There have been some fantastic breakthroughs in the research of imagination over the past thirty or so years. In this post, I want to go over some of these breakthroughs, as well as a subject that in particular has induced my interest.
For many years, we assumed everyone had something referred to as ‘the mind’s eye’ — an ability to visualize an object within your mind, even though that object may not necessarily be there in reality. To an extent, this is true — most people do have a mind’s eye. However, what we didn’t realize was that the strength of the mind’s eye varies greatly from person to person. For example, in some people the word “apple” conjures a fuzzy realization of a red object with a green stem. For others, a very realistic rendering of a specific type of apple can come almost instantly. We have even discovered people who do not have a mind’s eye at all, which appears to have significant cognitive repercussions in the form of a disorder called agnosia.
There appears to be two factors which determine a person’s imaginative ability: intensity and variety. Intensity is as I defined in the previous example: a fuzzy image versus clear detail. Variety has to do with which senses you can imagine. Virtually all people with a mind’s eye are able to imagine sight, but fewer are able to imagine sound, touch, smell, and taste.
It is also worth noting that memory does not appear to be correlated with imagination. This seems counterintuitive at first — you’d think that if you can remember all the details of an apple perfectly, that you would have a stronger memory. But just because you are imagining a full render of an apple, does not mean that the apple is fully accurate to its version in reality. It just means you can imagine it very well. A great example of this is the artist Chuck Close, who has issues with imaginative ability and also has a photographic memory.
There are still two major mysteries around the mind’s eye. The first is centered around the distribution of ability (if we were to put everyone on a chart, what would the distribution of imaginative ability look like?) and the second is based on the limits of ability (how good can you really get?). I am likely on the upper level of this distribution, given that I can imagine all five senses with high accuracy. But the people above me can even imagine abstractions, getting sensory information out of things like complex mathematical problems. We now believe that geniuses such as Albert Einstein or Nikola Tesla might have had this ability — hence why they were able to understand such complicated subjects with ease.
This brings me to my personal interest in imagination: the creative application. I am primarily a fiction writer and I credit a large chunk of my ability to my mind’s eye. I’ve noticed that there are things I do as part of the imaginative process that other people find incomprehensible, and perhaps the most notable of which is active music listening.
As of writing this post, I have only known two or three people (including myself) who had an understanding of active music listening. If the following sounds familiar to you, feel free to write in the comments:
Active music listening involves the surrendering of oneself to the music. It is usually done while walking around, particularly in a small space (a larger area seems to lower the quality). Nothing else can be done — just walking and listening. It works particularly well for music without lyrics: think soundtracks rather than pop songs. Still, it’s certainly possible to get it with pop songs as well.
When you get your mind into this space, something incredible happens. Entire scenes, roughly 10 seconds to 30 seconds in length, appear in your conscious. Two aspects are special about these scenes. The first is that they are, to an extent, randomly generated. They aren’t really things you’ve developed beforehand — they’re things the music develops. This isn’t by song either, though sometimes it might be the case that you end up associating a song with a particular scene. The other aspect is that these scenes are vivid. Like, very vivid. Virtually every detail is there, and it’s very easy to run with them afterwards.
I would say, out of all the story ideas I’ve developed, 80% come from active listening, 15% come from dreams, and the remaining 5% come from other processes. It’s a very powerful tool, and it’s why I’m surprised I haven’t heard of it anywhere else. Because of this, I have a few questions for potential readers of this post:
- Have you heard of this concept before? If so, do you have any resources/links that people have written about it?
- Have you done active music listening before? If not, did you try it after reading this post? If you did try it, were you successful in obtaining the results I do, or did you come up with nothing?
- What strange imaginative experiences/abilities do you have, that you don’t seem to see written about anywhere else?