How To Develop Imagination
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE imagination is the Archimedean lever which moves the universe ; and this statement, bold as it may seem, is not the opinion of one alone. The world's greatest thinkers, from the time of Plato down to the present day, testify to its truth—a truth, however, which is not so well understood as it should be.
"Imagination," says Webster, "can frame things which are not." Henry Ward Beecher tells us that "it is the very secret and marrow of civilization." Sir Benjamin Brodie (one of the presidents of the Royal Society) says, "The imagination ... . is the noblest attribute of man; the source of poetic genius, the instrument of discovery in Science, without the aid of which Newton would never have invented fluxions, nor Davy have de-composed the earths and alkalies, nor would Columbus have found another continent." This sweeping statement forms the text upon which Professor Tyndall based his famous article on "The Scientific Use of the Imagination," in the course of which he says : "Out of the facts of chemistry the constructive imagination of Dalton formed the atomic theory. Davy was richly endowed with the imaginative faculty, while with Faraday its exercise was incessant, preceding, accompanying, and guiding all his experiments. His strength and fertility as a discoverer is to be referred in great part to the stimulus of his imagination The final form of the Pyramid expressed the thought of the human builder."
But we will go farther and say that all great deeds in every department of human endeavor are the outcome, first of all, of an Idea, and the man who has a trained imagination is the most fertile in ideas. The principle of the steam engine existed in the imagination of its inventors before ever it was interpreted into terms of hard iron and steel. Wireless telegraphy existed in the mind of Marconi before he raised a pole. The steamboat, railroad, electric lights, electric traction, great engineering enter-prises, the telegraph, the telephone, stenography, typewriting—all these things existed in the imagination of somebody before they were realized. The germ theory, anesthetics, photography, the moving-picture, the Roentgen rays, type-setting machines, sewing machines, reaping, harvesting, and printing machinery—one might continue the whole catalogue of those practical things which seem to be absolutely essential to our daily life, and say of each that it existed first in the idea formed by the trained imagination of the human mind.
It follows, therefore, that a trained imagination is an invaluable asset for the working man, the business man, the professional man, for the man in every walk of life. Foresight, the absence of which spells incompetence in any man or woman, is the imagining of conditions which may have to be met. The man with a trained imagination does this; marshals the conditions and possibilities in order, places them in their proper relations with each other, and not until that is done are his plans put upon paper, his materials assembled, and the work of actual construction sent forward.
Mr. G. J. Goschen, an English banker and political economist, declares that the cultivation of the imagination is essential to the highest success in polities, in learning, and in the commercial business of life. No one is too dull, too prosaic, or too much absorbed in the routine of "practical life" to be absolved from the care of his imaginative powers ; and no one is likely to find that this care will not repay him, even in a practical sense. He who thinks wisely, he who perceives quickly that which others do not see at all, is better equipped for any work than one whose mind works slowly and feebly, and whose apprehensions have grown rusty from disuse.
Seeing, then, how important this is, there now comes the question of how the imagination can best be trained from child-hood and all through life? The answer is here—awakening imagination is fed, trained, and stimulated, early in life, by the world's great wonder stories and fairy tales, and tales of animal life. Later, by true stories of exploration, adventure, and invention, and by descriptions of our wonderful world and its relation to mankind. Finally it receives its highest development and culture by continuing a familiarity throughout life with poetry, music, the drama, and the fine arts.
THE USE OF PICTURES
To the undeveloped mind, the earliest appeal comes from pictures, which convey the imagination of another in a concrete form rather than from words which are necessarily less definite in their expression. This is why children turn instinctively to books with many pictures, and from the pictures to the text, rather than from the text to the pictures. They can understand the picture more readily than the text, and it is the natural characteristic of the mind to adopt the easiest means of gaining the information which it seeks.
It follows, then, that the pictures which a child sees are among the earliest formative influences on the growing imagination. The story of Sir Galahad, for example, means far less to a child who has never seen the picture than it does to the boy or girl who remembers the noble head of the white horse, and the boyish face of the knight. It is possible to describe the armor of a knight with care and detail, and have it mean not a single thing to the child, whereas even a poor picture suggests and explains completely. This was the psychology behind the constant attempts of men to represent their divinities, which have led to the marvelous succession of Greek marbles, and to the no less remarkable Christian Madonnas.
The earliest possible cultivation of the imagination, there-fore, begins with the choice of pictures which, by their suggested action, their coloring, their detail, excite interest and curiosity. On these as a basis a mother may open up to her child great spaces of intellectual interest, and may lay the foundation for permanent interests. She must not only be sure that the child is amply provided with pictures, but that its questions are answered as they occur, and that its attention is called to the essential elements of the work. Fortunately, there are many famous pictures which deal with subjects that occur constantly in a child's daily and imaginative life, and which may be used to stimulate that life.
As a child grows older, it can be taught to look more and more closely at the genuine artistic values which a picture displays, and be taught to discriminate between the true and false forms of art. Now is the time to call its attention to the composition and design of the pictures which have already made their appeal to its interest, and to show the innumerable ways in which the artist's skill is exhibited. It is surprising how even a young child will perceive the essential merits and defects of a picture, if it has no perverted judgments to begin with.
One of the favorite forms in which imagination may be directly stimulated is that of inventing a story to fit a picture. I remember the delight of an eight-year-old over a story built around a sombre etching of moorland and wintry evening, which suggested mainly a mood and an atmosphere. This is, indeed, the central aim of the largest part of modern art, the suggestion of thoughts and fancies which take their point of departure from the picture, though not necessarily related to it.
"Awaken your senses, that ye may the better judge," was the saying of a famous philosopher, and the doctrine applies particularly to the use of pictures in the education of children. For pictures are primarily an appeal to the sensuous side of human nature, with their delight in form and color, and their joy in the harmony and beauty of the world. It is of vital importance that the child learn all this, and learn it early so that it may abide with him throughout his life. Moreover, the appreciation and understanding of beautiful things shuts out the baser sides of life, and acts as a barrier between the soul and the grosser wickedness of the world. The love of beauty, while it is not the only positive cure or preventive of foul-mindedness, is nevertheless a strong influence against it.