Imagination is sometimes claimed to be a uniquely human ability, and it has long intrigued psychologists. “Nevertheless, our understanding of the benefits and risks that individual differences in imagination hold for psychological outcomes is currently limited,” note two researchers who have created a new psychometric test – the Imaginative Behaviour Engagement Scale (IBES) – for measuring how much imagination a person has, and then used it to investigate whether, as some earlier work hinted, having a stronger imagination might aid learning and creativity.
According to Sophie von Stumm at the University of York and Hannah Scott at UCL, writing in the British Journal of Psychology, imagination is the tendency to create “mental representations of concepts, ideas and sensations in the mind that are not contemporaneously perceived by the senses [and ranges] from the re-creation of images or sensory perceptions in the mind that were previously seen and experienced in reality ….to crafting images anew independent of prior actual sensory input.”
It’s not exactly a snappy definition. But that’s partly a consequence of what the pair terms the “definition and measurement issues” that have plagued academic inquiry into imagination, including a lack of agreement among psychologists on a precise definition that distinguishes it from related constructs, such as fantasy or mental imagery.
To research what the new test should include, von Stumm and Scott conducted a literature search and interviews with “expert psychometricians”. This led them to identify seven “domains of imagination” and their test includes two items measuring each of these, including how much a person: had imaginary friends as a child; is inclined to daydreaming; dreams; thinking styles (for example: “Do you ever play around with ideas just for fun?”); how often they feel a sense of feeling transported while reading a book or watching a movie; their “imaginative responsiveness” (for example: “If you wished, could you imagine that you had an additional arm so much that you would feel the limb and its movements?”) and their proclivity for fantasies.
In the first study, the pair explored links between imagination (based on the IBES), personality and learning performance in 180 participants who were mostly undergraduate students. After taking an initial logical thinking test and then studying a scholarly text, the participants were immediately tested, and then later re-tested a week later, to see what they could remember of the text. They also completed the IBES and personality surveys at various time-points. Their IBES scores correlated with their learning ability, but only very weakly and not as strongly as did their scores on the logical thinking test and on Openness to Experience (one of the Big Five personality traits).
In a second study of 128 mostly British members of the general population, von Stumm and Scott looked for any associations between measures of imagination and creativity and schizotypal beliefs. (Schizotypal beliefs include odd beliefs and magical thinking, suspiciousness – and also unusual perceptual experiences). The researchers also considered the participants’ scores on facets of Openness to Experience, including the Fantasy facet.
Participants’ scores on imagination correlated with just one aspect of their creativity known as “creative ideation” (defined as the use of, appreciation of and skill with ideas, assessed using a self-report scale). Notably, imagination scores were not related to creative ability, which was measured using tests that asked the participants to write down as many uses as they could think of for a ping pong ball, a plank of wood and a paperclip (responses were scored for originality and functionality), nor with real-life creative achievements. On the other hand, a stronger imagination was correlated more strongly with the schizotypal belief scales and the Fantasy facet of the Openness to Experience personality trait (in fact, as the authors note, their new IBES test seemed to be tapping something very similar to the Fantasy personality facet) .
The findings suggest that being more imaginative – as measured in this study – is associated more with having schizotypal beliefs (or non-helpful “cognitive eccentricities”) rather than being something that’s useful in accumulating knowledge or producing new and useful ideas. This may be because learning and (to a certain extent) creativity require focused attention. “We propose here that the shared lack of executive control in imagination and schizotypal beliefs gives rise to their association and differentiates them from effortful, more regulated cognitive processes like learning and creativity,” von Stumm and Scott write.
One problem with the study, though, is in the wording used to tap participants’ creative ideation and imagination, compared with the test for creative ability, and also creative achievement (which measured their total creative achievements – such as having a song recorded – in their lives to date) . For the first two, participants reported their typical behavior, whereas for creative ability and achievement, their maximum ability was measured – this discrepancy could have easily skewed the results and led to lower correlations between imagination and creative ability/achievement.
Also, it’s worth noting that other work has found an association between schizotypy and creativity, so “cognitive eccentricities” may sometimes be useful. It’s hard, too, to believe that the strength of one’s imagination would be essentially irrelevant to one’s creative ability – in certain fields, anyway. JK Rowling, for instance, may have applied herself to the focused job of constructing a coherent plot, but without a strong, unfocused imagination, it’s hard to see how she would have achieved her creative success.
What, then, do the results really show? The clearest suggestions from all this correlational data seem to be that if you have a strong imagination, this won’t help you with academic study. It might mean that you’re more likely to hold unconventional beliefs. It’s also associated with creative thinking, though not creative ability and achievement (at least not as measured in this study).
A clearer idea of how the strength of imagination affects various outcomes in life will require longitudinal research. Certainly, the debate about what exactly imagination is – and how it may help or hinder us – is not over yet.