Olin Levi Warner, Imagination (1896). Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.

Imagination is the production of sensations, feelings and thoughts informing oneself.[1] These experiences can be re-creations of past experiences, such as vivid memories with imagined changes, or completely invented and possibly fantastic scenes.[2] Imagination helps apply knowledge to solve problems and is fundamental to integrating experience and the learning process.[3][4][5][full citation needed][6] As a way of building theory, it is called "disciplined imagination".[7] A way of training imagination is by listening to storytelling (narrative),[3][8] in which the exactness of the chosen words is how it can "evoke worlds".[9][full citation needed]

One view of imagination links it with cognition,[10] seeing imagination as a cognitive process used in mental functioning. It is used — in the form of visual imagery — by clinicians in psychological treatment.[11] Imaginative thought may become associated with rational thought on the assumption that both activities involve cognitive processes that "underpin thinking about possibilities".[12]

The cognate term, "mental imagery" may be used in psychology to denote the process of reviving in the mind recollections of objects formerly given in sense perception. Since this use of the term conflicts with that of ordinary language, some psychologists have preferred to describe this process as "imaging" or "imagery" or to speak of it as "reproductive" as opposed to "productive" or "constructive" imagination. Constructive imagination is further divided into voluntary imagination driven by the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC) and involuntary imagination (LPFC-independent), such as REM sleep dreaming, daydreaming, hallucinations, and spontaneous insight.[13] The voluntary types of imagination include integration of modifiers[jargon], and mental rotation. Imagined images, both novel and recalled, are seen with the "mind's eye".

Imagination, however, is not considered to be exclusively a cognitive activity because it is also linked to the body and place, particularly in that it also involves setting up relationships with materials and people, precluding the sense that imagination is locked away in the head.[14]

Imagination can be expressed through stories and writings such as fairy tales, fantasies, science fiction.[15] Children often use such narratives and pretend play in order to exercise their imaginations. When children develop fantasy they play at two levels: first, they use role playing to act out what they have developed with their imagination, and at the second level they play again with their make-believe situation by acting as if what they have developed is an actual reality.[16]


Imaginatio is the standard Latin translation of the Greek term phantasia.[17] Aristotle in On the Soul considered phantasia (imagination) as the capacity for making mental images, and distinguished it from perception and from thinking. He held however that thought was always accompanied by an image.[18]

The notion of a "mind's eye" goes back at least to Cicero's reference to mentis oculi during his discussion of the orator's appropriate use of simile.[19] Cicero observed that allusions to "the Syrtis of his patrimony" and "the Charybdis of his possessions" involved similes that were "too far-fetched". He advised the orator to, instead, just speak of "the rock" and "the gulf" (respectively) — on the grounds that "the eyes of the mind are more easily directed to those objects which we have seen, than to those which we have only heard".[20]

In medieval faculty psychology, the imagination was one of the inward wits along with memory and the sensus communis. It allowed the recombination of images, for example by combining perceptions of gold and mountain to obtain the idea of a golden mountain.[21]

The concept of "mind's eye" appeared in English in Chaucer's (c. 1387) Man of Law's Tale in his Canterbury Tales, in which he tells us that one of the three men dwelling in a castle was blind, and could only see with "the eyes of his mind"; namely, those eyes "with which all men see after they have become blind".[22]

Galileo used the imagination to conduct thought experiments, such as asking readers to imagine in what direction a stone released from a sling would fly.[23]


Imagination... is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

When I get an idea I start at once building it up in my imagination. I change the construction, make improvements and operate the device in my mind. It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever, the results are the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything.

For imagination in artificial intelligence, see Generative artificial intelligence.

Imagination involves a creative division of the mind which is used to develop theories and ideas based on functions. Drawing from actual perceptions, imagination employs intricate conditional processes that engage both Semantic and Episodic memory to generate fresh or refined ideas.[26] This part of the mind helps develop better and easier ways to accomplish old and new tasks.

In sociology, imagination serves as a means to depart from reality and gain insights into social interactions from an external perspective. This leads to the development of theories through questions that would not otherwise be asked. These speculative ideas can be safely explored within a virtual realm and then, if deemed feasible and the function is true[clarification needed], translated into real-world applications.

Imagination can be classified as:


Psychologists have studied imaginative thought, not only in its exotic form of creativity and artistic expression but also in its mundane form of everyday imagination.[27] Ruth M.J. Byrne proposed that everyday imaginative thoughts about counterfactual alternatives to reality may be based on the same cognitive processes on which rational thoughts are based.[28] Children can create imaginative alternatives to reality from their very early years.[29] Cultural psychology views imagination as a higher mental function involved in a number of everyday activities both at the individual and collective level[30] that enables people to manipulate complex meanings of both linguistic and iconic forms in the process of experiencing.

The phenomenology of imagination is discussed in The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination (French: L'Imaginaire: Psychologie phénoménologique de l'imagination), also published under the title The Psychology of the Imagination, a 1940 book by Jean-Paul Sartre, in which he propounds his concept of the imagination and discusses what the existence of imagination shows about the nature of human consciousness.[31]

The imagination is also active in our perception of photographic images in order to make them appear real.[32]


See also: Mental image and Imagery

Memory and mental imagery, often seen as a part of the process of imagination, are affected by one another.[33] "Images made by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology show that remembering and imagining sends blood to identical parts of the brain."[33]

Various psychological factors can influence the brain's ability to retain information as either long-term memories or short-term memories. Experiences stored as long-term memories are easier to recall, as they are ingrained deeper in the mind[clarification needed]. Each of these memory types necessitates its own specific instructional approach that engages the specialized brain regions appropriate to that variety of memory.[34] This insight may aid in designing programs for young students aimed at nurturing and enhancing their creative abilities. The neocortex and thalamus control the brain's imagination, along with many of the brain's other functions such as consciousness and abstract thought.[citation needed] Since imagination involves many different brain functions (emotions, memory, thoughts, etc.) regions where these functions converge, such as the thalamus and neocortex, are the main regions where imaginative processing has been documented.[35][better source needed]


Piaget posited that a person's perceptions depend on their world view. The world view is the result of arranging perceptions into existing imagery by imagination. Piaget cites the example of a child saying that the moon is following her when she walks around the village at night. Like this, perceptions are integrated into the world view so that they make sense. Imagination is needed to make sense of perceptions.[36]

Brain activation

A study that used fMRI while subjects were asked to imagine precise visual figures, to mentally disassemble them, or mentally blend them, showed activity in the occipital, frontoparietal, posterior parietal, precuneus, and dorsolateral prefrontal regions of the subject's brains.[37]


Phylogenesis and ontogenesis of various components of imagination

Phylogenetic acquisition of imagination was a gradual process. The simplest form of imagination, REM-sleep dreaming, evolved in mammals with acquisition of REM sleep 140 million years ago.[38] Spontaneous insight improved in primates with acquisition of the lateral prefrontal cortex 70 million years ago. After hominins split from the chimpanzee line 6 million years ago they further improved their imagination. Prefrontal analysis was acquired 3.3 million years ago when hominins started to manufacture Mode One stone tools.[39] Progress in stone tools culture to Mode Two stone tools by 2 million years ago signifies remarkable improvement of prefrontal analysis. The most advanced mechanism of imagination, prefrontal synthesis, was likely acquired by humans around 70,000 years ago and resulted in behavioral modernity.[40] This leap toward modern imagination has been characterized by paleoanthropologists as the "Cognitive revolution",[41] "Upper Paleolithic Revolution",[42] and the "Great Leap Forward".[43]

Moral imagination

Moral imagination usually describes the mental capacity to find answers to ethical questions and dilemmas through the process of imagination and visualization. Different definitions of "moral imagination" can be found in the literature.[44]

The philosopher Mark Johnson described it as "[a]n ability to imaginatively discern various possibilities for acting in a given situation and to envision the potential help and harm that are likely to result from a given action."[45]

In one proposed example, Hitler's assassin Claus von Stauffenberg was said to have decided to dare to overthrow the Nazi regime as a result (among other factors) of a process of "moral imagination." His willingness to kill Hitler was less due to his compassion for his comrades, his family, or friends living at that time, but from thinking about the potential problems of later generations and people he did not know. In other words, through a process of “moral imagination” he developed empathy for "abstract" people (for example, Germans of later generations, people who were not yet alive).[46]

See also


  1. ^ "Mental Imagery". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 2021.
  2. ^ Szczelkun, Stefan (2018-03-03). Sense Think Act: a collection of exercises to experience total human ability. Stefan Szczelkun. ISBN 9781870736107. To imagine is to form experiences in the mind. These can be recreations of past experiences as they happened such as vivid memories with imagined changes, or they can be completely invented and possibly fantastic scenes.
  3. ^ a b Norman, Ron (2000). "Cultivating Imagination in Adult Education". Proceedings of the 41st Annual Adult Education Research: 1–2.
  4. ^ Sutton-Smith, Brian (1988). "In Search of the Imagination". In Egan, K.; Nadaner, D. (eds.). Imagination and Education. New York: Teachers College Press. p. 22.
  5. ^ Archibald MacLeish 1970, p. 887
  6. ^ Egan, Kieran (1992). Imagination in Teaching and Learning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 50.
  7. ^ Gümüsay, Ali Aslan; Reinecke, Juliane (2022). "Researching for Desirable Futures: From Real Utopias to Imagining Alternatives". Journal of Management Studies. 59: 236–242. doi:10.1111/joms.12709. hdl:10419/241847. S2CID 233645071.
  8. ^ Frye, Northrop (1963). The Educated Imagination. Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. p. 49.
  9. ^ As noted by Giovanni Pascoli.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Pearson, Joel (2020-06-18). "The Visual Imagination". In Abraham, Anna (ed.). The Cambridge Handbook of the Imagination. Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 175. ISBN 9781108429245. Retrieved 12 October 2022. Visual imagery typically refers to the voluntary creation of the conscious visual experience of an object or scene in its absence (e.g. solely in the mind). [...] imagery can play a core role in many anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia and Parkinson's disease, and is increasingly harnessed as a uniquely powerful tool for psychological treatment [...].
  12. ^ Byrne, Ruth M. J. (2007) [2005]. The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality. A Bradford Book. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. p. 38. ISBN 9780262261845. Retrieved 29 September 2022. Rational thought and imaginative thought may be based on the same kinds of cognitive processes, processes that underpin thinking about possibilities.
  13. ^ Vyshedskiy, Andrey (2020). "Voluntary and Involuntary Imagination: Neurological Mechanisms, Developmental Path, Clinical Implications, and Evolutionary Trajectory". Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture. 4 (2): 1–18. doi:10.26613/esic.4.2.186. ISSN 2472-9884. JSTOR 10.26613/esic.4.2.186. S2CID 231912956.
  14. ^ Vergunst, Jo (2012). "Seeing Ruins: Imagined and Visible Lands in North-East Scotland". In Janowski, Monica; Ingold, Tim (eds.). Imagining Landscapes: Past, Present and Future. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. ISBN 9781409461449.
  15. ^ "Top Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazines 2023". 10 August 2023.
  16. ^ Goldman, Laurence (1998). Child's play: myth, mimesis and make-believe. Oxford New York: Berg Publishers. ISBN 978-1-85973-918-1. Basically what this means is that the children use their make-believe situation and act as if what they are acting out is from a reality that already exists even though they have made it up.imagination comes after story created.[page needed]
  17. ^ Dorschel, Andreas (2022). "Phantasia: Epistemology into Music". Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics. 45 (4): 18–29.
  18. ^ Shields, Christopher (2020). "Supplement to Aristotle's Psychology: Imagination". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The Metaphysics Research Lab. Retrieved 26 Oct 2021.
  19. ^ Cicero, M.T. De Oratore. Vol. III. XLI.163.
  20. ^ Cicero, M.T. (1875). Watson, J.S. (ed.). Cicero on Oratory and Orators. Translated by Watson, J.S. New York: Harper & Brothers. III.C.XLI, p. 239.
  21. ^
  22. ^ Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Man of Laws Tale". In Wyatt, A.J. (ed.). The Canterbury Tales. London: University Correspondence College Press. Lines 550–553.
  23. ^ Franklin, James (2000). "Diagrammatic reasoning and modelling in the imagination: the secret weapons of the Scientific Revolution" (PDF). In Freeland, Guy; Corones, Anthony (eds.). 1543 and All That: Image and Word, Change and Continuity in the Proto-Scientific Revolution. Dordrecht: Kluwer. pp. 53–115. ISBN 9780792359135.
  24. ^ Viereck, George Sylvester (October 26, 1929). "What life means to Einstein: an interview". The Saturday Evening Post.
  25. ^ Tesla, Nikola (1919). My Inventions: Nikola Tesla's Autobiography. Electrical Experimenter magazine. ISBN 9781616403867.
  26. ^ Devitt, Aleea L.; Addis, Donna Rose; Schacter, Daniel L. (2017-10-01). "Episodic and semantic content of memory and imagination: A multilevel analysis". Memory & Cognition. 45 (7): 1078–1094. doi:10.3758/s13421-017-0716-1. ISSN 1532-5946. PMC 5702280. PMID 28547677.
  27. ^ Ward, T. B.; Smith, S. M.; Vaid, J., eds. (1997). Creative thought: An investigation of conceptual structures and processes. American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/10227-000. hdl:1969.1/156114. ISBN 1-55798-404-2.
  28. ^ Byrne, R.M.J. (2005). The Rational Imagination: How People Create Alternatives to Reality. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. doi:10.7551/mitpress/5756.001.0001. ISBN 9780262269629.
  29. ^ Harris, Paul L. (2000). The Work of the Imagination. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-21886-9.
  30. ^ Tateo, Luca (2015). "Giambattista Vico and the psychological imagination". Culture & Psychology. 21 (2). SAGE Publications: 145–161. doi:10.1177/1354067x15575695. ISSN 1354-067X. S2CID 146583137.
  31. ^ Sartre, Jean-Paul (1972) [1940]. The Psychology of the Imagination. London: Psychology Press. ISBN 9780415119542. OCLC 34102867.
  32. ^ Wilson, John G. (2016-12-01). "Sartre and the Imagination: Top Shelf Magazines". Sexuality & Culture. 20 (4). Springer Science and Business Media LLC: 775–784. doi:10.1007/s12119-016-9358-x. ISSN 1095-5143. S2CID 148101276.
  33. ^ a b Long, Priscilla (2009-12-01). "My Brain On My Mind". The American Scholar.
  34. ^ Leahy, Wayne; Sweller, John (5 June 2007). "The Imagination Effect Increases with an Increased Intrinsic Cognitive Load". Applied Cognitive Psychology. 22 (2): 273–283. doi:10.1002/acp.1373.
  35. ^ "What Part of the Brain Handles Imagination?". ScienceForums.net. 2 December 2008.
  36. ^ Piaget, J. (1967). The child's conception of the world. Translated by Tomlinson, J.; Tomlinson, A. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  37. ^ Schlegel, Alexander; Kohler, Peter J.; Fogelson, Sergey V.; Alexander, Prescott; Konuthula, Dedeepya; Tse, Peter Ulric (16 September 2013). "Network structure and dynamics of the mental workspace". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 110 (40): 16277–16282. Bibcode:2013PNAS..11016277S. doi:10.1073/pnas.1311149110. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 3791746. PMID 24043842.
  38. ^ Hobson, J. Allan (1 October 2009). "REM sleep and dreaming: towards a theory of protoconsciousness". Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 10 (11): 803–813. doi:10.1038/nrn2716. PMID 19794431. S2CID 205505278.
  39. ^ Harmand, Sonia; Lewis, Jason E.; Feibel, Craig S.; Lepre, Christopher J.; Prat, Sandrine; Lenoble, Arnaud; Boës, Xavier; Quinn, Rhonda L.; Brenet, Michel; Arroyo, Adrian; Taylor, Nicholas; Clément, Sophie; Daver, Guillaume; Brugal, Jean-Philip; Leakey, Louise; Mortlock, Richard A.; Wright, James D.; Lokorodi, Sammy; Kirwa, Christopher; Kent, Dennis V.; Roche, Hélène (20 May 2015). "3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya". Nature. 521 (7552): 310–315. Bibcode:2015Natur.521..310H. doi:10.1038/nature14464. PMID 25993961. S2CID 1207285.
  40. ^ Vyshedsky, Andrey (2019). "Neuroscience of Imagination and Implications for Human Evolution" (PDF). Current Neurobiology. 10 (2): 89–109. ISSN 0975-9042. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2019-05-31.
  41. ^ Harari, Yuval N. (2014). Sapiens: a brief history of humankind. London. ISBN 9781846558245. OCLC 890244744.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  42. ^ Bar-Yosef, Ofer (October 2002). "The Upper Paleolithic Revolution". Annual Review of Anthropology. 31 (1): 363–393. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.31.040402.085416. ISSN 0084-6570.
  43. ^ Diamond, Jared M. (2006). The third chimpanzee: the evolution and future of the human animal. New York: HarperPerennial. ISBN 0060845503. OCLC 63839931.
  44. ^ Freeman, R. E.; Dmytriyev, S.; Wicks, A. C. (2018). The moral imagination of Patricia werhane: A festschrift. Springer International Publishing. p. 97.
  45. ^ Johnson, M. (1993). Moral imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 202.
  46. ^ Langhof, J. G.; Gueldenberg, S. (2021). "Whom to serve? Exploring the moral dimension of servant leadership: Answers from operation Valkyrie". Journal of Management History. 27 (4): 537–573. doi:10.1108/jmh-09-2020-0056. S2CID 238689370.

Further reading


Three philosophers for whom imagination is a central concept are Kendall Walton, John Sallis and Richard Kearney. See in particular:

The dictionary definition of imagination at Wiktionary