How to Improve Your Imagination | Inspirational Podcasts

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Today’s podcast was edited and adapted from Secrets of Mental Supremacy by W. R. C. Latson, published in 1913.

THE universe to us is but a projection of our own inner consciousness. Of all the powers of the mind, imagination is the most picturesque, and, in many respects, the most interesting. Without it, the world would be barren. Not merely would there be no pictures, no music, no books, but there would be no houses, no bridges, no ocean liners, no great business enterprises — nothing, in fact; for everything that humanity has made was first conceived in the imagination before it was born into the world.

We cannot think of a person being without any power of imagination, for that is an impossibility. But many, many people, I am sorry to say, are greatly deficient in imagination. And this lack of imagination alone is enough to render them commonplace, uninteresting, and of lesser use in the world. A man or woman may be deficient in imagination and yet be honest, straightforward, hard-working, conscientious. But for such a person, the higher rewards of life are hopelessly unattainable. They may make an excellent bookkeeper, but never an accountant; a skillful typist, but never an author; a faithful brick-layer, but never a builder. The accountant, the author, the builder, must have imagination.

Of course when it comes to any actual creative work — painting, sculpture, musical composition, literature — the power of imagination (highly trained, refined, daring, and vivid) is the great essential. The creators of famous masterpieces have, in instances, lacked everything else but that one thing — imagination. Some great artists have lived all their lives in misery and want. Some have been ignorant, some have been coarse, some have been immoral, some have been eccentric, some have been almost, or quite, insane. But one thing all have possessed in common, and that is — a superb imagination.

In no respect, I believe, do people differ so widely as in the power and activity of their faculty of imagination. Hundreds of men and women have walked and sat in an old country churchyard, and no one had observed there anything that was especially interesting or picturesque. But one day there came to the churchyard a man with a fine imagination, a poet. He saw more than mere grass and trees and headstones; and he gave to the world perhaps the most perfect poem in the English language. His name is Thomas Gray, and the poem was the famous “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.”

Likewise, countless people had seen an apple fall from a tree to the ground. But one day a person with a great imagination saw that commonplace thing. His imagination seized upon it, and he propounded Newton’s theory of the law of gravitation, one of the most important achievements in the whole history of human thought. And so we might go on indefinitely. Enough, perhaps, to repeat that the world’s masters have always been possessed of fine and daring imagination, and that, without great powers of imagination, there can be accomplished no great or important work of any nature whatsoever.

Perhaps you feel that your own imagination does not always serve you as well as it should. Perhaps you are wishing that it was better — that you could produce in it such improvement as to enable you to create some good and worthy thing in the world. In that case, I am glad to be able to tell you that, of all the powers of the mind, none is capable of being so easily, conveniently, and rapidly cultivated as the imagination. And I may remark that, as in the case of other faculties, the means taken to cultivate the imagination will at the same time train and strengthen your mind in every other direction.

First of all, it must be understood that the act of imagining, of bringing images before the mind, is not a separate function of the mind, but that it is closely interwoven with (partly consists of, in fact) several other mental faculties. So, in developing the power of imagination we must first speak of these other faculties which are really a part of it.

If we study an act of imagination, we shall find that first of all we must have some material for our image. To most people, the act of imagination means the creation of something entirely new. They think that the picture created by the painter, the poet, the novelist, is new in every detail. This is a radical error. The artist does not create anything that is entirely new. And this for a very good reason — there is not and never will be anything entirely new.

Now, as in the days of Solomon: “There is nothing new under the sun.” You may imagine, for instance, a green horse with purple wings. And say: “Surely, that is an entirely new idea.” I say: “No, it is merely a new combination of four very old and commonplace ideas — a horse, a pair of wings, and the two colors, green and purple.” And so, in all creations, no matter what they may be — however new they may seem — it is only the combination that is new. The materials combined are old, as old, very often, as human thought itself.

We see, then, that the first raw material for imagination is our perceptions — the things we have seen and heard and felt and smelled and tasted. And it seems hardly necessary to state that the better service we get from our senses and perceptions, the more clear and vivid will be our power to bring before the mind images made up of those things. The first task, then, of those who would develop their power of imagination is to educate the senses.

The imagination, however, requires more than mere perception. The things perceived must be remembered. A thing that we have forgotten — lost out of the conscious mind — cannot be used as material for an act of imagination. The things perceived and remembered must be grouped and associated into clusters; so that when we wish to imagine a certain picture, we will have a vast amount of material in our mind from which to select materials for that picture. In cultivating the power of imagination, then, we must begin by educating perception, memory, and association — for (and here is my definition of imagination) imagination is merely a combination of perception, memory, and association with initiative: with will.

Let me remind you that you are exercising your imagination all the time during all your waking hours. You imagine thousands of things every day. Everything you do, every person you go to meet, everything you say — these are all in the imagination before they become realities. Your imagination has much exercise, but— it is not the right kind of exercise. The mental pictures are not clear and vivid. How shall you make them so? Demand it of yourself.

This brings us to our first practical exercise. Get a good, lively novel, something full of action, and as near as possible to the here and the now. Make yourself comfortable and begin to read. When you come to the end of the first paragraph, stop and imagine before your mind a clear picture of what was expressed or described. Was it a scene? See it: mountains, sea, farmhouse, city residence, cold, warm, rainy, bright. Try to make the image as vivid as it would be were you actually gazing on the scene.

During the next paragraph the scene is changed. Something is added to the picture. See this. Take as much time as needed; it is an exercise. Then comes a person, say a man. See him. Is he tall, short, dark, light, prepossessing, repellent? How is he dressed? Force yourself to imagine every detail. And so on, for a chapter. By this time, if you have acted conscientiously in accordance with my hints, you will feel an understanding, an interest, and a sympathy with that book and its characters that will surprise you.

By the time you have read a dozen chapters in this manner you will have proven to yourself in many ways that your imagination — and, in fact, all your mental powers — have markedly improved. Besides, you will know for the first time the real joy of reading. This is the kind of reading Emerson had in mind when he said: “There is the creative reading as well as creative writing.”

Another method by which the imaging faculty can be cultivated is the following: Take fifteen or twenty minutes at the end of the day and make a detailed review of its more important occurrences. Take as much time as needed. Supply every detail. See and hear again everything that was said and done. Examine each episode critically. What mistakes did you make? In what way could you have handled the situation more easily, advantageously, diplomatically? How would you proceed again under similar circumstances?

In this exercise be careful, first, to see — actually see, clearly and vividly — every event, person, action, detail, of each episode. Second, when imagining how you and others might have acted, beware of criticizing the actions of other people. Try to feel that whatever went wrong, you, yourself (had you possessed sufficient will, sympathy, delicacy, intelligence, and control) might have made it right. Don’t try to finish all the events of the day; that would be impossible. When the fifteen or twenty minutes are up, stop. This was the method of Pythagoras, who devoted his entire evening to meditating on the occurrences of the day.

Now, for developing the power of auditory imagination the following methods are useful. Recall to mind the words and melody of some familiar song as rendered by a good singer, and imagine how it sounds. Hear the words, note the quality of the voice and accompaniment. Three or four songs or three or four repetitions of the same song are enough for one exercise. In similar fashion, you could call up in your memory, one at a time, the various sounds of the country or nature and hear them in your imagination — the hum of bees, the sound of the wind, the rustling of leaves, the cries of various birds, the lowing of cattle, and other noises peculiar to life in the country.

Another exercise of value is the following: Recall some experience of your past which, at the time, made a strong impression upon you. Review it in all its details, slowly and carefully. Consider its causes — the means whereby it would have been prevented; outside influences which affected it; the consequences of the event upon yourself and others. What influence has it had upon your life since that time? Good? Bad? Why? If good, may the same experience not be realized again? If bad, by what means may it be avoided? This method should be followed with various experiences. And ultimately you will find that the process develops far more than imagination. It teaches reason, judgment, self-control, and that thoughtful intelligent care of the self which is the happy medium between brutal selfishness and base self-abnegation.

A few hours a week devoted to study along lines which I have here sketched, will do wonders, not only in cultivating the power of imagination, but in developing every desirable quality of mind.

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