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A complex cognitive process of forming a mental scene that includes elements which are not, at the moment, being perceived by the senses.

Imagination involves the synthetic combining of aspects of memories or experiences into a mental construction that differs from past or present perceived reality, and may anticipate future reality. Generally regarded as one of the "higher mental functions," it is not thought to be present in animals. Imagination may be fantastic, fanciful, wishful, or problem-solving, and may differ from reality to a slight or great extent. Imagination is generally considered to be a foundation of artistic expression, and, within limits, to be a healthy, creative, higher mental function.

Observers as diverse as Plato and Samuel Taylor Coleridge have noted two contrasting types of imagination. One is largely imitative and concerned with mentally reconstructing past events or images. Among the imitative types of imagination is eidetic imagery, which consists of rich and vividly recalled images and is especially characteristic of children up to the age of six. Afterimages, such as the green image that appears after looking at the color red, are a type of imitative image and are produced by sense receptors. A synesthetic image is produced by the conjunction of two senses such as occurs when hearing a certain piece of music elicits a visual image with which it is associated in the mind of the listener. Hypnagogic images are unusually clear images produced in the state between sleep and waking. Hallucinations are vivid, detailed images produced in the absence of external stimuli and generally confused with real images. Dreams are images occurring in a sleeping state that are usually not confused with reality once the sleeper awakes.

In contrast to imitative images, creative imagination is associated with thought and involves the restructuring, rather than merely the retention, of sensory impressions. It was this faculty that Coleridge called "imagination" as opposed to "fancy," his name for imitative imagining. One common form of creative imagination is daydreaming. At one time, daydreaming and fantasies were regarded as compensatory activities that had the function of "letting off steam," but recent research has cast doubt on that theory. Creative imagination is the basis for achievements in the realms of both art and science, and students of behavior have analyzed the creative process in hopes of being able to encourage greater creativity through various types of training. New discoveries about the specialized functions of the right-and left-brain hemispheres have revealed that the right-brain hemisphere is the center for much of the mental functioning commonly regarded as creative: it is the side associated with intuitive leaps of insight and the ability to synthesize existing elements into new wholes. These findings have been applied by educators seeking to enhance individual creativity in areas including writing and drawing.

After falling into neglect as an area of inquiry during the period when behaviorism was preeminent, mental imagery has become a significant topic of study for cognitive psychologists. Researchers have found that imagery plays a significant role in emotion, motivation, sexual behavior, and many aspects of cognition, including learning, language acquisition, memory, problem-solving, and perception. Mental imagery has also been found to be a useful technique in clinical work. In addition to Gestalt therapy, which has traditionally involved the use of images, a number of image-based therapies have emerged in the United States and elsewhere. Mental images have also been used as a diagnostic tool to reveal feelings and attitudes not accessible through verbalization.

Further Reading

Bronowski, Jacob. The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Ibn Bajjah (Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn-Yahya ibn-al-Saʼigh, c.1106–38) Biography to Perception: cultural differences