No-one was killed in the fire, but 15 families have no homes and have lost much of their possessions.

The first person I talked to imagined herself in the fire and thought about how horrible it would be for her family to die.  I think she was more upset at the thought of her loved ones dying than her, which is not abnormal I’d say.

The second person I talked to was still pale from thinking about how horrible it would have been to be in the fire.  He spoke of people jumping from the third floor balconies.

My thoughts were around what I would have done had I heard the alleged explosion and woken up at 3:30.  I pictured myself getting dressed quickly and running over there with a blanket to help anyone who needed it.  I could imagine myself pushing through flames to make sure people were out of their apartments.  In fact, I went back to sleep after hearing about the fire and had a dream in which I was rescuing people from a fire – wondering why there weren’t any fire escapes.

As I was occupying my mind with those thoughts all morning, it struck me that this was Heroic Imagination.  And that it’s something I’ve done my whole life.  As a lonely teenager I spent many hours lying in bed creating scenes in which I was the hero, saving some damsel in distress.  There were rescues from gun seiges, terrorists, fires, floods.  I always managed to find the right way out, with my crush safely in tow.  She naturally fell in love with me after that, but all of the situations were in the real world around me.  Even more recently, I can’t tell you how often I thought about camp being overrun by terrorists leaving me to use my knowledge of the buildings and grounds to save everyone.

I’ve been talking about Heroic Imagination for some time now.  When Phil Zimbardo explained it to me, it made immediate sense, but only as a theory.  Today, I seemed to catch myself in the act of it.  And it seems I’ve been doing it for a long time.  But now I wonder who else does that sort of thing?  Clearly the people I spoke to this morning were focusing on a different angle, which is vitally important to them.

So, my question is, do you think the way I do?  Did you love watching The Poseidon Adventure as a kid, mapping out the way you’d rescue the passengers?  What are your thoughts when you see a disaster happening?

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7 Responses to Thoughts on the Heroic Imagination

  1. Michael February 13, 2009 at 4:07 pm #

    Hello Matt,

    While I can not say I have an active heroic imagination per se, I do what needs to be done rather than waiting for a situation to change on its own. I believe any action in a critical moment is better than no action.

    For myself, while I may not be flamboyant in my actions, I would like to think I would do what needed to be done for the best outcome given what I knew and had to work with. Whether that action would be considered heroic or not, I could not say.


  2. Matt Langdon February 13, 2009 at 4:09 pm #

    “I believe any action in a critical moment is better than no action.”

    I love that sentence. Inaction is a horrible choice.

  3. Chris February 16, 2009 at 11:01 am #


    Thanks for sharing this.

    The ability to visualize is much more difficult than people make it out to be, especially the average money-making motivational speaker! You find it easy to do because you’ve been doing it for a while and have focused your attention on this phenomenon. Like a muscle, the more you visualize, the more you strengthen that particular part of the brain. I also believe the amount you read and the movies you watch play into your ability to visualize effectively. The areas of the brain where visualization is produced is the back of the head called the Occipital lobe (where there’s an exact replica of your eyeball and responsible for perception), an area in the upper portion called the Parietal lobe (interestingly, Einstein had an abnormally large Parietal lobe which helped him think in three dimensions), the Hippocampus (long-term memory to aid in the process of searching your historic life archives to see if you have ever rescued someone in a fire before), the Pre-frontal cortex used for problem solving and I believe the motor cortex which activates you in preparation in case the event actually happens.

    In the most simplistic terms, the brain doesn’t have a spam filter. It struggles to determine distinction between what’s real and what’s imagined. However, I don’t mean to simplify this as much as “The Secret” commercialized, but I’m talking small actions which aren’t too different from actions you have performed in the past or actions you have witnessed others perform. Your memory has some beliefs associated with fire. You know fire creates smoke. You know it’s better to be lower to the ground. You know someone may need help. You know someone may need a blanket. It’s easier to visualize these things to fool your brain into thinking it has actually happened. It’s not easy to visualize yourself jumping from one rooftop to another and doing a front roll smash through the window!

    Visualization takes practice. Buddhist monks spend years in the mountains exercising this ability.

    Point is, which you have clearly described in your disclosure of heroic imagination, try and visualize realistically. Start with what you know first, then slowly problem solve different scenarios. Try to engage your senses and emotions. You see the fire and feel the heat which causes you to feel anxious. This will help your body familiarize itself with anxiety in response to fire and heat. Listen to recordings of fire so you can add to your imaginative inventory and listen to the sounds with your eyes closed. Watch movies which involve fire fighting to facilitate some mixture within your historic archives.
    The brain really isn’t as complex of a system many others make it out to be. There’s a lot involved with how it processes information, but at the end of the day, it’s just an extremely efficient system primed for survival and this is what we are up against when trying to engage the heroic imagination. It can be done.

  4. Matt Langdon February 16, 2009 at 11:07 am #

    Thanks Chris. What you’ve said explains why emergency services practice regularly and try to mimic real world conditions, right? The more exposure you have to similar experiences, the easier it is going to be to act when a situation occurs.

    This is obviously the core of the heroic imagination. Your introduction to how the brain works in this way helps confirm the theory.

  5. Chris February 16, 2009 at 11:46 am #

    Yes, I believe they practice regularly so when they confront the real situation, it’s as if they have been there and done that already.

  6. Jamie February 23, 2009 at 12:37 pm #

    I think it is great you shared that story with us. Next time I come over I will have my husband pretend to hijack my car with me in it so you can pratice saving me 🙂
    You’re always thinking like a hreo Matt and that’s completly natural. I would be lying if I said I did not share the same thoughts.

  7. Matt Langdon February 23, 2009 at 12:45 pm #

    Thanks Jamie. I would happily save you from your husband.