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Allowing Our Imaginations Free Reign

The difference between reading and film when it comes to using our imagination.

This week, Lucasfilm (e.g., George Lucas) announced that the Star Wars films would be re-released in 3-D, starting with Episode I-The Phantom Menace in 2012. Lucasfilm visual effects supervisor John Knoll said:

"When stereo's done right," Mr. Knoll said, "it gives you a powerful illusion that you're there witnessing something. You want to do that with films where it's someplace where you want to go, and the highly designed and constructed world of the ‘Star Wars' pictures obviously has a grip on a lot of people's imaginations. It's a place I'd like to feel immersed in."

His comment got me thinking about that feeling of being immersed in another place. Some people more easily get immersed in another place when reading or watching a film. Psychologists refer to this ability, this trait, as absorption, which is related to having more vivid mental images and more inwardly focused attention. (To read more about absorption, click here and here. To see more details about the Tellegen Absorption Scale, a questionnaire used to measure the trait of absorption, click on psychologist John Kihlstrom's website.)

Anyway, I started thinking about the difference between reading, in which you immerse yourself in another place, and film, in which you are immersed in another place. (You may notice a difference between "immersing yourself" and being "immersed.")

Reading--whether the material is a book (all prose) or a comic book or graphic novel--requires readers to use our imagination. We immerse ourselves in the world we are reading about. With graphic novels, this means that we readers must "fill in" what happens in the gaps in plot and action as we progress from one panel to the next. This can be part of the pleasure of reading illustrated stories--to participate in the construction of the minor details of the story. For instance, suppose one Batman panel shows Bruce Wayne overhearing some clue; the next panel shows him in the Batcave, analyzing the clue for its possible implications. By the time we finish the second panel, we have mentally imagined Bruce leaving wherever he was (making whatever excuses he makes), getting to the Batcave, changing into his batsuit, and so on. Our filling in the blank may have occurred so quickly that we didn't even notice it, or we may take our time, pondering some detail (e.g., "how did he....?").

We must use our imaginations to fill in the "gaps" between panels.

The thing about reading is that each of us can go at our own pace, skimming parts that are boring, re-reading other parts, and spending time between panels imagining at length some aspect of the story not described. (Psychologist Barbara Tversky's work examines aspects of this process. Click here for more about her work, and here for a related article.)

Films (including superhero films), by their very nature, fill in many more of those gaps for us. Yes, there are gaps between scenes that we might fill in with our imagination, but the pace of (superhero) films is generally too fast to do much imagining. There's not a lot of time to allow our imaginations free reign--unless we're watching on DVD and can hit the pause button. Fortunately, we can do our imagining after the film's over, but that's not the same thing as what happens when we read.

It will be interesting to see the ways that 3-D films affect viewers' imaginations differently than 2-D films (if at all). Will people feel more like they were "there"--in the film environment, witnessing the events, as Mr. Knoll said? If so, will that lead people to spend more or less time imagining that world after the film is over? Have you seen the same film in 2-D and 3-D? If so, what was your experience, and which format (2-D/3-D) did you see first?

P.S.: In 2001, NPR's "This American Life" aired a segment about people imagining they had superpowers. Click here, Part One, if you want to listen to it.

Copyright 2010 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is Click here to take her brief What Is a Superhero? Survey.

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