What Imagination Is

Creativity or mental images?

Posted Jul 11, 2012

"Imagination" is one of those words that inspire us. It reminds us of children playing and Einstein claiming that it's more important than knowledge. The word gets used in a lot of ways, but for the most part, people mean one of two things.

First, people use the word to refer to creativity in general — saying that someone has a great imagination or no imagination at all. 

Second, people use the word to refer to mental imagery of some kind — either picturing something in your head, like how your childhood bedroom looked, or hearing a song in your head to try to recall lyrics. 

I'm interested in both kinds of imagination and my posts will reflect that. 

Imagination is quite possibly a uniquely human ability. In essence, it allows us to explore ideas of things that are not in our present environment, or perhaps not even real. For example, one can imagine the cup of coffee seen the day before, or one can imagine an alien spaceship arriving in the earth's orbit. The key is that what is imagined is generated from within rather than perceived based on input from without. 

In perception, one takes information from the outside world, such as light, or sound waves, and finds meaning in it, using memory and perceptual processes. In imagination, it works in reverse. Imagery is created from the memory. 

This is perhaps clearest in dreaming, where our minds churn up an entire virtual reality for us to experience when we sleep. But imagination is used in a whole variety of cognitive processes, including planning, hypothetical reasoning, picturing things in the past or the future, comprehending language, and, of course, in design and creativity in engineering and the arts.

What is not obvious is that this important, fascinating phenomenon can be explored scientifically. Even though we can't read images directly off of people's brains (yet), there are still scientific means to find out what goes on in somebody's head. And that's what my blog posts are about.

This is your chance to learn about imagination from a scientific as well as an artistic perspective: how it works, what its limits are, as well as how you can use your imagination to be more creative and happy. I will report on research by other people as well as research done in my own Science of Imagination Laboratory.