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Active Imagination

A very large part of the mental life of a student consists in the manipulation of images.

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 breaks? 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 revelation.

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 psychologically true.

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 experiences. Make intimate acquaintance with the objects of your environment. Handle them, tear them apart, put them together, 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 imagination.

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 your images.

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 images.

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 après; 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 novel ways. 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 methods: "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.

READING AND EXERCISES Reading: Dearborn (2) Chapter III.

Exercise 1. Call up in imagination the sound of your French instructor's voice as he says étudiant. Call up the appearance on the page of the conjugation of être, present tense.

Exercise 2. Choose some word which you have had difficulty in learning. Look at it attentively, securing a perfectly clear impression of it; then practise calling up the visual image of it, until you secure perfect reproduction.

Exercise 3. List the different images called up by the passage from Romeo and Juliet.

Reference book: How To Use Your Mind

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