Mental Images

IMAGINATION is that operation of the mind which makes mental images or pictures. Sometimes these are called also "thoughts," or again, "ideas." But thought is, properly understood, a process, that is, a movement of the mind. Thought is dynamic, but a thought or idea is static, like a picture.

In order that the process of thinking may take place, there must be thoughts or ideas or mental images for it to work with, and it is at its best when these are clear and strong. So we take up as the second part of our study the means by which our imagination may be improved. We are all apt to live in a colourless mental world, in which we allow words to replace ideas. This must be remedied if our minds are to work really well and give us a colourful existence.

But first let us examine our thinking. In it our attention moves on from one thought to another—or rather from one group of thoughts to another group of thoughts, since most of our images are complex. The dynamic thinking makes use of the static thoughts, just as in walking there are spots of firm ground on which the feet alternately come to rest. You cannot walk in mid-air. In both cases the dynamic needs the static. In walking you put a foot down and rest it on the ground. Then you swing your body along, with that foot as a point of application for the forces of the body against the earth. At the end of the movement you bring down the other foot to a new spot on the ground. In the next movement you relieve the first foot and poise the body on the other as a new pivot, and so on. Thus transition and poise" alternate in walking, and they do the same in thought.

Suppose I think: "The cat chases the mouse, and the mouse is fond of cheese, and cheese is obtained from the dairy, and the dairy stands among the trees." There is no connexion between the cat and the trees, but I have moved in thought from the cat to the trees by the stepping stones of mouse, cheese and dairy.

Now that we see clearly the distinction between ideas and thinking, let us turn, in this second part of our study, to the business of developing the power of imagination.

We shall begin our course by a series of exercises intended to train the mind to form, with ease and rapidity, full and vivid mental pictures, or idea-images.

When a concrete object is known, it is reproduced within the mind, which is the instrument of knowledge; and the more nearly the image approximates to the object, the truer is the knowledge that it presents. In practice, such an image is generally rather vague and often somewhat distorted.

For our purpose we will divide idea-images into four varieties; simple concrete, complex concrete, simple abstract, and complex abstract.

Simple concrete ideas are mental reproductions of the ordinary small objects of life, such as an orange, a pen, a cow, a book, a hat, a chair, and all the simple sensations of sound, form, colour, weight, temperature, taste, smell, and feeling.

Complex concrete ideas are largely multiples of simple ones, or associations of a variety of them such as a town, a family, a garden, ants, sand, provisions, furniture, clothing, Australasia.

Simple abstract ideas are those which belong to a variety of concrete ideas, but do not denote any one of them in particular, such as colour, weight, mass, temperature, health, position, magnitude, number.

Complex abstract ideas are combinations of simple ones, such as majesty, splendour, benevolence, fate.

The difference between simple and complex ideas is one of degree, not of kind. What is simple to one person may appear complex to another. A man with a strong imagination is able to grip a complex idea as easily as another may hold a simpler one.

A good exercise in this connexion is to practise reproducing simple concrete objects in the mind. This should be done with each sense in turn. If a student has been observing flowers, for example, he should practise until he can, in imagination, seem to see and smell a flower with his eyes closed and the object absent, or at least until he has an idea of the flower sufficiently real and complete to carry with it the consciousness of its odour as well as its colour and form. He may close his eyes, fix his attention on the olfactory organ, and reproduce the odour of the flower by an effort of will. Simply to name an object and remember it by its name does not develop the faculty of imagination.

I will now give a few specific exercises along these lines—

EXERCISE 1. Obtain a number of prints or drawings of simple geometrical figures. Take one of these—say a five-pointed star—look at it carefully, close the eyes, and imagine its form and size. When the image is clear, proportionate and steady in the imagination, look at the drawing again and note any differences between it and the original. Once more close the eyes and make the image, and repeat the process until you are satisfied that you can imagine the form accurately and strongly. Repeat the practice with other forms, gradually increasing in complexity.

EXERCISE 2. Repeat the foregoing practice, but use simple objects, such as a coin, a key, or a pen. Try to imagine them also from both sides at once.

EXERCISE 3. Obtain a number of coloured surfaces; the covers of books will do. Observe a colour attentively; then try to imagine it. Repeat the process with different colours and shades.

EXERCISE 4. Listen intently to a particular sound. Reproduce it within the mind. Repeat the experiment with different sounds and notes, until you can call them up faithfully in imagination. Try to hear them in your ears.

EXERCISE 5. Touch various objects, rough, smooth, metallic, etc., with the hands, forehead, cheek and other parts of the body. Observe the sensations carefully and reproduce them exactly. Repeat this with hot and cold things, and also with the sensations of weight derived from objects held in the hands.

EXERCISE 6. Close your eyes and imagine yourself to be in a small theatre, sitting in the auditorium and facing the proscenium, which should be like a room, barely furnished with perhaps a clock and a picture on the wall, and a table in the centre. Now select some simple and familiar object, such as a vase of flowers. Picture it in imagination as standing on the table. Note particularly its size, shape, and colour. Then imagine that you are moving forward, walking to the proscenium, mounting the steps, approaching the table, feeling the surface of the vase, lifting it, smelling the flowers, listening to the ticking of the clock, etc.

Get every possible sensation out of the process, and try not to think in words, nor to name the things or the sensations. Each thing is a bundle of sensations, and imagination will enable the mind to realize it as such.

It may be necessary for some students at first to prompt their thought by words. In this case, questions about the objects may be asked, in words, but should be answered in images. Each point should be dealt with deliberately, without hurry, but not lazily, and quite decisively. The thought should not be lumpy ore but pure metal, clean-cut to shape. A table of questions may be drawn up by the experimenter somewhat on the following plan: As regards sight, what is the outline, form, shape, colour, size, quantity, position, and motion of the object ? As regards sound, is it soft or loud, high or low in pitch, and what is its timbre? As regards feeling, is it rough, smooth, hard, soft, hot, cold, heavy, light? As regards taste and smell, is it salty, sweet, sour, pungent, acid? And finally, among these qualities of the object, which are the most prominent ?

The value of the proscenium is that it enables you to get the object by itself, isolated from many other things, and the simple pretext of stepping into the proscenium is a wonderful aid to the concentration necessary for successful imagination.

After this practice has been followed it will be found to be an easy matter, when reading or thinking about things, or learning them, to tick them off mentally by definite images, or, in other words, to arrest the attention upon each thing in turn and only one at a time. If you are reading a story, you should seem to see the lady or gentleman emerge from the door, walk down the steps, cross the pavement, enter the motor car, etc., as in a moving picture. The process may seem to be a slow one when a description of it is read, but it becomes quite rapid after a little practice.

It will always help in the practice of concentration or imagination if you take care to make your mental images natural and to put them in natural situations.

Do not take an object such as a statuette and imagine it as poised in the air before you. In that position there will be a subconscious tendency for you to feel the necessity of holding it in place. Rather imagine that it is standing on a table in front of you, and that the table is in its natural position in the room (as in the experiment with flowers in a vase on the table in the proscenium already mentioned).

Launch yourself gently into your concentration by first imagining all the portion of the room which would be normally within range of your vision in front of you; then pay less attention to the outermost things and close in upon the table bearing the statuette. Finally close in still more until only the little image on the table is left and you have forgotten the rest of the room.

Even then, if the other things should come back into your thought do not be troubled about them. You cannot cut off an image in your imagination as with a knife. There will always be a fringe of other things around it, but they will be faint and out of focus.

Just as when you focus your eye on a physical object the other things in the room are visible in a vague way, so when you focus your mental eye upon the statuette other pictures may arise in its vicinity. But as long as the statuette occupies the centre of your attention and enjoys the full focus of your mental vision, you need not trouble about the other thoughts that come in. With regard to them you will do best to employ the simple formula: " I don't care."

If you permit yourself to be troubled by them, they will displace the statuette in the centre of the stage, because you will give attention to them; but if you see them casually, and without moving your eyes from the statuette say: " Oh, are you there ? All right, stay there if you like, go if you like; I don't care," they will quietly disappear when you are not looking. Do not try to watch their departure. You cannot have the satisfaction of seeing them go, any more than you can have the pleasure of watching yourself go to sleep. But why should you want it ?

Make your object of imagination fully natural by investing it with all its usual qualities. If it is a solid thing, make it solid in your imagination, not flat like a picture. If it is coloured, let the colour shine. Be sensible of its weight as you would if you were actually looking at a physical object. Things that are naturally still should appear positively still in your image, and moving things definitely moving—such as trees whose leaves and branches may be shaking and rustling in the wind, or as fishes swimming, or birds flying, or persons walking and talking, or a river running along with pleasant tinkling sounds and glancing lights.

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