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Imagination is the ability to form mental images, or the ability to spontaneously generate images within one's own mind. It helps provide meaning to experience and understanding to knowledge; it is a fundamental facility through which people make sense of the world, and it also plays a key role in the learning process. A basic training for imagination is the listening to storytelling (narrative), in which the exactness of the chosen words is the fundamental factor to 'evoke worlds'.
It is accepted as the innate ability and process to invent partial or complete personal realms within the mind from elements derived from sense perceptions of the shared world.[How to reference and link to summary or text] The term is technically used in psychology for the process of reviving in the mind percepts of objects formerly given in sense perception. Since this use of the term conflicts with that of ordinary language, some psychologists have preferred to describe this process as "imaging" or "imagery" or to speak of it as "reproductive" as opposed to "productive" or "constructive" imagination. Imagined images are seen with the "mind's eye".
The common use of the term is for the process of forming in the mind new images which have not been previously experienced, or at least only partially or in different combinations. Some typical examples follow:
- Fairy tale
- A form of verisimilitude often invoked in fantasy and science fiction invites readers to pretend such stories are true by referring to objects of the mind such as fictional books or years that do not exist apart from an imaginary world.
Imagination in this sense, not being limited to the acquisition of exact knowledge by the requirements of practical necessity, is, up to a certain point, free from objective restraints. The ability to imagine one's self in another person's place is very important to social relations and understanding. (Some psychiatrists suspect this is beyond the grasp of a sociopath. All they know is the gratification of personal pleasure).
In various spheres, however, even imagination is in practice limited: thus a man whose imaginations do violence to the elementary laws of thought, or to the necessary principles of practical possibility, or to the reasonable probabilities of a given case is regarded as insane.
The same limitations beset imagination in the field of scientific hypothesis. Progress in scientific research is due largely to provisional explanations which are constructed by imagination, but such hypotheses must be framed in relation to previously ascertained facts and in accordance with the principles of the particular science.
Imagination is an experimental partition of the mind used to create theories and ideas based on functions. Taking objects from real perceptions, the imagination uses complex IF-functions to create new or revised ideas. This part of the mind is vital to developing better and easier ways to accomplish old and new tasks. These experimented ideas can be safely conducted inside a virtual world and then, if the idea is probable, and the function is true, the idea can be actualized in reality. Imagination is the key to new development of the mind and can be shared with others, progressing collectively.
Imagination vs. belief
Imagination differs fundamentally from belief because the subject understands that what is personally invented by the mind does not necessarily impact the course of action taken in the apparently shared world while beliefs are part of what one holds as truths about both the shared and personal worlds. The play of imagination, apart from the obvious limitations (e.g. of avoiding explicit self-contradiction), is conditioned only by the general trend of the mind at a given moment. Belief, on the other hand, is immediately related to practical activity: it is perfectly possible to imagine oneself a millionaire, but unless one believes it one does not, therefore, act as such. Belief endeavours to conform to the subject's experienced conditions or faith in the possibility of those conditions; whereas imagination as such is specifically free. The dividing line between imagination and belief varies widely in different stages of technological development. Thus someone from a primitive culture who is ill frames an ideal reconstruction of the causes of his illness, and attributes it to the hostile magic of an enemy based on faith and tradition rather than science. In ignorance of the science of pathology the subject is satisfied with this explanation, and actually believes in it, sometimes to the point of death, due to what is known as the nocebo effect.
It follows that the learned distinction between imagination and belief depends in practice on religion, tradition, and culture.
Imagination as a reality
The world as experienced is actually an interpretation of data apparently arriving from the senses, as such it is perceived as real by contrast to most thoughts and imaginings. This difference is only one of degree and can be altered by several historic causes, namely changes to brain chemistry, hypnosis or other altered states of consciousness, meditation, many hallucinogenic drugs, and electricity applied directly to specific parts of the brain. The difference between imagined and perceived real can be so imperceptible as to cause acute states of psychosis. Many mental illnesses can be attributed to this inability to distinguish between the sensed and the internally created worlds. Some cultures and traditions even view the apparently shared world as an illusion of the mind as with the Buddhist maya or go to the opposite extreme and accept the imagined and dreamed realms as of equal validity to the apparently shared world as the Australian Aborigines do with their concept of dreamtime.
Imagination, because of having freedom from external limitations, can often become a source of real pleasure and unnecessary pain. A person of vivid imagination often suffers acutely from the imagined perils besetting friends, relatives, or even strangers such as celebrities. Also crippling fear can result from taking an imagined painful future too seriously.
Imagination can also produce some symptoms of real illnesses. In some cases, they can seem so "real" that specific physical manifestations occur such as rashes and bruises appearing on the skin, as though imagination had passed into belief or the events imagined were actually in progress. See, for example, psychosomatic illness and folie a deux.
It has also been proposed the whole of human cognition is based upon imagination. That is, nothing that we perceive is purely observation but all is a morph between sense and imagination.
Imagination preceding reality
When two existing perceptions are combined within the mind the resultant third perception referred to as its synthesis and on occasion a fourth called the antithesis, which at that point only exists as part of the imagination, can often become the inspiration for a new invention or technique[How to reference and link to summary or text].
- Norman 2000 pp.1-2
- Brian Sutton-Smith 1988, p. 22
- Archibald MacLeish 1970, p.887
- Kieran Egan 1992, pp.50
- Northrup Frye 1963, p. 49)
- As noted by Giovanni Pascoli
- Egan, Kieran (1992). Imagination in Teaching and Learning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Frye, N. (1963). The Educated Imagination. Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
- Norman, Ron (2000) Cultivating Imagination in Adult Education Proceedings of the 41st Annual Adult Education Research.
- Sutton-Smith, Brian. (1988). In Search of the Imagination. In K. Egan and D. Nadaner (Eds.), Imagination and Education. New York, Teachers College Press.
A philosopher for whom imagination is a central concept is John Sallis. See in particular:
- John Sallis, Force of Imagination: The Sense of the Elemental (2000)
- John Sallis, Spacings—Of Reason and Imagination. In Texts of Kant, Fichte, Hegel (1987)
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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