Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Imagine That!

Imaging: Sparks of Genius Challenge #3

To conjure sensory images within the mind is to think.

Posted Jul 18, 2015

Welcome to the Sparks of Genius Challenge!

Stimulate your imaginative thinking skills with regular practice: 20 minutes a day, an hour a week, a half-day a month, whatever. This month’s challenge:  Imaging.

Imaging Experience

Robert Root-Bernstein
Source: Robert Root-Bernstein

“Close your eyes,” Dennis the Menace once said to a friend. “If you see anything, you’re thinking.” Dennis was only partly right, for if you “hear,” “smell,” “taste,” or “feel” anything in the absence of direct sensory stimulation, you are also thinking. Before words materialize and alongside those that do, we cogitate by means of a primary “language” of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feelings experienced within our minds. We “see” with the mind’s eye or “hear” with the mind’s ear something entirely other than our immediate reality—something we remember, something we anticipate, something we make-up.

In short, we visualize or otherwise image with any and all sensory mechanisms within the brain. No surprise, imaging is closely tied to observing. In last month’s Sparks of Genius challenge, one advanced exercise involved the after-the-fact recall or imaging of what had been observed. In this month’s imagination challenge, the practice of imaging likewise builds upon the practice of observing.

We’ll start with the experience of narrative. Story-telling is a fundamental means of learning and thinking about the world. So is “story-listening.” In fact, the whole narrative enterprise, whether fictional or factual, literary or scientific, depends on the good reader, the creative listener. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov made this very point when he argued that the best readers require nothing more than imagination and memory, along with a dictionary and some aesthetic sense. More specifically, he wrote, “We must see things and hear things, we must visualize the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author’s people.” The better able we are to image, to reinvent in the mind the experience told in a story, a history, an experiment or a brief, the better able we are to think through and understand their meanings.

Exercise Your Imaging Skills


Listen to an e-book. (Alternatively, pick up a novel or a short story and read a random paragraph or two.) Five minutes in, stop and interrogate your brain. What’s going on in there while you listen (or read)? Are you “seeing” the story unfold with your mind’s eye?  How else are you imaging who’s doing what, where, and when? For extra points, go back and listen again. What details can you add to sharpen your imaging?


What’s your favorite movie? Spend 20 minutes “re-watching” the best bits with your mind’s eye and ear. Can you recall the heroine’s features? Can you hear the hero’s voice? Can you feel what they feel—the wind, the sun, the bumpy ride in the car? How does the plot unfold?


Have you ever wished a movie ended differently? Spend time re-thinking what else might have happened. Imagine new possibilities for the plot; “see” and “hear” in your mind how the characters play out these alternative events. Extra credit: what’s the camera angle? What’s the background music?

We’ll check in soon with our experience of one of these exercises and ideas for further challenge to the imaging thinking tool. At the same time, we’ll welcome your feedback. What does attention to imaging tell you about the way you think and create?

© 2015 Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein


Vladimir Nabokov. 1980. Lectures on Literature. Ed. Fredson Bowers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pp. 3-4, passim. Paraphrased and quoted material also available on the web, key terms: Nabokov creative reader.