Imagination refers to creating mental representations of concepts, ideas, and sensations in the mind that are not contemporaneously perceived by the senses. Imagination ranges from the re-creation of images or sensory perceptions in the mind that were previously seen or experienced in reality (i.e., reproductive imagination) to crafting images anew independent of prior actual sensory input (i.e., productive imagination).
Imagination is both a cognitive process and a trait dimension of individual differences. With regards to the cognitive process, the functions of imagination range from filling the gaps in our perception of the world around us to taking other people’s perspective to forecasting future outcomes for ourselves as well as others. When viewing imagination as a trait dimension of individual differences, all the cognitive process functions are considered, although the focus is on people’s differences in imaginative behavior engagement, ranging from daydreaming to fantasizing to visualizing and re-creating information in the mind. As a result of its many functions and behavioral implications, imagination emerges as a key variable for learning, because it carries into effect the transition from experience to conceptual knowledge.
Engaging in imaginative behaviors is not always voluntary, as is the case in many psychiatric disorders, in which the distinction between perception and imagination is blurred. For example, individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) have a heightened sensitivity to perceiving threats, which are essentially delusions but cause engaging in strict, ritualistic behaviors. Many severe psychiatric conditions are characterized by experiencing psychotic or hallucinogenic episodes, in which imagined sensory information like sounds and images become indistinguishable from real sensory input (DSM-5 2013). However, imagination per se refers to nonpathological mental activity rather than clinical conditions. Some philosophical and spiritual writers have suggested that imagination bridges the conscious, unconscious, and spirits, and that it is inherent to the success of various meditation and mindfulness techniques. In this perspective, imagination is a force that cautiously moves the individual away from reality and toward fantastical thinking, while intentional control is maintained over the images and concepts that form in the mind.
Differentiating the Construct Space of Imagination
The imagination construct space is commonly differentiated into productive and reproductive imagination. Reproductive imagination refers to the formation of previously experienced images or concepts, whilst productive imagination refers to the construction of novel images or concepts. However, this distinction of imagination has been challenged for two reasons. For one, the simple reproduction of images is likely to be associated with the ability to visualize rather with imagination. For the other, all imagination is inevitably in part reproductive because the creation of new images or ideas requires the initial input of some sensory information. In other words, no imagination occurs and develops in a vacuum.
Imagination and Creativity
Imagination is often mentioned in the same breath as creativity, as if they described the same psychological faculty. Alas, they do not. Creativity is defined as the production of something novel and useful (Sternberg and Lubart 1996), while imagination refers to the creation of mental representations of things not concurrently present to the senses (see above). It follows that imagination is a prerequisite of creativity, which will not occur without imagination. By contrast, imagination does not guarantee that creativity will occur or that any kind of output or product will be achieved. Imagination only occurs within the mind and no directly observable manifestation follows. As a consequence, quantifying imagination is even more difficult than quantifying creativity, which can be directly and objectively observed in terms of creative achievement.
Imagination and Intelligence
Although both are thought to be positively related to learning achievement, imagination and intelligence have long been understood to be at least distinct, if not separate entities. Francis Galton (1880) conducted the first psychological study in history on individual differences mental imagery, where he sought to “…define the different degrees of vividness with which different persons have the faculty of recalling familiar scenes under the form of mental pictures, and the peculiarities of the mental visions of different persons” (p. 301). Galton began “questioning friends in the scientific world, as they were the most likely class of men to give accurate answers concerning this faculty of visualising” (p. 301). He was astonished to find that his friends “protested that mental imagery was unknown to them” (p. 301). Galton proceeded to studying mental imagery in “general society,” who – to his satisfaction – confirmed experiencing diverse mental imagery. To account for his findings, Galton argued that the ability to vividly visualize was a skill under voluntary control of the intellectually gifted, who were typically so absorbed by abstract thought that they rarely relied on visualizations. He concluded that “an over-readiness to perceive clear mental pictures” (p. 301) was antagonistic to higher intelligence and thus that imagination was inherently a nonintellectual trait dimension.
McGeoch (1924) followed up Galton’s work and tested the relationship between intelligence and imagination in a sample of “roughly 100 cases.” He used inkblot, word-building, and linguistic ability tests to measure imagination and correlated the scores with the Army Alpha, a standard IQ test created to evaluate the intellectual functioning of American soldiers during World War I. Intelligence correlated moderately with the world-building test but not with the other two measures of imagination. Although the different imagination tests were only weakly inter-correlated and thus, likely to assess different constructs, McGeoch concluded that intelligence and imagination were separate domains.
Visualization is likely to be a key concept for understanding the relationship between intelligence and imagination. Tests for visualization generally comprise of mentally rotating objects and are used as part of general intelligence measures (McGrew 2009). Similar to imagination being a predecessor of creativity, visualization may be an essential condition of imaginative thinking, although it does not imply the creation of novel or original images. However, the clarity and vividness of visualization are likely to vary as a function of intelligence or general cognitive ability rather than as a function of individual differences in imagination.
Assessing Individual Differences in Imagination
Imagination can be thought of as an ability, referring to an individual’s maximum performance or what they can do. An alternative approach is to think of imagination in terms of typical performance, or what a person is most likely to do (Intelligence-Personality). Currently, no consensus has been achieved about the “correct” conceptualization of imagination. Accordingly, both ability- and trait-type measures coexist to assess individual differences in imagination, which are likely to capture different aspects of the imagination construct space. Below, the tests of imagination most widely used in psychological science are discussed.
Openness to Experience Within the Five-Factor Model
According to its most popular measurement (NEO-PI-R; Costa and McCrae 1992), the Five Factor Model’s dimension of openness to experience (Big Five Model) spans six facets, including fantasy, which is defined as receptivity to the inner world of imagination. Individuals who score high on fantasy have a vivid imagination and an active fantasy life, and they daydream not to escape but to create an interesting inner world for themselves. Presumably because of the measure’s brevity (i.e., eight items), several aspects of imagination – for example, future scenarios or specific imaginative behaviors like having imaginative friends – are not assessed.
Vividness of Visual Imagery
The vividness of visual imagery questionnaire (VVIQ) is a self-report measure that tests the propensity to forming mental images (Marks 1973). Participants are asked to imagine four different scenarios, such as the rising sun, and rate the vividness of different elements of the image that they perceive. The VVIQ only assesses the visual aspect of imagination that is closely linked to visualization, which, as previously discussed, is not interchangeable with imagination. Although the VVIQ was frequently administered in psychological studies throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it is now mostly used as a benchmark measure in the development of other, more reliable and objective tests for imagination.
Measures of Absorption
Both the Creative Imagination Scale (Wilson and Barber 1978) and the Tellegen Absorption Scale (Tellegen and Atkinson 1974) were developed to assess imaginative suggestibility and individual differences in the susceptibility to being hypnotized. The Creative Imagination Scale uses a hypnotic script to get participants to imagine a series of scenarios and perceptual manipulations, such as increasing the temperature of their hand, before rating how similar they believe the imagined experience is to reality. Unlike the VVIQ above, the Creative Imagination Scale relies on a variety of sensory inputs and does not focus exclusively on visualization. The Tellegen Absorption Scale assesses individual differences in the openness to absorbing and self-altering experiences, including the tendency to remove oneself mentally from the current reality. Overall, measures of absorption focus more on capturing individual differences in being captured within their mind rather than in creating mental representations of ideas, concepts, and previous sensory experiences.
A principal difficulty for studying imagination lies in its intrinsic nature and its dissociation from directly observable behaviors. As a result, an objective, reliable, and comprehensive measures of imagination are currently not available. Notwithstanding its challenges, the empirical study of imagination is readily justified by the theoretical relevance of imaginative behavior engagements for learning and cognitive function. Future research is needed to develop and apply new methods that will elucidate imagination and its nomothetic network.