Focusing the ‘mind’s eye’

I have for some time been fascinated by the idea that one should be able to strengthen one’s power of mental visualization. The following is a version of an article I contributed to the Society of British Theatre Designers Blue Pages magazine in 2010, which I am in the process of expanding. Apologies for the fact that there are many words but, in this case, no concrete illustrations as yet. One could say that it goes with the territory. I’m reproducing it here because comments on the subject are always appreciated.

The Harvard professor Stephen M Kosslyn, one of the foremost authorities in the field of cognitive psychology, launches us into the book The Case for Mental Imagery with the following challenge

‘Do you know which is darker green, a frozen pea or a pine tree?’

Most of us can answer this in an instant and there is normally no need to question how we’re doing it. Kosslyn employs it to illustrate how we all have to conjure some form of composite mental image for ourselves in response to a question or a problem. We may do this hundreds of times each day. Our knowledge that a frozen pea is most likely a lighter green than that of a pine tree is not stored in our minds and then accessed as a separate fact ..we might never have compared them before .. but we can access enough of the separate visual facts to build the simulation for ourselves and ‘see’ the answer. In this instance the parts assembled were dictated for us by the question, but could just as easily come from free association. The process is creative, and we are creating new knowledge. The word ‘conjure’ is apt because what we are doing is really rather magical and for many the process is quite inscrutable until we take the trouble to ‘look’ at it properly.

But this is one of the simplest feats that the ‘mind’s eye’ is capable of performing and many believe that the possible applications are only bounded, quite literally, by the range of our imagination. Startling indications are provided by the capabilities of autistic savants such as Stephen Wiltshire who can faithfully reproduce whole cityscapes in detail after a mere glance, or Daniel Tammet who can make the most complicated mathematical calculations in an instant by ‘seeing’ them in pictorial form. The brilliant engineer Nikola Tesla, who was not autistic, was able to train his power of visualization to the point where he could build complex working machines in his imagination and tinker with them there until they were working properly. On a more accessible level ‘creativity’, or the ability to visualize connections, is not a ‘special power’ and is practiced by all. It’s no less remarkable though. I personally believe that, in the realm embracing but extending far beyond peas and pine trees, the ability to visually ‘roam, connect and compare’ constitutes the very basis of creativity. Simply by freeing more of our ability to roam but at the same time being able to focus more on what we are actually ‘seeing’ when we do so, could transform our creative process. I argue that, at the risk of ruining a process (some might say) which may work better left alone, the only way to develop it is by more focused introspection.

For a designer the ability to visualize properly is fundamental to the job in many recognizable ways, whether one buys into this ‘fountain of creativity’ theory or not. Each step of the journey brings with it countless calls for visualization, often embraced but just as often unsolicited. More than that, theatre designers will also have to engage their mental-visual acuity differently on different occasions (i.e. in response to colour, style, scale, volume, spatial orientation.. or the possible combinations of all) and even have to disengage it sometimes, such as when reading a text for the first time when too much can lead to overkill! All this surely calls for a conscious, and trained, command of this facility? So .. where’s the help?

Artists and designers can expect a wealth of helpful information, training, or support to guide them in mastering most of the tools of their trade; drawing, technical drafting, colour rendering, techniques of painting, modelling, portfolio presentation and self-marketing, to name a few. But look for anything on the ‘tool’ we automatically engage before all the others and which presides over the whole process – our capacity for forming and manipulating mental images – and you will be disappointed. In ironic contrast, there is no shortage of books or training programmes offering support with the techniques of mental visualization in areas which are not so obviously visually oriented, such as sport, health and business. Why is this so? Don’t we all desperately need it, at some stage in our creative development? Is it assumed that the ability to visualize, because it is so inextricably linked to the process of thought itself, will be sufficiently mastered by anyone capable of thinking? Is it assumed that those who choose a visually creative profession in the first place will certainly need no help in either exploring or controlling their imagination? Or is it, more likely, because the subject is so subjective, intangible.. so difficult to measure? How can one person advise another on how to use their most personal of abilities?

My own awareness of the need for more practical help in managing the ‘mind’s eye’ came first as a student of theatre design faced with the task of maintaining openness and objectivity when reading a text. We were told not only to let the text speak for itself but to let the text finish speaking before forming the slightest impression of a ‘design’. We must somehow suspend the flow of images at first. But if the formation of images is an integral part of thought, how is this possible? At other times I was left praying for the opposite; to at least get some visual clue when none seemed to be forthcoming. Then there was the constant problem of holding on to an initial ‘mind’s eye’ impression throughout the process of building upon it. I wanted to keep the two, or usually more, versions separate, so that I could at least go back to examining the first if I wanted to. Of course, I was told, that was the purpose of sketching or other forms of simple rendering; to capture an impression in order to examine it and return to it later. But I couldn’t help feeling that I was irrevocably changing the impression through the very different process of drawing. If we ask a child to visualize their mother and then draw what they see, the drawing is not what they are seeing, rather just what they are able to draw.

Nowadays, when teaching undergraduate designers, I attempt to give some practical help, aware that we are merely scuffing the surface of the subject. The ‘roaming’ part may be the easier one to facilitate.. just letting one’s mind wander. The analogy with seeing night stars more distinctly by looking away from them is useful here. To release a block or to un-clutter the mind it often helps to think of the absurd or opposite for a while.  The hard part with the unfettered roaming is that it is only effective once you’ve defined some structure that might tell you what you’re looking for. Immediately the two seem to oppose each other. I use the image of a ‘monkey on a climbing frame’ to actualize this for myself and explain it to others. The monkey is one’s free-swinging imagination but it can’t get anywhere and stay there long enough to look properly without the pre-structured climbing frame. I know for a fact that visualizing in this way the complicated process .. receiving, processing and organizing ideas while at the same time searching for more .. helps me to handle it.

But it’s the notion of being able to focus more on whatever it is that we conjure up in the mind’s eye that is the really tricky one. Psychologists can’t even agree yet that we actually ‘see’ anything like images at all and therefore haven’t even begun to explore how our capabilities could be strengthened. Each individual may visualize in a completely different way, according to the range of their visual experiences and the quality of their recall for example, so what works for one may be inappropriate for another. Also there are many abstract thoughts such as ‘and’ and especially ‘but’ for which we do not (and arguably cannot) form an image, so it may be senseless looking to see if we are having one.

Nevertheless, although there may be no straight answers, that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t explore. For example, drawing simple (or sometimes not so simple) objects from the imagination such as a ‘pram’ (my favourite one) provides a useful focus for discussion. I use this primarily to draw students’ attention to the fact that we invariably have more information in our visual store than we think at first and that it is vital to give this a chance of materializing before reaching for Google images.  The same is true when considering a less concrete proposition such as ‘A man walks into a room’. Does this statement warrant any form of specific image? Are any images that happen to come with it superfluous attachments or do they have personal significance? For example, most people I asked were fairly sure at first that they saw nothing in particular. But on further questioning some realized that they visualized the ‘man’ entering a room they were in (i.e. seeing the man from the front) while others were somewhere behind him, seeing him enter another room. It didn’t stop there, and other visual particulars such as whether he was opening a door or not, or whether there were others in the room, became clear. One might be right to ask whether this has any purpose at all, but in my view such ‘active questioning’ is a fundamental on the way to clarifying, and ultimately mastering, one’s powers of visualization. More often than not, even if it doesn’t help in telling us what’s there, it will tell us what’s not there and one can, like Sherlock Holmes and his process of elimination, at least move closer to the truth.

I can’t lay claim to any kind of authority yet on the use of mental images, except by virtue of having examined it in myself and having tried to examine it very rudimentarily in other people. My purpose in writing about it here is to flag the issue for possible further debate .. to ask what other people think. Any comments, especially descriptions of experiences, would be most welcome.