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The Function Of Images

Binet says that the man who has not every type of imagery almost equally
well developed is only the fraction of a man. While this no doubt puts
the matter too strongly, yet images do play an important part in our

pictures from which imagination builds its structures. Given a rich
supply of images from the various senses, and imagination has the
material necessary to construct times and events long since past, or to
fill the future with plans or experiences not yet reached. Lacking
images, however, imagination is handicapped, and its meager products
reveal in their barrenness and their lack of warmth and reality the
poverty of material.

Much of our memory also takes the form of images. The face of a friend,
the sound of a voice, or the touch of a hand may be recalled, not as a
mere fact, but with almost the freshness and fidelity of a percept. That
much of our memory goes on in the form of ideas instead of images is
true. But memory is often both aided in its accuracy and rendered more
vital and significant through the presence of abundant imagery.

IMAGERY IN THE THOUGHT PROCESSES.--Since logical thinking deals more
with relations and meanings than with particular objects, images
naturally play a smaller part in reasoning than in memory and
imagination. Yet they have their place here as well. Students of
geometry or trigonometry often have difficulty in understanding a
theorem until they succeed in visualizing the surface or solid involved.
Thinking in the field of astronomy, mechanics, and many other sciences
is assisted at certain points by the ability to form clear and accurate

THE USE OF IMAGERY IN LITERATURE.--Facility in the use of imagery
undoubtedly adds much to our enjoyment and appreciation of certain
forms of literature. The great writers commonly use all types of images
in their description and narration. If we are not able to employ the
images they used, many of their most beautiful pictures are likely to be
to us but so many words suggesting prosaic ideas.

Shakespeare, describing certain beautiful music, appeals to the sense of
smell to make himself understood:

... it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor!

Lady Macbeth cries:

Here's the smell of the blood still:
All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.

Milton has Eve say of her dream of the fatal apple:

... The pleasant sav'ry smell
So quickened appetite, that I, methought,
Could not but taste.

Likewise with the sense of touch:

... I take thy hand, this hand
As soft as dove's down, and as white as it.

Imagine a person devoid of delicate tactile imagery, with senseless
finger tips and leaden footsteps, undertaking to interpret these
exquisite lines:

Thus I set my printless feet
O'er the cowslip's velvet head,
That bends not as I tread.

Shakespeare thus appeals to the muscular imagery:

At last, a little shaking of mine arm
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being.

Many passages like the following appeal to the temperature images:

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
Thou dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot!

To one whose auditory imagery is meager, the following lines will lose
something of their beauty:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here we will sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Note how much clear images will add to Browning's words:

Are there not two moments in the adventure of a diver--one when a
beggar he prepares to plunge, and one, when a prince he rises with
his pearl?

images come flooding into our minds which are irrelevant and of no
service in our thinking. No one has failed to note many such. Further,
we undoubtedly do much of our best thinking with few or no images
present. Yet we need images. Where, then, are they most needed? Images
are needed wherever the percepts which they represent would be of
service. Whatever one could better understand or enjoy or appreciate by
seeing it, hearing it, or perceiving it through some other sense, he can
better understand, enjoy or appreciate through images than by means of
ideas only.

Next: The Cultivation Of Imagery

Previous: Individual Differences In Imagery

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