The Link Between Anxiety and Intelligence: Imagination

Anxiety is a sign of intelligence because anxiety is essentially imagining the future. That’s how humans became so intelligent compared to other species. We developed an ability to imagine the future—to see different factors and anticipate something to happen before it does. As a result, we were able to set traps to kill prey. And realize if we plant a seed today, crops will grow weeks or months later. Or predict that we will fall if we step off a steep cliff. Imagination is possibly even the origin of consciousness itself.

Evolution naturally selected for this imaginative ability in humans, and it got better and better over time. Imagination enabled us to create metaphorical language, and language allowed us to create entire worlds and stories inside our minds. This imaginative ability is what makes humans different from other animals. No other animals create things like written language, art, religion, technology, money, and governments, because all those things require imagination. This ability is pronounced in people with anxiety because they imagine the future more vividly and more often than non-anxious people only focused on the present. This is also why the most creative and imaginative people tend to also suffer from anxiety.

Imagination can have negative effects when indulged in too much and directed at the wrong things. Such as ordinary social interactions: imagining that someone will reject us if we say the wrong thing. Or anxiety over a flight: imagining our airplane will crash despite the astronomically low odds of that actually happening. These negative things can happen, so in a sense, it is intelligent to worry about them. But it’s even more intelligent to recognize when needless worrying won’t help.

The greatest struggle of consciousness is the knowledge that we are eventually going to die. Which is a result of our imagination and predictive ability. We see others die, so we predict that we will one day die ourselves. That is such an enormous burden to put on one’s mind—an overwhelming fact of reality that can result in existential dread. Is it better to not know about the inevitability of death and believe you’re going to live forever? No. Consciousness of death is what makes life meaningful.

The anxious person is on a higher plane of consciousness than someone who doesn’t worry about anything at all. Being completely fearless is a good way to get yourself killed. With no fear of heights, you’ll walk off a cliff. With no fear of snakes, you’ll get bit and poisoned. However, more fear and anxiety doesn’t always equate to more intelligence. Anxious people need to raise their consciousness even higher. Realize that, while our fears are valid (our imagined negative predictions are a possibility), in some cases the imagined result is either so rare that it’s not worth worrying about, or the repercussions (such as an ordinary social interaction) are trivial and therefore not worth worrying about.

Anxiety is linked to fear, and we would never want to lose anxiety completely because that is what makes us intelligent and keeps us alive. The most intelligent person is the person who most accurately imagines the future. Instead of lowering our intelligence to get rid of anxiety by imagining less, we want to raise our consciousness to acknowledge our anxiety and then ignore it when appropriate. You would never want to totally remove anxiety because in some cases, anxiety may save your life. Such as the cliff example above. Or imagining how a sabertooth tiger might attack your campsite. Or, if you’re an aeronautical engineer, imagining how an engine might malfunction and cause a plane to crash. Or a predicting that a sketchy-looking person in an alley might be a mugger. Only by imagining possible negative futures can we take measures to prevent them.

If you’re an anxious person, that doesn’t mean you are flawed. Imagination is a crucial part of human intelligence, and anxiety is merely a form of imagination. Use it to your advantage.

16 thoughts on “The Link Between Anxiety and Intelligence: Imagination

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