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The Material Used By Imagination

What is the material, the mental content, out of which imagination
builds its structures?

IMAGES THE STUFF OF IMAGINATION.--Nothing can enter the imagination the
elements of which have not been in our past experience and then been
conserved in the form of images. The Indians never dreamed of a heaven
whose streets are paved with gold, and in whose center stands a great
white throne. Their experience had given them no knowledge of these
things; and so, perforce, they must build their heaven out of the images
which they had at command, namely, those connected with the chase and
the forest. So their heaven was the happy hunting ground, inhabited by
game and enemies over whom the blessed forever triumphed. Likewise the
valiant soldiers whose deadly arrows and keen-edged swords and
battle-axes won on the bloody field of Hastings, did not picture a
far-off day when the opposing lines should kill each other with mighty
engines hurling death from behind parapets a dozen miles away. Firearms
and the explosive powder were yet unknown, hence there were no images
out of which to build such a picture.

I do not mean that your imagination cannot construct an object which has
never before been in your experience as a whole, for the work of the
imagination is to do precisely this thing. It takes the various images
at its disposal and builds them into wholes which may never have
existed before, and which may exist now only as a creation of the mind.
And yet we have put into this new product not a single element which
was not familiar to us in the form of an image of one kind or another.
It is the form which is new; the material is old. This is
exemplified every time an inventor takes the two fundamental parts of a
machine, the lever and the inclined plane, and puts them together in
relations new to each other and so evolves a machine whose complexity
fairly bewilders us. And with other lines of thinking, as in mechanics,
inventive power consists in being able to see the old in new relations,
and so constantly build new constructions out of old material. It is
this power which gives us the daring and original thinker, the Newton
whose falling apple suggested to him the planets falling toward the sun
in their orbits; the Darwin who out of the thigh bone of an animal was
able to construct in his imagination the whole animal and the
environment in which it must have lived, and so add another page to the
earth's history.

THE TWO FACTORS IN IMAGINATION.--From the simple facts which we have
just been considering, the conclusion is plain that our power of
imagination depends on two factors; namely, (1) the materials available
in the form of usable images capable of recall, and (2) our
constructive ability, or the power to group these images into new
wholes, the process being guided by some purpose or end. Without this
last provision, the products of our imagination are daydreams with their
castles in Spain, which may be pleasing and proper enough on
occasions, but which as an habitual mode of thought are extremely

IMAGINATION LIMITED BY STOCK OF IMAGES.--That the mind is limited in its
imagination by its stock of images may be seen from a simple
illustration: Suppose that you own a building made of brick, but that
you find the old one no longer adequate for your needs, and so purpose
to build a new one; and suppose, further, that you have no material for
your new building except that contained in the old structure. It is
evident that you will be limited in constructing your new building by
the material which was in the old. You may be able to build the new
structure in any one of a multitude of different forms or styles of
architecture, so far as the material at hand will lend itself to that
style of building, and providing, further, that you are able to make
the plans. But you will always be limited finally by the character and
amount of material obtainable from the old structure. So with the mind.
The old building is your past experience, and the separate bricks are
the images out of which you must build your new structure through the
imagination. Here, as before, nothing can enter which was not already on
hand. Nothing goes into the new structure so far as its constructive
material is concerned except images, and there is nowhere to get images
but from the results of our past experience.

imaginative output limited by the amount of material in the way of
images which we have at our command, but also and perhaps not less by
our constructive ability. Many persons might own the old pile of
bricks fully adequate for the new structure, and then fail to get the
new because they were unable to construct it. So, many who have had a
rich and varied experience in many lines are yet unable to muster their
images of these experiences in such a way that new products are
obtainable from them. These have the heavy, draft-horse kind of
intellect which goes plodding on, very possibly doing good service in
its own circumscribed range, but destined after all to service in the
narrow field with its low, drooping horizon. They are never able to take
a dash at a two-minute clip among equally swift competitors, or even
swing at a good round pace along the pleasant highways of an experience
lying beyond the confines of the narrow here and now. These are the
minds which cannot discover relations; which cannot think. Minds of
this type can never be architects of their own fate, or even builders,
but must content themselves to be hod carriers.

THE NEED OF A PURPOSE.--Nor are we to forget that we cannot
intelligently erect our building until we know the purpose for which
it is to be used. No matter how much building material we may have on
hand, nor how skillful an architect we may be, unless our plans are
guided by some definite aim, we shall be likely to end with a structure
that is fanciful and useless. Likewise with our thought structure.
Unless our imagination is guided by some aim or purpose, we are in
danger of drifting into mere daydreams which not only are useless in
furnishing ideals for the guidance of our lives, but often become
positively harmful when grown into a habit. The habit of daydreaming is
hard to break, and, continuing, holds our thought in thrall and makes it
unwilling to deal with the plain, homely things of everyday life. Who
has not had the experience of an hour or a day spent in a fairyland of
dreams, and awakened at the end to find himself rather dissatisfied with
the prosaic round of duties which confronted him! I do not mean to say
that we should never dream; but I know of no more pernicious mental
habit than that of daydreaming carried to excess, for it ends in our
following every will-o'-the-wisp of fancy, and places us at the mercy of
every chance suggestion.

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Previous: The Place Of Imagination In Mental Economy

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