Pictures in the mind – are they as creative as we imagine?

What goes on when we see images in our mind? And is the strength and vividness of these images related to our ability to think creativity? Kathryn Friedlander talks us through the new findings from her recent journal article and argues that it all might depend on what kind of imagery we tend to conjure up.

Close your eyes, and think about someone you know well. How clearly can you see their face? What about their shoulders and body-line? Can you imagine them laughing, walking or speaking? What about their clothes – what colour are they, and how do they look?

As our mind turns inwards, many of us find that our thoughts are filled with mental images – fleeting, insubstantial representations of people, objects and places. But there are individual differences in how vivid these pictures are: some people (aphantasics) can’t generate pictures at all, whereas for others the pictures are bright, realistic, dynamic and sharp.

How do we measure Visual Imagery Vividness?

We typically measure Visual Imagery Vividness (VIV) by using a self-report test such as the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ). In fact, the questions at the top of this article were based on the first section of this test. Other sections ask people to imagine the sky as the weather changes from sunrise to a storm with rainbow; a shop, including a purchase from a shop assistant; and a country scene, including a lake ruffled by a strong wind.

You’ll notice that all of these scenarios are asking people to recall things that exist in their episodic memory: the memory store of things and events that we have met before during our life-time.

What about imagery and creativity?

Intuitively, we may feel that there is a connection between creativity, imagination and mental imagery. There’s also some anecdotal evidence that a number of eminent creators (for example Hitchcock, Coleridge, Keats, Kekulé, Poincaré, Einstein) experienced high levels of VIV at the moment when they made creative breakthroughs.

However, when we came to do a wide literature search at the start of our research, we found that previous work had struggled to find a connection between creativity (normally explored through problem-solving and divergent thinking tasks) and VIV (normally explored by the VVIQ).

This puzzled us (and many other researchers who came before us)!

What could be the reason for this lack of evidence? When we came to look at the literature, three things stood out for us:

  1. Visual imagery isn’t a single ability

In the first place, VIV is interpreted in the VVIQ as unidimensional – that is to say that it is measured as one quality (how dynamic, vigorous and alive the image is). But we know from work by Blazhenkova & Kozhevnikov that this isn’t the full picture, and that mental imagery uses two different pathways in the brain: ‘what’ and ‘where’.

As we can see in the side panel, the what/object pathway lets us view the texture, colour and shape of objects in vibrant detail; whereas the where/spatial pathway allows us to handle the spatial aspects of the object, allowing us to imagine rotating, moving or combining it with other items. Blazhenkova and Kozhevnikov argue that what imagery is more relevant for artists, while the where pathway is particularly key for scientific invention.

This might provide one reason why studies of the relationship between creativity and visual imagery were so disappointing: we need to take account of the nature of our creative sample (e.g art/science) when choosing creativity tests, if we are to avoid a mismatch.

2. The VVIQ is testing for ‘everyday’ recall of what-is, not what-could-be

As we noted above, the VVIQ is testing whether we can recall details of our everyday life, such as the appearance of friends, shops and natural scenes. But creative imagination must surely relate to the ability to imagine that which has not yet happened – and possibly things which can never happen. This type of thinking is called ‘conceptual expansion‘ or ‘counterfactual thinking‘ by some scholars.

For example, Meyer and colleagues divided imagination up into proximal and distal types. Proximal imagination allows us to recall the details of how to make a cup of coffee, stage by stage; or work out what to have for breakfast tomorrow, by recalling the contents of the fridge. But this isn’t exactly ‘creative’ in the sense of delivering something original, surprising and transformational!

Distal imagination, on the other hand, may allow us to imagine more hypothetical scenarios, such as what the world might look like without gravity; or to story-board scripts and scenes in our mind, playing out imaginary conversations and interactions between fictional characters. Meyer and colleagues found that those with higher levels of creativity tend to use distal imagination more proficiently than less creative peers.

In our paper, we combined the work of Meyer and colleagues with that of Blazhenkova and Kozhevnikov to form a new map of visual imagery function which recognises both the object-spatial and the proximal-distal aspects discussed above. You can see our model – the Multimodal Model of Visual Imagery (MMVI) – in the panel below.

As you can see, there are a number of proximal/non-creative what pathway functions of visual imagery (coloured blue), including the incidental generation of low-detail, sketchy images (for example during word-recall), and the remembering of everyday situations.

We believe that the more distal/creative uses of what pathway imagery may lie in the ability to recall items in intense, vibrant detail (important, perhaps, to artists), the ability to story-board in the mind, and the ability to day-dream about the impossible. All of these more creative functions are highlighted in blue, but have a light-bulb symbol next to them.

When it comes to the where pathway (items in green), we may use mental imagery for proximal tasks such as mentally rearranging existing furniture in a room to see where it will fit. But this is less creative than its more distal counterpart – the ability to mentally alter, rotate, combine or adapt items to invent something new.

We argue that creativity research should focus on the items identified above by a light-bulb. Other forms of mental imagery are simply too proximal, pedestrian and unremarkable to correlate strongly with creative abilities.

And our final observation?

3. The VVIQ combines a number of different imagery styles in one scale

Although the imagery required by the VVIQ is pretty mundane (proximal) in nature, it does seem to embrace a range of styles of imagery. For example, some items seem to require only sketchy recall (imagine the sun rising; the colour and shape of trees); while others seem to require clear episodic recall (recall a shop you visit often); and yet others seem to demand the ability to animate the scene (a storm blows up with thunder and lightning). We suspected that the VVIQ was in fact testing three of the factors we identified in our model: schematic recall of very basic forms; episodic recall of specific events in our lives; and mental rotation/controlled animation of everyday scenes.

To test this out, we collected responses to the VVIQ from 280 participants, and then analysed the data using a form of factor analysis.

Sure enough, the responses loaded onto three strong factors which corresponded to the hypothesised elements (Schematic recall; Episodic recall; Controlled animation). As we observed before, none of these functions have a light-bulb symbol in our MMVI, as they are mundane, everyday uses of mental imagery.

In a second study, we also tested whether any of these three factors, or even the VVIQ as a whole, had a relationship with our participants’ ability to recall pictures in vibrant detail after a gap of 12 minutes. Again, we found that there was no relationship, meaning that the VVIQ isn’t tapping into the ability to ‘see’ objects in the mind with exceptional clarity of size, shape, colour or orientation.

What does this all mean?

We believe that our study has gone a long way towards explaining one of the enduring puzzles in the study of visual imagery: whether it plays a supportive role in creative production, and, if so, why it has been so challenging to demonstrate that this relationship exists.

In the first place, creativity researchers need to pay closer attention to the type of visual imagery that they believe may relate to their participants’ creative activity. For example, if studying playwrights or novelists, we might be particularly interested in mental story-boarding ability. For those who design costumes or fashion items, however, we might look at their ability to recall fabrics, patterns and colours in vibrant detail; and their ability to mentally imagine rotating, draping and combining the various materials in their designs.

We also suggest that the VVIQ is completely unsuitable for use in creativity studies, and that its use in the past has led to a frustrating lack of of clarity, precision and reliability. We hope that future studies will discard the VVIQ in favour of a new, better targeted measure of VIV reflecting the MMVI set out above, and that this will lead to a more secure understanding of the relationship between creativity and visual imagery.

Kathryn was reporting on her recent article with Freya Lenton and Philip Fine, which has recently been published here: Friedlander, K. J., Lenton, F. H., & Fine, P. A. (2022). A Multifactorial Model of Visual Imagery and Its Relationship to Creativity and the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 1–19.

Many thanks also to Catherine Keegan for her assistance in the collection of 100 participant records for the study; Giacomo Fini for conducting a preliminary search of the literature relating to VVIQ and creativity; and Akaanksha Venkatramanan for assistance with data coding.

Image credits:

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