Imagination images are similar to memory images in terms of vividness and having no location in space, but they differ in that they contain elements that are not part of personal experience. Images of things impossible to experience, such as Pegasus or a golden mountain, are classic examples of imagination images. This classification also includes images of things from personal experience that have been intentionally modified through the work of the imagination. If I form an image of what my shirt would be like when it is monogrammed, I am using an imagination image rather than a memory image. In general, the contents of imagination images are consciously directed by us.
The element of surprise and the possibility of discovery are also important in differentiating imagination from memory. Sometimes, imagination images have a degree of autonomy, and we "see" or imagine things we did not actively anticipate. This can occur in active fantasy, or as Chambers and Reisberg point out, in the surprising conjuncture of imagined elements. One might be tempted to say that surprise is also possible in memory images. In recalling an incident from yesterday, for example, I might be surprised by the image that occurs to me. Perhaps the look on someone's face or the memory of what someone was wearing suddenly assumes prominence in my mental image. To differentiate this sort of experience from imagination memory, I want to emphasize that imagination memory implies more consciously directed activity, generally with specific purposes in mind, on the part of the subject. Passing memories, incidentally aroused, even if surprising, do not count.
Imagination images seem to play an important part in problem solving and in creativity, but they are generally held to be distinct from thought imagery. Einstein's famous mental image of himself riding along with a light wave is perhaps the most famous use of imagination memory in recent history. Whether or not it is actually the image or the thought (descriptions, propostions, or perhaps formulas) that goes with it that is doing the real creative work is a matter of controversy.
Imagination images can produce measurable physiological responses. Many athletes now use imagination imagery to improve their techniques, and there appears to be some evidence in to support the idea that imagining a certain movement of the body actually helps train the muscles involved in that movement.Return to Introduction to Mental Images Page