A very large part of the mental life of a student
consists in the manipulation of images. By images we mean the revivals of things
that have been impressed upon the senses. Call to mind for the moment your
house-number as it appears upon the door of your home. In so doing you mentally
reinstate something which has been impressed upon your senses many times; and
you see it almost as clearly as if it were actually before you. The mental thing
thus revived is called an image.
The word image is somewhat ill-chosen; for it
usually signifies something connected with the eye, and implies that the stuff
of mental images is entirely visual. The true fact of the matter is, we can
image practically anything that we can sense. We may have tactual images of
things touched; auditory images of things heard; gustatory images of things
tasted; olfactory images of things smelled.
How these behave in general and how they interact
in study will engage our attention in this chapter.
The most highly dramatic use of images is in
connection with that mental process known as Imagination. As we study the
writings of Jack London, Poe, Defoe, Bunyan, we move in a realm almost wholly
imaginary. And as we take a cross-section of our minds when thus engaged, we
find them filled with images. Furthermore, they are of great variety—images of
colors, sounds, tastes, smells, touches, even of sensations from our own
internal organs, such as the palpitations of the heart that accompany feelings
of pride, indignation, remorse, exaltation. A further characteristic is that
they are sharp, clean-cut, vivid.
Note in the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet,
the number, variety and vividness of the images:
“But, soft! What light through yonder window
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise,
fair sun, and kill the envious moon, Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green...
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes To twinkle in their spheres till they
return. What if her eyes were there, they in her head? The brightness in her
cheek would shame those stars, As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven Would
through the airy regions stream so bright That birds would sing and think it
were not night.
See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand! O,
that I were a glove upon that hand, That I might touch that cheek!”
We may conclude, then, that three of the desirable
attributes of great works of the imagination are number, variety and
vividness of mental images.
One question that frequently arises concerning
works of the imagination is, What is their source? Superficial thinkers have
loosely answered, “Inspiration,” implying, (according to the literal meaning of
the word, “to breathe in”), that some mysterious external force (called by the
ancients, “A Muse”) enters into the mind of the author with a special
Psychological analysis of these imaginative works
shows that this explanation is untrue. That the bizarre and apparently novel
products arise from the experiences of the author, revived in imagination and
combined in new ways. The horrendous incidents depicted in Dante’s “Divine
Comedy” never occurred within the lifetime experience of the author as such.
Their separate elements did, however, and furnished the basis for Dante’s clever
combinations. The oft-heard saying that there is nothing new under the sun is
In the light of this brief analysis of products of
the imagination we are ready to develop a program which we may follow in
cultivating an active imagination.
Recognizing that images have their source in
sensory experience, we see that the first step to take is to seek a multitude of
Make intimate acquaintance with the objects of your
environment. Handle them, tear them apart, put them together, and place them
next to other objects, noting the likenesses and differences. Thus you will
acquire the stuff out of which images are made and will stock your mind with a
number of images. Then when you wish to convey your ideas you will have a number
of terms in which to do it—one of the characteristics of a free-flowing
The second characteristic we found to be variety.
To secure this, seek a variety of sensational experiences. Perceive the objects
of your experience through several senses—touch, smell, sight, hearing, taste.
By means of this variety in sensations you will secure corresponding variety in
To revive them easily sometimes requires practice.
For it has been discovered that all people do not naturally call up images
related to the various senses with equal ease. Most people use visual and
auditory images more freely than they do other kinds. In order to develop skill
in evoking the others, practise recalling them. Sit down for an hour of
practice, as you would sit down for an hour of piano practice. Try to recall the
taste of raisins, English walnuts; the smell of hyacinths, of witch-hazel; the
rough touch of an orange-skin. Though you may at first have difficulty you will
develop, with practice, a gratifying facility in recalling all varieties of
The third characteristic which we observed in works
of the imagination is vividness. To achieve this, pay close attention to the
details of your sensory experiences. Observe sharply the minute but
characteristic items—the accent mark on aprÃ¨s; the coarse stubby beard of
the typical alley tough. Stock your mind with a wealth of such detailed
impressions. Keep them alive by the kind of practice recommended in the
preceding paragraph. Then describe the objects of your experience in terms of
these significant details.
We discovered, in discussing the source of
imaginative works, that the men whom we are accustomed to call imaginative
geniuses do not have unique communication with heaven or with any external
reservoir of ideas. Instead, we found their wonder-evoking creations to be
merely new combinations of old images. The true secret of their success is their
industrious utilization of past experiences according to the program outlined
above. They select certain elements from their experiences and combine them in
This is the explanation of their strange, beautiful
and bizarre productions. This is what Carlyle meant when he characterized genius
as “the transcendent capacity for taking trouble” This is what Hogarth meant
when he said, “Genius is nothing but labor and diligence.” For concrete
exemplification of this truth we need only turn to the autobiographies of great
writers. In this passage from “John Barleycorn,” Jack London describes his
“Early and late I was at it—writing, typing,
studying grammar, studying writing and all forms of writing, and studying the
writers who succeeded in order to find out how they succeeded. I managed on five
hours’ sleep in the twenty-four, and came pretty close to working the nineteen
waking hours left to me.”
By saying that the novel effects of imagination
come by way of industry, we do not mean to imply that one should strain after
novelty and eccentricity. Unusual and happy combinations will come of
themselves and naturally if one only makes a sufficient number.
There are laws of combination, known as the
psychological laws of association, by which images will unite naturally. The
number of possible combinations is infinite. By industriously making a large
number, you will by the very laws of chance, stumble upon some that are
especially happy and striking.
In summarizing this discussion, we may conclude
that an active fertile imagination comes from crowding into one’s life a large
number of varied and vivid experiences; storing them up in the mind in the form
of images; and industriously recalling and combining them in novel
relationships. Mental images occur in other mental processes besides
Imagination. They bulk importantly in memorizing, as we shall see in Chapters VI
and VII; and in reasoning, as we shall see in Chapter IX. Throughout the book we
shall find that as we develop ability to manipulate mental images, we shall
increase the adaptability of all the mental processes.