When people are asked to define imagination, they try to imagine what it is, but fail to clearly explain its nature and function. Let’s begin our discussion with an attempt, not only to imagine imagination, but to articulate what distinguishes it from other modes of thinking.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, characteristic of imagination is visual imagery. When a person imagines something the mind fills with visions of various objects. Of course, imagination is not limited to vision and can include sounds, fragrances, and tastes, as well, but clearly it is predominantly visual in nature.
Imagination also involves combining mental symbols of objects from the external world in ways that do not yet exist, may never exist, or are impossible to come into existence. For example, one can imagine the sun and moon with arms and legs, dancing a dynamic dance, while the stars are singing and clapping in a circle around them. Though each of the symbols used by the imagination are all borrowed from the real external world – for the sun, stars and moon, legs and arms, dancing, etc, all exist – they are combined in a manner which does not only not exist in the real world but is an impossibility.
This reveals something profound about the imagination. On the one hand it is dependent on the world for its symbols, but on the other hand it transcends the world and can manipulate it in whichever way one likes. Imagination reflects the dual nature of the human; he is both dependent upon and capable of transforming his surroundings.
The imagination also allows a person to perceive or use objects in unconventional ways. For instance, in the imagination of a child, the underneath of a table easily becomes a little house which a child attempts to occupy; sticks become swords, and a simple tissue, an elegant bride’s veil. In the imagination of an artist a fence may represent isolation, a bird, transcendence, and a budding flower, renewal and hope.
Application in daily life
Is imagination reserved for artists, children, people working in advertising and those that day dream, or does imagination play an important role in the daily life of the average person?
Imagination is an inescapable part of every moment of our existence. Whenever we perceive anything there are at least three components to our perception:
a) The vision of the object as it is provided by the sense organ, in this case the eye.
b) The imaginative interpretation of the object as it is presented to the mind via the eye,
c) The conceptualization of the object, that conscious mental labelling of what it is.
For example, if a person is looking at a cup they physically see the cup from one limited angle; from above, from one side, etc. The rest of the cup however, remains invisible. However, when the image of the cup is perceived within the mind one tends to imagine the rest of the cup as well, so that the cup is has four sides, a bottom, an opening at the top, and an inside, even though one cannot see more than one external side of the cup and nothing more. Finally, the mind gives the mental perception- composite of both sensory and imaginative input – a name, a concept. In this case it identifies the object as a ‘cup’.
There is a difference between conceptualization and the other two parts of perception, sensation and imagination. The latter two change as a person views an object from different angles, while the former does not. Returning to our cup, as the cup is turned around the sensory input obviously changes and one has successively different aspects of the cup in view. One’s imaginative interpretation will also change as it tries to imagine the invisible features of the cup which too, are constantly changing. The concept of a cup, however, which the mind attributes to the object, does not change.
This is because the sensory perception and the imaginative perception are both connected to the material world, while conceptualization is abstract and relatively speaking, transcends the world. Comparing all three, it becomes clear that sensory input is most connected to the material world, the imagination is less dependent for it enables a person to perceive aspects of an object that are not visible to the eye, while conceptualization is least connected for unlike the imaginative perception which is effected by the spatial orientation of the physical object, one’s conceptualization is not.
The distinction between the sensory experience and the input of the imagination can be difficult to disentangle. Often when a person imagines something about an object he thinks that it is a part of his sensory experience. Take for example our perception of other people. The eye only provides us with perception of another’s physical body. Yet, when we perceive them they appear to have a distinct personality as well. Looking around a room at people that you are acquainted with, you find that everyone appears to have a different and distinct personality. The majority of people do not realize that they are not seeing another’s personality with their physical eyes but through the imagination, even though this is obvious, once brought to attention that this is indeed the case; the physical eyes cannot see another’s psyche.
In this process there are three distinct stages: imagining, pursuing, and reaching. In a psychologically healthy person these three stages are in relative harmony. The individual imagines goals which are realistic, pursues them and with effort and persistence often reaches them. When, however, the goals imagined are unrealistic, beyond a person’s ability to realize, a disharmony results between the stages. Such a person, chasing the unattainable, experiences frustration, disillusionment, and depression.
Imagination is also essential in empathizing with others. When we hear another expressing themselves we use our imagination to imagine what they are going through and how they must be feeling. Our own emotions then respond to the imagination and we feel emotions which are in sync with the other’s state. In this process, as in the former, the imagination can be misleading and incongruous reality. We may vividly imagine another person feeling sad and in a deeply compassionate voice offer them our assistance; only to discover that in reality they are quite cheerful. In the absence of imagination, however, we may not be able to identify with another person’s emotional state at all.
Sir Fredrick Bartlett, a 20th Century British experimental psychologist of great renown, identified three distinct types of imagination:
a) Reflective imagination: When a person has an experience which stimulates an emotion the imagination reflects the emotional experience. Emotions can be compared to musical strings. When strings are plucked they vibrate; when an emotion is affected its resonance manifests in the activation of imagination. The person who is affected with fear starts to imagine harmful and threatening images, while the person aroused with gratitude may imagine the good that a particular person has done for them.
When the imagination becomes active, the individual tends to become passive, allowing him to be possessed by the imaginings. In such a state of surrender the individual’s emotions are further stimulated by the flow of internal images and he feels a sense of unity and resonance with the internal imagery. This reveals a two way relationship between emotion and imagination, as we shall discuss shortly
b) Interpretive imagination: When one hears a song or teaching and attempts to convey it to others the imagination interprets the particular piece resulting in a unique and idiosyncratic depiction of the piece. Here, the individual enters into a partnership with his teacher or the original composer of the music, producing something which is a synthesis of the original piece and his own imaginative interpretation. However, his personal input is secondary to the original piece for his imaginative input remains within the framework of the original piece and submissive to it.
c) Constructive imagination: An individual researching a topic or attempting to solve a problem spends much time and effort actively gathering information or contemplating a solution. At some point in the process, however, the imagination spontaneously unites the information into a novel and seamless whole; momentarily mesmerizing the person with a depth of perception that conscious effort could never provide. In the attainment of this type of imagination the individual is highly active and involved, and to some extent constructs the perception provided by the imagination. In any such process there tends to be an oscillation between conscious input and imaginative illumination. At times he is putting in hard word, and then he experiences the imaginative illumination which carries him effortlessly to a completely new level. Perhaps this is similar to the surfer that must put effort into swimming out to sea, but who is then carried effortlessly back to shore by the powerful motion of an oncoming wave.
Observing these three types of imagination an interesting pattern emerges. In reflective imagination an individual is most passive and the imaginative input is not novel but a mere reflection of an emotion. In interpretive imagination, the individual is more active and the novelty of the imagination is also greater. However, as mentioned, the individual only channels a pre-established composition while gently allowing his imagination to infuse it with its own unique interpretation; he is a mere partner of the original composer. In contrast, constructive imagination involves the full effort of the researcher who actively attempts to construct an understanding of a topic; proportionately, the novelty in his imaginative flow is also significantly greater. Thus, it appears that the novelty of imaginative flow tends to be proportionate with the degree of active effort.