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Imagination is governed by the same general laws of association which control habit and memory. In these two former topics the emphasis was upon getting a desired result without any attention to the form of that result. Imagination, on the other hand, has to do with the way past experience is used and the form taken by the result. It merges into memory in one direction and into thinking in another. No one definition has been found acceptable in fact, in no field of psychology is there more difference of opinion, in no topic are terms used more loosely, than in this one of imagination. Stated in very general terms, imagination is the process of reproducing, or reconstructing any form of experience. The result of such a process is a mental image. When the fact that it is reproduction or reconstruction is lost sight of, and the image reacted to as if it were present, an illusion or hallucination results.

Images may be classified according to the sense through which the original experience came, into visual, auditory, gustatory, tactile, kinaesthetic, and so on. In many discussions of imagery the term “picture” has been used to describe it, and hence in the thought of many it is limited rather definitely to the visual field. Of course this is entirely wrong. The recall of a melody, or of the touch of velvet, or of the fragrance of a rose, is just as much mental imagery as the recall of the sight of a friend.

Three points of dispute in connection with image types are worth while noting. First, the question is raised by some psychologists as to whether kinaesthetic or motor images really exist. An example of such an image would be to imagine yourself as dancing, or walking downstairs, or writing your name, or saying the word “bubble.” Those who object to such an image type claim that when one tries to get such an image, the attempt initiates slight muscle movements and the result is a sense experience instead of an imaged one. They believe this always happens and that therefore a motor image is an impossibility. Others agree that this reinstatement of actual movements often happens, but contend that in such cases the image precedes the movement and that the resulting movement does not always take place. The question is still in dispute.

The second question in dispute is as to the possibility of classifying people according to the predominant type of their imagery. People used to be classed as “visualizers,” “audiles.” etc., the supposition being that their mental imagery was predominantly in terms of vision or hearing. This is being seriously questioned, and experimental work seems to show that such a classification, at least with the majority of people, is impossible. The results which are believed to warrant such a conclusion are as follows: First, no one has ever been tested who always used one type of image. Second, the type of image used changed with the following factors: the material, the purpose of the subject, the familiarity of the subject with the experience imagined. For example, the same person would, perhaps, visualize if he were imaging landscape, but get an auditory image of a friend’s voice instead of a visual image of him. He might, when under experimental conditions with the controlling purpose, that of examining his images, get visual images, but, when under ordinary conditions, get a larger number of auditory and kinaesthetic images. He might when thought was flowing smoothly be using auditory and motor images, but upon the appearance of some obstacle or difficulty in the process find himself flooded with visual images. Third, subjects who ranked high in one type of imagery ranked high in others, and subjects who ranked low in one type ranked low also in others. The ability seems to be that of getting clear image types, or the lack of it, rather than the ability to get one type. Fourth, most of the subjects reported that the first image was usually followed by others of different types. The conclusions then, that individuals, children as well as adults, are rarely of one fixed type, the mixed type being the usual one, is being generally accepted. In fact, it seems much more probable that materials and outside conditions can more easily be classified as usually arousing a certain type of image, than people can be classified into types.

The third point of controversy grows out of the second. Some psychologists are asking what is the value of such a classification? Suppose people could be put under types in imagery, what would be the practical advantage? Such an attempt at classification is futile and not worth while, for two reasons. First, the result of the mental processes the goal arrived at is the important thing, and the particular type of image used is of little importance. Does it make any difference to the business man whether his clerk thinks in terms of the visual images of words or in terms of motor images so long as he sells the goods? To the teacher of geography, does it make any difference whether John in his thinking of the value of trees is seeing them in his mind’s eye, or hearing the wind rustle through the leaves, or smelling the moist earth, leaf-mold, or having none of these images, if he gets the meaning, and reaches a right conclusion? Second, the sense which gives the clearest, most dependable impressions is not the one necessarily in terms of which the experience is recalled. One of the chief values urged for a classification according to image type of people, especially children, has been that the appeal could then be made through the corresponding sense organs. For instance, Group A, being visualizers, will be asked to read the material silently; Group B, audiles, will have the material read to them; Group C, motiles, will be asked to read the material orally, or asked to dramatize it. For each group the major appeal should be made in terms of the sense corresponding to their image type. But such a correspondence as this does not exist. An individual may learn best by use of his eyes and yet very seldom use visual images in recall. This is true of most people in reading. Most people grasp the meaning of a passage better when they read it than when they hear it read, and yet the predominant type of word image is auditory-motor. Hence if any classification of children is attempted it should be according to the sense by means of which they learn best, and not according to some supposed image type. Many methods of appeal for all children is the safest practical suggestion.

Images may also be classified according to the use made of past experience. Past experience may be recalled in approximately the same form in which it occurred, or it may be reconstructed. In the former case the image is called reproductive image or memory image; in the latter form it is called productive or creative image, or image of the imagination. The reproductive image never duplicates experience, but in its major features it closely corresponds to it, whereas the productive image breaks up old experiences and from them makes new wholes which correspond to no definite occurrence. The elements found in both kinds of imagery must come from experience. One cannot imagine anything the elements of which he has not experienced. Creative imagination transcends experience only in the sense that it remodels and remakes, but the result of that activity produces new wholes as far removed from the actual occurrences as “Alice in Wonderland” is from the humdrum life of a tenement dweller. Just the same, the fact that the elements used in creative work must be drawn from experience is extremely suggestive from a practical point of view. It demonstrates the need of a rich sensory life for every child. It also explains the reason for the lack of appreciation on the part of immature children of certain types of literature and certain moral questions.

No more need be said here of the reproductive image, as it is synonymous with the memory image and was therefore treated fully under the topic of memory. One fact should be borne in mind, however, and that is, that the creative image is to some extent dependent on the reproductive image as it involves recall. However, as productive imagery involves the recall of elements or parts rather than wholes, an individual may have talent in creative imagery without being above the average in exact reproduction.

Productive imagery may be classified as fanciful, realistic, and idealistic according to the character of the material used. Fanciful productive imagery is characterized by its spontaneity, its disregard of the probable and possible, its vividness of detail. It is its own reward, and does not look to any result beyond itself. Little children’s imaginations are of this type it is their play world of make-believe. The incongruity and absurdity of their images have been compared to the dreams of adults. Lacking in experience, without knowledge of natural laws, their imagination runs riot with the materials it has at its command. Some adults still retain it to a high degree witness the myths and fairy stories, “Alice in Wonderland,” and the like. All adults in their “castle-building” indulge in this type of imagery to some extent. Realistic productive imagery, as its name implies, adheres more strictly to actual conditions, it deals with the probable. It usually is constructed for a purpose, being put to some end beyond itself. It lacks much of the emotional element possessed by the other two types. This is the kind most valuable in reasoning and thinking. It deals with new situations constructs them, creates means of dealing with them, and forecasts the results. It is the type of productive imagery called into play by inventors, by craftsmen, by physicians, by teachers in fact, by any one who tries to bring about a change in conditions by the functioning of a definite thought process. This is the kind of imagery which most interests grammar school pupils. They demand facts, not fancies. They are most active in making changes in a world of things.

Idealistic productive imagery does not fly in the face of reality as does the fanciful, nor does it adhere so strictly to facts as does the realistic. It deals with the possible with what may be, but with what is not yet. It always looks to the future, for if realized it is no longer idealistic. It is enjoyed for its own sake but does not exist for that alone, but looks towards some result. It is concerned primarily with human lives and has a strong emotional tone. It is the heart of ideals. The adolescent revels in this type of productive imagery. His dreams concerning his own future, his service to his fellow men, his success, and the like involve much idealistic imagery. Hero worship involves it. It is one of the differences between the man with “vision” and the man without.

The importance of productive imagery cannot be overemphasized. This power to create the new out of the old is one of the greatest possessions of mankind. All progress in every field, whether individual or racial, depends upon it. From the fertility and richness of man’s productive imagination must come all the suggestions which will make this world other than what it is. Therefore one of the greatest tasks of education at present is to cherish and cultivate this power. One cannot fail to recognize, however, that with the emphasis at present so largely upon memory, the cultivation of the imagination is being pushed into the background despite all our theories to the contrary. Not only is productive imagery as a whole worth while, but each type is valuable. An adult lacking power of fanciful imagination lacks power to enjoy certain elements in life and lacks a very definite means of recreation. Lacking in realistic imagination he is unable to deal successfully with new situations, but must forever remain in bondage to the past. Without idealistic imagination he lacks the motive which makes men strive to be better, more efficient other than what they are. At certain times in child development one type may need special encouragement, and at another time some other. All should, however, be borne in mind and developed along right and wholesome lines; otherwise, left to itself, any one of these, and especially the last, may be a source of danger to the character.

Images may be classified according to the material dealt with into object images or concrete images and into word or abstract images. No one of these terms is very good as a name of the image referred to. The first group object or concrete image refers to an image in which the sensory qualities, such as color, size, rhythm, sweetness, harmony, etc., are present. The images of a friend, of a text-book, of the national anthem, of an orange, of the schoolroom, and so on, would all be object images. A word or abstract image is one which is a symbol. It stands for and represents certain sensory experiences, the quality of which does not appear in the image. Any word, number, mathematical or chemical symbol in fact, any abstract symbol will come under this type of image. If in the first list of illustrations, instead of having images of the real objects, an individual had images of words in each case, the images would be abstract or verbal images. Abstract images shade into concrete by gradual degrees there is no sharp line of division between the two; however, they do form two different kinds of images, two forms which may have the same meaning.

The question as to the respective use and value of these two kinds of images is given different answers. There is no question but that the verbal image is more economical than the object image. It saves energy and time. It brings with it less of irrelevant detail and is more stable than the object image, and therefore results in more accurate thinking. It is abstract in nature and therefore has more general application. On the other hand, it has been claimed for the object image that it necessarily precedes the verbal image is fundamental to it; that it is essential in creative work dealing with materials and sounds and in the appreciation of certain types of descriptive literature, and that in any part of the thinking process when, because of difficulty of some kind, a percept would help, an object image would be of the same assistance. It is concerning these supposed advantages of the object image that there has been most dispute. There is no proof that the line of growth is necessarily from percept, through object image, to verbal image. In certain fields, notably smell, the object image is almost absent and yet the verbal images in that field carry meaning. It is also true that people whose power of getting clear-cut, vivid object images is almost nil seem to be in nowise hampered by that fact in their use of the symbols. Knowing the unreliability of the object image, it would seem very unsafe to use it as the link between percept and symbol. Much better to connect the symbol directly with the experience and let it gain its meaning from that. As to its value in constructive work in arts, literature, drama, and invention, the testimony of some experts in each field bears witness that it is not a necessary accompaniment of success. The musician need not hear, mentally, all the harmonies, changes, intervals; he may think them in terms of notes, rests, etc., as he composes. The poet need not see the scene he is describing; verbal images may bear his meanings. Of course this does not mean that object images may not be present too, but the point is that the worker is not dependent on them. The aid offered by object images in time of difficulty is still more open to doubt. As an illustration of what is meant by this: Suppose a child to be given a carpeting example in arithmetic which he finds himself unable to solve. The claim is made that if he will then call up a concrete image of the room, he will see that the carpet is laid in strips and that suggestion may set him right. But it has been proved experimentally over and over again that if he doesn’t know that carpets are laid that way, he will never get it from the image, and if he does know it, he doesn’t need an object image. It seems to be a fact that object images do not function, in the sense that one cannot get a correct answer as to color, or form, or number from them. One can read off from a concrete image what he knows to be true of it or else it is just guessing. “Knowing” in each case involves observation and judgment, and that means verbal images. Students whose power of concrete imagery is low do, on the average, in situations where a concrete image would supposedly help, just as well as students whose power in this field is high. It does seem to be true that object images give a vividness and color to mental life which may result in a keener appreciation of certain types of literature. This warmth and vividness which object images add to the mental processes of those who have them is a boon.

On the whole, then, word images are the more valuable of the two types. Upon them depends, primarily, the ability to handle new situations, and even in the constructive fields they are all sufficient. These two facts, added to the fact that they are more accurate, speedy, and general in application, makes them a necessary part of the mental equipment of an efficient worker, and means that much more attention must be given to the development of productive symbol images.

Two warnings should be borne in mind: First, although the object images are not necessary in general, as discussed above, to any given individual, because of his particular habits of thought, they may be necessary accompaniments to his mental processes. Second, although object images may not help in giving understanding or appreciation under new conditions, still the method of asking students to try to image certain conditions is worth while because it makes them stop and think, which is always a help. Whether they get object or word images in the process makes no difference.

The discussion concerning the possibility of “imageless” thought, while an interesting one, cannot be entered into here. Whether “meanings” can exist in the human mind apart from any carrier in the form of some sensory or imaginal state is unsettled, but the discussion has drawn attention to at least the very fragmentary nature of those carriers. A few fragments of words, a mental shrug of the shoulder, a feeling of the direction in which a certain course is leading, a consciousness of one’s attitude towards a plan or person and the conclusion is reached. The thinking, or it may even have been reasoning, involved few clear-cut images of any kind. The fragmentary, schematic nature of the carriers and the large part played by feelings of direction and attitude are the rather astonishing results of the introspective analysis resulting from this discussion. This sort of thinking is valuable for the same reasons that thinking in terms of words is valuable it only goes a step further, but it needs direction and training.

Images of all kinds have been discussed as if they stood out clearly differentiated from all other types of mental states. This is necessary in order that their peculiar characteristics and functions may be clear. However, they are not so clearly defined in actual mental life, but shade into each other and into other mental states, giving rise to confusion and error. The two greatest sources of error are: first, the confusion of image with percept, and second, the confusion of memory image with image of the imagination. The chief difference between these mental states as they exist is a difference in kind and amount of associations. These different associates usually give to the percept a vividness and material reality which the other two lack. They give to the memory image a feeling of pastness and trueness which the image of imagination lacks. Therefore lack of certain associations, due to lack of experience or knowledge, or presence of associations due to these same causes and to the undue vividness of other connections, could easily result in one of these states being mistaken for another. There is no inherent difference between them. The first type of confusion, between percept and image, has been recently made the subject of investigation. Perky found that even with trained adults, if the perceptual stimulus was slight, it was mistaken for an image. All illusions would come under this head. Children’s imaginary companions, when really believed in, are explained by this confusion. However, the confusion is much more general than these illustrations would seem to imply. The fact that “Love is blind,” that “We see what we look for” are but statements of this same confusion, and these two facts enter into multitudes of situations all through life. The need to “see life clearly and see it whole” is an imperative one.

The second type of confusion, between reproductive and productive memory, is even more common. The “white lies” of children, the embroidering of a story by the adult, the adding to and adding to the original experience until all sense of what really happened is lost, are but ordinary facts of everyday experiences. The unreliability of witness and testimony is due, in part, to this confusion.


1. How is the process of imagination like memory?

2. What is the relation of imagination to thinking?

3. What kind of images do you seek to have children use in their work in the subjects which you teach?

4. Can you classify the members of your class as visualizers, audiles, and the like?

5. If one learns most readily by reading rather than hearing, does it follow that his images will be largely visual? Why?

6. Give examples from your own experience of memory images; of creative images.

7. To what degree does creative imagination depend upon past experiences?

8. What type of imagery is most important for the work of the inventor? The farmer? The social reformer?

9. Of what significance in the life of an adult is fanciful imagery?

10. What, if any, is the danger involved in reveling in idealistic productive imagery?

11. What advantages do verbal images possess as over against object images?

12. Why would you ask children to try to image in teaching literature, geography, history, or any other subject for which you are responsible?

13. How would you handle a boy who is hi the habit of confusing memory images with images of imagination?

14. In what sense is it true that all progress, is dependent upon productive imagination?