The Mind and Its Education
by George Herbert Betts
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At the same time the eye is slowly developing its power of judging distance. But not for several years does visual perception of distance become in any degree accurate. The eye's perception of distance depends in part on the sensations arising from the muscles controlling the eye, probably in part from the adjustment of the lens, and in part from the retinal image. If one tries to look at the tip of his nose he easily feels the muscle strain caused by the required angle of adjustment. We come unconsciously to associate distance with the muscle sensations arising from the different angles of vision. The part played by the retinal image in judging distance is easily understood in looking at two trees, one thirty feet and the other three hundred feet distant. We note that the nearer tree shows the detail of the bark and leaves, while the more distant one lacks this detail. The nearer tree also reflects more light and color than the one farther away. These minute differences, registered as they are on the retinal image, come to stand for so much of distance.

The ear also learns to perceive distance through differences in the quality and the intensity of sound. Auditory perception of distance is, however, never very accurate.

THE PERCEIVING OF DIRECTION.—The motor senses probably give us our first perception of direction, as they do of distance. The child has to reach this way or that way for his rattle; turn the eyes or head so far in order to see an interesting object; twist the body, crawl or walk to one side or the other to secure his bottle. In these experiences he is gaining his first knowledge of direction.

Along with these muscle-joint experiences, the eye is also being trained. The position of the image on the retina comes to stand for direction, and the eye finally develops so remarkable a power of perceiving direction that a picture hung a half inch out of plumb is a source of annoyance. The ear develops some skill in the perception of direction, but is less dependable than the eye.


The philosophers and psychologists agree little better about our sense of time than they do about our sense of space. Of this much, however, we may be certain, our perception of time is subject to development and training.

NATURE OF THE TIME SENSE.—How we perceive time is not so well understood as our perception of space. It is evident, however, that our idea of time is simpler than our idea of space—it has less of content, less that we can describe. Probably the most fundamental part of our idea of time is progression, or change, without which it is difficult to think of time at all. The question then becomes, how do we perceive change, or succession?

If one looks in upon his thought stream he finds that the movement of consciousness is not uniformly continuous, but that his thought moves in pulses, or short rushes, so to speak. When we are seeking for some fact or conclusion, there is a moment of expectancy, or poising, and then the leap forward to the desired point, or conclusion, from which an immediate start is taken for the next objective point of our thinking. It is probable that our sense of the few seconds of passing time that we call the immediate present consists of the recognition of the succession of these pulsations of consciousness, together with certain organic rhythms, such as heart beat and breathing.

NO PERCEPTION OF EMPTY TIME.—Our perception does not therefore act upon empty time. Time must be filled with a procession of events, whether these be within our own consciousness or in the objective world without. All longer periods of time, such as hours, days, or years, are measured by the events which they contain. Time filled with happenings that interest and attract us seems short while passing, but longer when looked back upon. On the other hand, time relatively empty of interesting experience hangs heavy on our hands in passing, but, viewed in retrospect, seems short. A fortnight of travel passes more quickly than a fortnight of illness, but yields many more events for the memory to review as the "filling" for time.

Probably no one has any very accurate feeling of the length, that is, the actual duration of a year—or even of a month! We therefore divide time into convenient units, as weeks, months, years and centuries. This allows us to think of time in mathematical terms where immediate perception fails in its grasp.


In the physical world as in the spiritual there are many people who, "having eyes, see not and ears, hear not." For the ability to perceive accurately and richly in the world of physical objects depends not alone on good sense organs, but also on interest and the habit of observation. It is easy if we are indifferent or untrained to look at a beautiful landscape, a picture or a cathedral without seeing it; it is easy if we lack interest or skill to listen to an orchestra or the myriad sounds of nature without hearing them.

PERCEPTION NEEDS TO BE TRAINED.—Training in perception does not depend entirely on the work of the school. For the world about us exerts a constant appeal to our senses. A thousand sights, sounds, contacts, tastes, smells or other sensations, hourly throng in upon us, and the appeal is irresistible. We must in some degree attend. We must observe.

Yet it cannot be denied that most of us are relatively unskilled in perception; we do not know how, or take the trouble to observe. For example, a stranger was brought into the classroom and introduced by the instructor to a class of fifty college students in psychology. The class thought the stranger was to address them, and looked at him with mild curiosity. But, after standing before them for a few moments, he suddenly withdrew, as had been arranged by the instructor. The class were then asked to write such a description of the stranger as would enable a person who had never seen him to identify him. But so poor had been the observation of the class that they ascribed to him clothes of four different colors, eyes and hair each of three different colors, a tie of many different hues, height ranging from five feet and four inches to over six feet, age from twenty-eight to forty-five years, and many other details as wide of the mark. Nor is it probable that this particular class was below the average in the power of perception.

SCHOOL TRAINING IN PERCEPTION.—The school can do much in training the perception. But to accomplish this, the child must constantly be brought into immediate contact with the physical world about him and taught to observe. Books must not be substituted for things. Definitions must not take the place of experiment or discovery. Geography and nature study should be taught largely out of doors, and the lessons assigned should take the child into the open for observation and investigation. All things that live and grow, the sky and clouds, the sunset colors, the brown of upturned soil, the smell of the clover field, or the new mown hay, the sounds of a summer night, the distinguishing marks by which to identify each family of common birds or breed of cattle—these and a thousand other things that appeal to us from the simplest environment afford a rich opportunity for training the perception. And he who has learned to observe, and who is alert to the appeal of nature, has no small part of his education already assured.


1. Test your power of observation by walking rapidly past a well-filled store window and then seeing how many of the objects you can name.

2. Suppose a tailor, a bootblack, a physician, and a detective are standing on the street corner as you pass by. What will each one be most likely to observe about you? Why?

3. Observe carefully green trees at a distance of a few rods; a quarter of a mile; a mile; several miles. Describe differences (1) in color, (2) in brightness, or light, and (3) in detail.

4. How many common birds can you identify? How many kinds of trees? Of wild flowers? Of weeds?

5. Observe the work of an elementary school for the purpose of determining:

a. Whether the instruction in geography, nature study, agriculture, etc., calls for the use of the eyes, ears and fingers.

b. Whether definitions are used in place of first-hand information in any subjects.

c. Whether the assignment of lessons to pupils includes work that would require the use of the senses, especially out of doors.

d. Whether the work offered in arithmetic demands the use of the senses as well as the reason.

e. Whether the language lessons make use of the power of observation.



As you sit thinking, a company of you together, your thoughts run in many diverse lines. Yet with all this diversity, your minds possess this common characteristic: Though your thinking all takes place in what we call the present moment, it goes on largely in terms of past experiences.


PRESENT THINKING DEPENDS ON PAST EXPERIENCE.—Images or ideas of things you have seen or heard or felt; of things you have thought of before and which now recur to you; of things you remember, such as names, dates, places, events; of things that you do not remember as a part of your past at all, but that belong to it nevertheless—these are the things which form a large part of your mental stream, and which give content to your thinking. You may think of a thing that is going on now, or of one that is to occur in the future; but, after all, you are dependent on your past experience for the material which you put into your thinking of the present moment.

Indeed, nothing can enter your present thinking which does not link itself to something in your past experience. The savage Indian in the primeval forest never thought about killing a deer with a rifle merely by pulling a trigger, or of turning a battery of machine guns on his enemies to annihilate them—none of these things were related to his past experience; hence he could not think in such terms.

THE PRESENT INTERPRETED BY THE PAST.—Not only can we not think at all except in terms of our past experience, but even if we could, the present would be meaningless to us; for the present is interpreted in the light of the past. The sedate man of affairs who decries athletic sports, and has never taken part in them, cannot understand the wild enthusiasm which prevails between rival teams in a hotly contested event. The fine work of art is to the one who has never experienced the appeal which comes through beauty, only so much of canvas and variegated patches of color. Paul says that Jesus was "unto the Greeks, foolishness." He was foolishness to them because nothing in their experience with their own gods had been enough like the character of Jesus to enable them to interpret Him.

THE FUTURE ALSO DEPENDS ON THE PAST.—To the mind incapable of using past experience, the future also would be impossible; for we can look forward into the future only by placing in its experiences the elements of which we have already known. The savage who has never seen the shining yellow metal does not dream of a heaven whose streets are paved with gold, but rather of a "happy hunting ground." If you will analyze your own dreams of the future you will see in them familiar pictures perhaps grouped together in new forms, but coming, in their elements, from your past experience nevertheless. All that would remain to a mind devoid of a past would be the little bridge of time which we call the "present moment," a series of unconnected nows. Thought would be impossible, for the mind would have nothing to compare and relate. Personality would not exist; for personality requires continuity of experience, else we should be a new person each succeeding moment, without memory and without plans. Such a mind would be no mind at all.

RANK DETERMINED BY ABILITY TO UTILIZE PAST EXPERIENCE.—So important is past experience in determining our present thinking and guiding our future actions, that the place of an individual in the scale of creation is determined largely by the ability to profit by past experience. The scientist tells us of many species of animals now extinct, which lost their lives and suffered their race to die out because when, long ago, the climate began to change and grow much colder, they were unable to use the experience of suffering in the last cold season as an incentive to provide shelter, or move to a warmer climate against the coming of the next and more rigorous one. Man was able to make the adjustment; and, providing himself with clothing and shelter and food, he survived, while myriads of the lower forms perished.

The singed moth again and again dares the flame which tortures it, and at last gives its life, a sacrifice to its folly; the burned child fears the fire, and does not the second time seek the experience. So also can the efficiency of an individual or a nation, as compared with other individuals or nations, be determined. The inefficient are those who repeat the same error or useless act over and over, or else fail to repeat a chance useful act whose repetition might lead to success. They are unable to learn their lesson and be guided by experience. Their past does not sufficiently minister to their present, and through it direct their future.


PAST EXPERIENCE CONSERVED IN BOTH MENTAL AND PHYSICAL TERMS.—If past experience plays so important a part in our welfare, how, then, is it to be conserved so that we may secure its benefits? Here, as elsewhere, we find the mind and body working in perfect unison and harmony, each doing its part to further the interests of both. The results of our past experience may be read in both our mental and our physical nature.

On the physical side past experience is recorded in modified structure through the law of habit working on the tissues of the body, and particularly on the delicate tissues of the brain and nervous system. This is easily seen in its outward aspects. The stooped shoulders and bent form of the workman tell a tale of physical toil and exposure; the bloodless lips and pale face of the victim of the city sweat shop tell of foul air, long hours, and insufficient food; the rosy cheek and bounding step of childhood speak of fresh air, good food and happy play.

On the mental side past experience is conserved chiefly by means of images, ideas, and concepts. The nature and function of concepts will be discussed in a later chapter. It will now be our purpose to examine the nature of images and ideas, and to note the part they play in the mind's activities.

THE IMAGE AND THE IDEA.—To understand the nature of the image, and then of the idea, we may best go back to the percept. You look at a watch which I hold before your eyes and secure a percept of it. Briefly, this is what happens: The light reflected from the yellow object, on striking the retina, results in a nerve current which sets up a certain form of activity in the cells of the visual brain area, and lo! a percept of the watch flashes in your mind.

Now I put the watch in my pocket, so that the stimulus is no longer present to your eye. Then I ask you to think of my watch just as it appeared as you were looking at it; or you may yourself choose to think of it without my suggesting it to you. In either case the cellular activity in the visual area of the cortex is reproduced approximately as it occurred in connection with the percept, and lo! an image of the watch flashes in your mind. An image is thus an approximate copy of a former percept (or several percepts). It is aroused indirectly by means of a nerve current coming by way of some other brain center, instead of directly by the stimulation of a sense organ, as in the case of a percept.

If, instead of seeking a more or less exact mental picture of my watch, you only think of its general meaning and relations, the fact that it is of gold, that it is for the purpose of keeping time, that it was a present to me, that I wear it in my left pocket, you then have an idea of the watch. Our idea of an object is, therefore, the general meaning of relations we ascribe to it. It should be remembered, however, that the terms image and idea are employed rather loosely, and that there is not yet general uniformity among writers in their use.

ALL OUR PAST EXPERIENCE POTENTIALLY AT OUR COMMAND.—Images may in a certain sense take the place of percepts, and we can again experience sights, sounds, tastes, and smells which we have known before, without having the stimuli actually present to the senses. In this way all our past experience is potentially available to the present. All the objects we have seen, it is potentially possible again to see in the mind's eye without being obliged to have the objects before us; all the sounds we have heard, all the tastes and smells and temperatures we have experienced, we may again have presented to our minds in the form of mental images without the various stimuli being present to the end-organs of the senses.

Through images and ideas the total number of objects in our experience is infinitely multiplied; for many of the things we have seen, or heard, or smelled, or tasted, we cannot again have present to the senses, and without this power we would never get them again. And besides this fact, it would be inconvenient to have to go and secure afresh each sensation or percept every time we need to use it in our thought. While habit, then, conserves our past experience on the physical side, the image and the idea do the same thing on the mental side.


IMAGES TO BE VIEWED BY INTROSPECTION.—The remainder of the description of images will be easier to understand, for each of you can know just what is meant in every case by appealing to your own mind. I beg of you not to think that I am presenting something new and strange, a curiosity connected with our thinking which has been discovered by scholars who have delved more deeply into the matter than we can hope to do. Every day—no, more than that, every hour and every moment—these images are flitting through our minds, forming a large part of our stream of consciousness. Let us see whether we can turn our attention within and discover some of our images in their flight. Let us introspect.

I know of no better way to proceed than that adopted by Francis Galton years ago, when he asked the English men of letters and science to think of their breakfast tables, and then describe the images which appeared. I am about to ask each one of you to do the same thing, but I want to warn you beforehand that the images will not be so vivid as the sensory experiences themselves. They will be much fainter and more vague, and less clear and definite; they will be fleeting, and must be caught on the wing. Often the image may fade entirely out, and the idea only be left.

THE VARIED IMAGERY SUGGESTED BY ONE'S DINING TABLE.—Let each one now recall the dining table as you last left it, and then answer questions concerning it like the following:

Can I see clearly in my "mind's eye" the whole table as it stood spread before me? Can I see all parts of it equally clearly? Do I get the snowy white and gloss of the linen? The delicate coloring of the china, so that I can see where the pink shades off into the white? The graceful lines and curves of the dishes? The sheen of the silver? The brown of the toast? The yellow of the cream? The rich red and dark green of the bouquet of roses? The sparkle of the glassware?

Can I again hear the rattle of the dishes? The clink of the spoon against the cup? The moving up of the chairs? The chatter of the voices, each with its own peculiar pitch and quality? The twitter of a bird outside the window? The tinkle of a distant bell? The chirp of a neighborly cricket?

Can I taste clearly the milk? The coffee? The eggs? The bacon? The rolls? The butter? The jelly? The fruit? Can I get the appetizing odor of the coffee? Of the meat? The oranges and bananas? The perfume of the lilac bush outside the door? The perfume from a handkerchief newly treated to a spray of heliotrope?

Can I recall the touch of my fingers on the velvety peach? On the smooth skin of an apple? On the fretted glassware? The feel of the fresh linen? The contact of leather-covered or cane-seated chair? Of the freshly donned garment? Can I get clearly the temperature of the hot coffee in the mouth? Of the hot dish on the hand? Of the ice water? Of the grateful coolness of the breeze wafted in through the open window?

Can I feel again the strain of muscle and joint in passing the heavy dish? Can I feel the movement of the jaws in chewing the beefsteak? Of the throat and lips in talking? Of the chest and diaphragm in laughing? Of the muscles in sitting and rising? In hand and arm in using knife and fork and spoon? Can I get again the sensation of pain which accompanied biting on a tender tooth? From the shooting of a drop of acid from the rind of the orange into the eye? The chance ache in the head? The pleasant feeling connected with the exhilaration of a beautiful morning? The feeling of perfect health? The pleasure connected with partaking of a favorite food?

POWER OF IMAGERY VARIES IN DIFFERENT PEOPLE.—It is more than probable that some of you cannot get perfectly clear images in all these lines, certainly not with equal facility; for the imagery from any one sense varies greatly from person to person. A celebrated painter was able, after placing his subject in a chair and looking at him attentively for a few minutes, to dismiss the subject and paint a perfect likeness of him from the visual image which recurred to the artist every time he turned his eyes to the chair where the sitter had been placed. On the other hand, a young lady, a student in my psychology class, tells me that she is never able to recall the looks of her mother when she is absent, even if the separation has been only for a few moments. She can get an image of the form, with the color and cut of the dress, but never the features. One person may be able to recall a large part of a concert through his auditory imagery, and another almost none.

In general it may be said that the power, or at least the use, of imagery decreases with age. The writer has made a somewhat extensive study of the imagery of certain high-school students, college students, and specialists in psychology averaging middle age. Almost without exception it was found that clear and vivid images played a smaller part in the thinking of the older group than of the younger. More or less abstract ideas and concepts seemed to have taken the place of the concrete imagery of earlier years.

IMAGERY TYPES.—Although there is some difference in our ability to use imagery of different sensory types, probably there is less variation here than has been supposed. Earlier pedagogical works spoke of the visual type of mind, or the audile type, or the motor type, as if the possession of one kind of imagery necessarily rendered a person short in other types. Later studies have shown this view incorrect, however. The person who has good images of one type is likely to excel in all types, while one who is lacking in any one of the more important types will probably be found short in all.[4] Most of us probably make more use of visual and auditory than of other kinds of imagery, while olfactory and gustatory images seem to play a minor role.


Binet says that the man who has not every type of imagery almost equally well developed is only the fraction of a man. While this no doubt puts the matter too strongly, yet images do play an important part in our thinking.

IMAGES SUPPLY MATERIAL FOR IMAGINATION AND MEMORY.—Imagery supplies the pictures from which imagination builds its structures. Given a rich supply of images from the various senses, and imagination has the material necessary to construct times and events long since past, or to fill the future with plans or experiences not yet reached. Lacking images, however, imagination is handicapped, and its meager products reveal in their barrenness and their lack of warmth and reality the poverty of material.

Much of our memory also takes the form of images. The face of a friend, the sound of a voice, or the touch of a hand may be recalled, not as a mere fact, but with almost the freshness and fidelity of a percept. That much of our memory goes on in the form of ideas instead of images is true. But memory is often both aided in its accuracy and rendered more vital and significant through the presence of abundant imagery.

IMAGERY IN THE THOUGHT PROCESSES.—Since logical thinking deals more with relations and meanings than with particular objects, images naturally play a smaller part in reasoning than in memory and imagination. Yet they have their place here as well. Students of geometry or trigonometry often have difficulty in understanding a theorem until they succeed in visualizing the surface or solid involved. Thinking in the field of astronomy, mechanics, and many other sciences is assisted at certain points by the ability to form clear and accurate images.

THE USE OF IMAGERY IN LITERATURE.—Facility in the use of imagery undoubtedly adds much to our enjoyment and appreciation of certain forms of literature. The great writers commonly use all types of images in their description and narration. If we are not able to employ the images they used, many of their most beautiful pictures are likely to be to us but so many words suggesting prosaic ideas.

Shakespeare, describing certain beautiful music, appeals to the sense of smell to make himself understood:

... it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound That breathes upon a bank of violets, Stealing and giving odor!

Lady Macbeth cries:

Here's the smell of the blood still: All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.

Milton has Eve say of her dream of the fatal apple:

... The pleasant sav'ry smell So quickened appetite, that I, methought, Could not but taste.

Likewise with the sense of touch:

... I take thy hand, this hand As soft as dove's down, and as white as it.

Imagine a person devoid of delicate tactile imagery, with senseless finger tips and leaden footsteps, undertaking to interpret these exquisite lines:

Thus I set my printless feet O'er the cowslip's velvet head, That bends not as I tread.

Shakespeare thus appeals to the muscular imagery:

At last, a little shaking of mine arm And thrice his head thus waving up and down, He raised a sigh so piteous and profound As it did seem to shatter all his bulk And end his being.

Many passages like the following appeal to the temperature images:

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky, Thou dost not bite so nigh As benefits forgot!

To one whose auditory imagery is meager, the following lines will lose something of their beauty:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here we will sit and let the sounds of music Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Note how much clear images will add to Browning's words:

Are there not two moments in the adventure of a diver—one when a beggar he prepares to plunge, and one, when a prince he rises with his pearl?

POINTS WHERE IMAGES ARE OF GREATEST SERVICE.—Beyond question, many images come flooding into our minds which are irrelevant and of no service in our thinking. No one has failed to note many such. Further, we undoubtedly do much of our best thinking with few or no images present. Yet we need images. Where, then, are they most needed? Images are needed wherever the percepts which they represent would be of service. Whatever one could better understand or enjoy or appreciate by seeing it, hearing it, or perceiving it through some other sense, he can better understand, enjoy or appreciate through images than by means of ideas only.


IMAGES DEPEND ON SENSORY STIMULI.—The power of imaging can be cultivated the same as any other ability.

In the first place, we may put down as an absolute requisite such an environment of sensory stimuli as will tempt every sense to be awake and at its best, that we may be led into a large acquaintance with the objects of our material environment. No one's stock of sensory images is greater than the sum total of his sensory experiences. No one ever has images of sights, or sounds, or tastes, or smells which he has never experienced.

Likewise, he must have had the fullest and freest possible liberty in motor activities. For not only is the motor act itself made possible through the office of imagery, but the motor act clarifies and makes useful the images. The boy who has actually made a table, or a desk, or a box has ever afterward a different and a better image of one of these objects than before; so also when he has owned and ridden a bicycle, his image of this machine will have a different significance from that of the image founded upon the visual perception alone of the wheel he longingly looked at through the store window or in the other boy's dooryard.

THE INFLUENCE OF FREQUENT RECALL.—But sensory experiences and motor responses alone are not enough, though they are the basis of good imagery. There must be frequent recall. The sunset may have been never so brilliant, and the music never so entrancing; but if they are never thought of and dwelt upon after they were first experienced, little will remain of them after a very short time. It is by repeating them often in experience through imagery that they become fixed, so that they stand ready to do our bidding when we need next to use them.

THE RECONSTRUCTION OF OUR IMAGES.—To richness of experience and frequency of the recall of our images we must add one more factor; namely, that of their reconstruction or working over. Few if any images are exact recalls of former percepts of objects. Indeed, such would be neither possible nor desirable. The images which we recall are recalled for a purpose, or in view of some future activity, and hence must be selective, or made up of the elements of several or many former related images.

Thus the boy who wishes to construct a box without a pattern to follow recalls the images of numerous boxes he may have seen, and from them all he has a new image made over from many former percepts and images, and this new image serves him as a working model. In this way he not only gets a copy which he can follow to make his box, but he also secures a new product in the form of an image different from any he ever had before, and is therefore by so much the richer. It is this working over of our stock of old images into new and richer and more suggestive ones that constitutes the essence of constructive imagination.

The more types of imagery into which we can put our thought, the more fully is it ours and the better our images. The spelling lesson needs not only to be taken in through the eye, that we may retain a visual image of the words, but also to be recited orally, so that the ear may furnish an auditory image, and the organs of speech a motor image of the correct forms. It needs also to be written, and thus given into the keeping of the hand, which finally needs most of all to know and retain it.

The reading lesson should be taken in through both the eye and the ear, and then expressed by means of voice and gesture in as full and complete a way as possible, that it may be associated with motor images. The geography lesson needs not only to be read, but to be drawn, or molded, or constructed. The history lesson should be made to appeal to every possible form of imagery. The arithmetic lesson must be not only computed, but measured, weighed, and pressed into actual service.

Thus we might carry the illustration into every line of education and experience, and the same truth holds. What we desire to comprehend completely and retain well, we must apprehend through all available senses and conserve in every possible type of image and form of expression.


1. Observe a reading class and try to determine whether the pupils picture the scenes and events they read about. How can you tell?

2. Similarly observe a history class. Do the pupils realize the events as actually happening, and the personages as real, living people?

3. Observe in a similar way a class in geography, and draw conclusions. A pupil in computing the cost of plastering a certain room based the figures on the room filled full of plaster. How might visual imagery have saved the error?

4. Imagine a three-inch cube. Paint it. Then saw it up into inch cubes, leaving them all standing in the original form. How many inch cubes have paint on three faces? How many on two faces? How many on one face? How many have no paint on them? Answer all these questions by referring to your imagery alone.

5. Try often to recall images in the various sensory lines; determine in what classes of images you are least proficient and try to improve in these lines.

6. How is the singing teacher able, after his class has sung through several scores, to tell that they are flatting?

7. Study your imagery carefully for a few days to see whether you can discover your predominating type of imagery.



Everyone desires to have a good imagination, yet not all would agree as to what constitutes a good imagination. If I were to ask a group of you whether you have good imaginations, many of you would probably at once fall to considering whether you are capable of taking wild flights into impossible realms of thought and evolving unrealities out of airy nothings. You would compare yourself with great imaginative writers, such as Stevenson, Poe, De Quincey, and judge your power of imagination by your ability to produce such tales as made them famous.


But such a measure for the imagination as that just stated is far too narrow. A good imagination, like a good memory, is the one which serves its owner best. If DeQuincey and Poe and Stevenson and Bulwer found the type which led them into such dizzy flights the best for their particular purpose, well and good; but that is not saying that their type is the best for you, or that you may not rank as high in some other field of imaginative power as they in theirs. While you may lack in their particular type of imagination, they may have been short in the type which will one day make you famous. The artisan, the architect, the merchant, the artist, the farmer, the teacher, the professional man—all need imagination in their vocations not less than the writers need it in theirs, but each needs a specialized kind adapted to the particular work which he has to do.

PRACTICAL NATURE OF IMAGINATION.—Imagination is not a process of thought which must deal chiefly with unrealities and impossibilities, and which has for its chief end our amusement when we have nothing better to do than to follow its wanderings. It is, rather, a commonplace, necessary process which illumines the way for our everyday thinking and acting—a process without which we think and act by haphazard chance or blind imitation. It is the process by which the images from our past experiences are marshaled, and made to serve our present. Imagination looks into the future and constructs our patterns and lays our plans. It sets up our ideals and pictures us in the acts of achieving them. It enables us to live our joys and our sorrows, our victories and our defeats before we reach them. It looks into the past and allows us to live with the kings and seers of old, or it goes back to the beginning and we see things in the process of the making. It comes into our present and plays a part in every act from the simplest to the most complex. It is to the mental stream what the light is to the traveler who carries it as he passes through the darkness, while it casts its beams in all directions around him, lighting up what otherwise would be intolerable gloom.

IMAGINATION IN THE INTERPRETATION OF HISTORY, LITERATURE, AND ART.—Let us see some of the most common uses of the imagination. Suppose I describe to you the battle of the Marne. Unless you can take the images which my words suggest and build them into struggling, shouting, bleeding soldiers; into forts and entanglements and breastworks; into roaring cannon and whistling bullet and screaming shell—unless you can take all these separate images and out of them get one great unified complex, then my description will be to you only so many words largely without content, and you will lack the power to comprehend the historical event in any complete way. Unless you can read the poem, and out of the images suggested by the words reconstruct the picture which was in the mind of the author as he wrote "The Village Blacksmith" or "Snowbound," the significance will have dropped out, and the throbbing scenes of life and action become only so many dead words, like the shell of the chrysalis after the butterfly has left its shroud. Without the power of imagination, the history of Washington's winter at Valley Forge becomes a mere formal recital, and you can never get a view of the snow-covered tents, the wind-swept landscape, the tracks in the snow marked by the telltale drops of blood, or the form of the heartbroken commander as he kneels in the silent wood to pray for his army. Without the power to construct this picture as you read, you may commit the words, and be able to recite them, and to pass examination upon them, but the living reality of it will forever escape you.

Your power of imagination determines your ability to interpret literature of all kinds; for the interpretation of literature is nothing, after all, but the reconstruction on our part of the pictures with their meanings which were in the mind of the writer as he penned the words, and the experiencing of the emotions which moved him as he wrote. Small use indeed to read the history of the centuries unless we can see in it living, acting people, and real events occurring in actual environments. Small use to read the world's great books unless their characters are to us real men and women—our brothers and sisters, interpreted to us by the master minds of the ages. Anything less than this, and we are no longer dealing with literature, but with words—like musical sounds which deal with no theme, or like picture frames in which no picture has been set. Nor is the case different in listening to a speaker. His words are to you only so many sensations of sounds of such and such pitches and intensities and quality, unless your mind keeps pace with his and continually builds the pictures which fill his thought as he speaks. Lacking imagination, the sculptures of Michael Angelo and the pictures of Raphael are to you so many pieces of curiously shaped marble and ingeniously colored canvas. What the sculptor and the painter have placed before you must suggest to you images and thoughts from your own experience, to fill out and make alive the marble and the canvas, else to you they are dead.

IMAGINATION AND SCIENCE.—Nor is imagination less necessary in other lines of study. Without this power of building living, moving pictures out of images, there is small use to study science beyond what is immediately present to our senses; for some of the most fundamental laws of science rest upon conceptions which can be grasped only as we have the power of imagination. The student who cannot get a picture of the molecules of matter, infinitely close to each other and yet never touching, all in vibratory motion, yet each within its own orbit, each a complete unit in itself, yet capable of still further division into smaller particles,—the student who cannot see all this in a clear visual image can never at best have more than a most hazy notion of the theory of matter. And this means, finally, that the explanations of light and heat and sound, and much besides, will be to him largely a jumble of words which linger in his memory, perchance, but which never vitally become a possession of his mind.

So with the world of the telescope. You may have at your disposal all the magnificent lenses and the accurate machinery owned by modern observatories; but if you have not within yourself the power to build what these reveal to you, and what the books tell you, into the solar system and still larger systems, you can never study astronomy except in a blind and piecemeal sort of way, and all the planets and satellites and suns will never for you form themselves into a system, no matter what the books may say about it.

EVERYDAY USES OF IMAGINATION.—But we may consider a still more practical phase of imagination, or at least one which has more to do with the humdrum daily life of most of us. Suppose you go to your milliner and tell her how you want your spring hat shaped and trimmed. And suppose you have never been able to see this hat in toto in your mind, so as to get an idea of how it will look when completed, but have only a general notion, because you like red velvet, white plumes, and a turned-up rim, that this combination will look well together. Suppose you have never been able to see how you would look in this particular hat with your hair done in this or that way. If you are in this helpless state shall you not have to depend finally on the taste of the milliner, or accept the "model," and so fail to reveal any taste or individuality on your own part?

How many times have you been disappointed in some article of dress, because when you planned it you were unable to see it all at once so as to get the full effect; or else you could not see yourself in it, and so be able to judge whether it suited you! How many homes have in them draperies and rugs and wall paper and furniture which are in constant quarrel because someone could not see before they were assembled that they were never intended to keep company! How many people who plan their own houses, would build them just the same again after seeing them completed? The man who can see a building complete before a brick has been laid or a timber put in place, who can see it not only in its details one by one as he runs them over in his mind, but can see the building in its entirety, is the only one who is safe to plan the structure. And this is the man who is drawing a large salary as an architect, for imaginations of this kind are in demand. Only the one who can see in his "mind's eye," before it is begun, the thing he would create, is capable to plan its construction. And who will say that ability to work with images of these kinds is not of just as high a type as that which results in the construction of plots upon which stories are built!

THE BUILDING OF IDEALS AND PLANS.—Nor is the part of imagination less marked in the formation of our life's ideals and plans. Everyone who is not living blindly and aimlessly must have some ideal, some pattern, by which to square his life and guide his actions. At some time in our life I am sure that each of us has selected the person who filled most nearly our notion of what we should like to become, and measured ourselves by this pattern. But there comes a time when we must idealize even the most perfect individual; when we invest the character with attributes which we have selected from some other person, and thus worship at a shrine which is partly real and partly ideal.

As time goes on, we drop out more and more of the strictly individual element, adding correspondingly more of the ideal, until our pattern is largely a construction of our own imagination, having in it the best we have been able to glean from the many characters we have known. How large a part these ever-changing ideals play in our lives we shall never know, but certainly the part is not an insignificant one. And happy the youth who is able to look into the future and see himself approximating some worthy ideal. He has caught a vision which will never allow him to lag or falter in the pursuit of the flying goal which points the direction of his efforts.

IMAGINATION AND CONDUCT.—Another great field for imagination is with reference to conduct and our relations with others. Over and over again the thoughtless person has to say, "I am sorry; I did not think." The "did not think" simply means that he failed to realize through his imagination what would be the consequences of his rash or unkind words. He would not be unkind, but he did not imagine how the other would feel; he did not put himself in the other's place. Likewise with reference to the effects of our conduct on ourselves. What youth, taking his first drink of liquor, would continue if he could see a clear picture of himself in the gutter with bloated face and bloodshot eyes a decade hence? Or what boy, slyly smoking one of his early cigarettes, would proceed if he could see his haggard face and nerveless hand a few years farther along? What spendthrift would throw away his money on vanities could he vividly see himself in penury and want in old age? What prodigal anywhere who, if he could take a good look at himself sin-stained and broken as he returns to his "father's house" after the years of debauchery in the "far country" would not hesitate long before he entered upon his downward career?

IMAGINATION AND THINKING.—We have already considered the use of imagination in interpreting the thoughts, feelings and handiwork of others. Let us now look a little more closely into the part it plays in our own thinking. Suppose that, instead of reading a poem, we are writing one; instead of listening to a description of a battle, we are describing it; instead of looking at the picture, we are painting it. Then our object is to make others who may read our language, or listen to our words, or view our handiwork, construct the mental images of the situation which furnished the material for our thought.

Our words and other modes of expression are but the description of the flow of images in our minds, and our problem is to make a similar stream flow through the mind of the listener; but strange indeed would it be to make others see a situation which we ourselves cannot see; strange if we could draw a picture without being able to follow its outlines as we draw. Or suppose we are teaching science, and our object is to explain the composition of matter to someone, and make him understand how light, heat, etc., depend on the theory of matter; strange if the listener should get a picture if we ourselves are unable to get it. Or, once more, suppose we are to describe some incident, and our aim is to make its every detail stand out so clearly that no one can miss a single one. Is it not evident that we can never make any of these images more clear to those who listen to us or read our words than they are to ourselves?


What is the material, the mental content, out of which imagination builds its structures?

IMAGES THE STUFF OF IMAGINATION.—Nothing can enter the imagination the elements of which have not been in our past experience and then been conserved in the form of images. The Indians never dreamed of a heaven whose streets are paved with gold, and in whose center stands a great white throne. Their experience had given them no knowledge of these things; and so, perforce, they must build their heaven out of the images which they had at command, namely, those connected with the chase and the forest. So their heaven was the "happy hunting ground," inhabited by game and enemies over whom the blessed forever triumphed. Likewise the valiant soldiers whose deadly arrows and keen-edged swords and battle-axes won on the bloody field of Hastings, did not picture a far-off day when the opposing lines should kill each other with mighty engines hurling death from behind parapets a dozen miles away. Firearms and the explosive powder were yet unknown, hence there were no images out of which to build such a picture.

I do not mean that your imagination cannot construct an object which has never before been in your experience as a whole, for the work of the imagination is to do precisely this thing. It takes the various images at its disposal and builds them into wholes which may never have existed before, and which may exist now only as a creation of the mind. And yet we have put into this new product not a single element which was not familiar to us in the form of an image of one kind or another. It is the form which is new; the material is old. This is exemplified every time an inventor takes the two fundamental parts of a machine, the lever and the inclined plane, and puts them together in relations new to each other and so evolves a machine whose complexity fairly bewilders us. And with other lines of thinking, as in mechanics, inventive power consists in being able to see the old in new relations, and so constantly build new constructions out of old material. It is this power which gives us the daring and original thinker, the Newton whose falling apple suggested to him the planets falling toward the sun in their orbits; the Darwin who out of the thigh bone of an animal was able to construct in his imagination the whole animal and the environment in which it must have lived, and so add another page to the earth's history.

THE TWO FACTORS IN IMAGINATION.—From the simple facts which we have just been considering, the conclusion is plain that our power of imagination depends on two factors; namely, (1) the materials available in the form of usable images capable of recall, and (2) our constructive ability, or the power to group these images into new wholes, the process being guided by some purpose or end. Without this last provision, the products of our imagination are daydreams with their "castles in Spain," which may be pleasing and proper enough on occasions, but which as an habitual mode of thought are extremely dangerous.

IMAGINATION LIMITED BY STOCK OF IMAGES.—That the mind is limited in its imagination by its stock of images may be seen from a simple illustration: Suppose that you own a building made of brick, but that you find the old one no longer adequate for your needs, and so purpose to build a new one; and suppose, further, that you have no material for your new building except that contained in the old structure. It is evident that you will be limited in constructing your new building by the material which was in the old. You may be able to build the new structure in any one of a multitude of different forms or styles of architecture, so far as the material at hand will lend itself to that style of building, and providing, further, that you are able to make the plans. But you will always be limited finally by the character and amount of material obtainable from the old structure. So with the mind. The old building is your past experience, and the separate bricks are the images out of which you must build your new structure through the imagination. Here, as before, nothing can enter which was not already on hand. Nothing goes into the new structure so far as its constructive material is concerned except images, and there is nowhere to get images but from the results of our past experience.

LIMITED ALSO BY OUR CONSTRUCTIVE ABILITY.—But not only is our imaginative output limited by the amount of material in the way of images which we have at our command, but also and perhaps not less by our constructive ability. Many persons might own the old pile of bricks fully adequate for the new structure, and then fail to get the new because they were unable to construct it. So, many who have had a rich and varied experience in many lines are yet unable to muster their images of these experiences in such a way that new products are obtainable from them. These have the heavy, draft-horse kind of intellect which goes plodding on, very possibly doing good service in its own circumscribed range, but destined after all to service in the narrow field with its low, drooping horizon. They are never able to take a dash at a two-minute clip among equally swift competitors, or even swing at a good round pace along the pleasant highways of an experience lying beyond the confines of the narrow here and now. These are the minds which cannot discover relations; which cannot think. Minds of this type can never be architects of their own fate, or even builders, but must content themselves to be hod carriers.

THE NEED OF A PURPOSE.—Nor are we to forget that we cannot intelligently erect our building until we know the purpose for which it is to be used. No matter how much building material we may have on hand, nor how skillful an architect we may be, unless our plans are guided by some definite aim, we shall be likely to end with a structure that is fanciful and useless. Likewise with our thought structure. Unless our imagination is guided by some aim or purpose, we are in danger of drifting into mere daydreams which not only are useless in furnishing ideals for the guidance of our lives, but often become positively harmful when grown into a habit. The habit of daydreaming is hard to break, and, continuing, holds our thought in thrall and makes it unwilling to deal with the plain, homely things of everyday life. Who has not had the experience of an hour or a day spent in a fairyland of dreams, and awakened at the end to find himself rather dissatisfied with the prosaic round of duties which confronted him! I do not mean to say that we should never dream; but I know of no more pernicious mental habit than that of daydreaming carried to excess, for it ends in our following every will-o'-the-wisp of fancy, and places us at the mercy of every chance suggestion.


Although imagination enters every field of human experience, and busies itself with every line of human interest, yet all its activities can be classed under two different types. These are (1) reproductive, and (2) creative imagination.

REPRODUCTIVE IMAGINATION.—Reproductive imagination is the type we use when we seek to reproduce in our minds the pictures described by others, or pictures from our own past experience which lack the completeness and fidelity to make them true memory.

The narration or description of the story book, the history or geography text; the tale of adventure recounted by traveler or hunter; the account of a new machine or other invention; fairy tales and myths—these or any other matter that may be put into words capable of suggesting images to us are the field for reproductive imagination. In this use of the imagination our business is to follow and not lead, to copy and not create.

CREATIVE IMAGINATION.—But we must have leaders, originators—else we should but imitate each other and the world would be at a standstill. Indeed, every person, no matter how humble his station or how humdrum his life, should be in some degree capable of initiative and originality. Such ability depends in no small measure on the power to use creative imagination.

Creative imagination takes the images from our own past experience or those gleaned from the work of others and puts them together in new and original forms. The inventor, the writer, the mechanic or the artist who possesses the spirit of creation is not satisfied with mere reproduction, but seeks to modify, to improve, to originate. True, many important inventions and discoveries have come by seeming accident, by being stumbled upon. Yet it holds that the person who thus stumbles upon the discovery or invention is usually one whose creative imagination is actively at work seeking to create or discover in his field. The world's progress as a whole does not come by accident, but by creative planning. Creative imagination is always found at the van of progress, whether in the life of an individual or a nation.


Imagination is highly susceptible of cultivation, and its training should constitute one of the most important aims of education. Every school subject, but especially such subjects as deal with description and narration—history, literature, geography, nature study and science—is rich in opportunities for the use of imagination. Skillful teaching will not only find in these subjects a means of training the imagination, but will so employ imagination in their study as to make them living matter, throbbing with life and action, rather than so many dead words or uninteresting facts.

GATHERING OF MATERIAL FOR IMAGINATION.—Theoretically, then, it is not hard to see what we must do to cultivate our imagination. In the first place, we must take care to secure a large and usable stock of images from all fields of perception. It is not enough to have visual images alone or chiefly, for many a time shall we need to build structures involving all the other senses and the motor activities as well. This means that we must have a first-hand contact with just as large an environment as possible—large in the world of Nature with all her varied forms suited to appeal to every avenue of sense; large in our contact with people in all phases of experience, laughing with those who laugh and weeping with those who weep; large in contact with books, the interpreters of the men and events of the past. We must not only let all these kinds of environment drift in upon us as they may chance to do, but we must deliberately seek to increase our stock of experience; for, after all, experience lies at the bottom of imagination as of every other mental process. And not only must we thus put ourselves in the way of acquiring new experience, but we must by recall and reconstruction, as we saw in an earlier discussion, keep our imagery fresh and usable. For whatever serves to improve our images, at the same time is bettering the very foundation of imagination.

WE MUST NOT FAIL TO BUILD.—In the second place, we must not fail to build. For it is futile to gather a large supply of images if we let the material lie unused. How many people there are who put in all their time gathering material for their structure, and never take time to do the building! They look and listen and read, and are so fully occupied in absorbing the immediately present that they have no time to see the wider significance of the things with which they deal. They are like the students who are too busy studying to have time to think. They are so taken up with receiving that they never perform the higher act of combining. They are the plodding fact gatherers, many of them doing good service, collecting material which the seer and the philosopher, with their constructive power, build together into the greater wholes which make our systems of thought. They are the ones who fondly think that, by reading books full of wild tales and impossible plots, they are training their imagination. For them, sober history, no matter how heroic or tragic in its quiet movements, is too tame. They have not the patience to read solid and thoughtful literature, and works of science and philosophy are a bore. These are the persons who put in all their time in looking at and admiring other people's houses, and never get time to do any building for themselves.

WE SHOULD CARRY OUR IDEALS INTO ACTION.—The best training for the imagination which I know anything about is that to be obtained by taking our own material and from it building our own structure. It is true that it will help to look through other people's houses enough to discover their style of building: we should read. But just as it is not necessary for us to put in all the time we devote to looking at houses, in inspecting doll houses and Chinese pagodas, so it is not best for us to get all our notions of imaginative structures from the marvelous and the unreal; we get good training for the imagination from reading "Hiawatha," but so can we from reading the history of the primitive Indian tribes. The pictures in "Snowbound" are full of suggestion for the imagination: but so is the history of the Puritans in New England. But even with the best of models before us, it is not enough to follow others' building. We must construct stories for ourselves, must work out plots for our own stories; we must have time to meditate and plan and build, not idly in the daydream, but purposefully, and then make our images real by carrying them out in activity, if they are of such a character that this is possible; we must build our ideals and work to them in the common course of our everyday life; we must think for ourselves instead of forever following the thinking of others; we must initiate as well as imitate.


1. Explain the cause and the remedy in the case of such errors as the following:

Children who defined mountain as land 1,000 or more feet in height said that the factory smokestack was higher than the mountain because it "went straight up" and the mountain did not.

Children often think of the horizon as fastened to the earth.

Islands are thought of as floating on the water.

2. How would you stimulate the imagination of a child who does not seem to picture or make real the descriptions in reading, geography, etc.? Is it possible that such inability may come from an insufficient basis in observation, and hence in images?

3. Classify the school subjects, including domestic science and manual training, as to their ability to train (1) reproductive and (2) creative imagination.

4. Do you ever skip the descriptive parts of a book and read the narrative? As you read the description of a bit of natural scenery, does it rise before you? As you study the description of a battle, can you see the movements of the troops?

5. Have you ever planned a house as you think you would like it? Can you see it from all sides? Can you see all the rooms in their various finishings and furnishings?

6. What plans and ideals have you formed, and what ones are you at present following? Can you describe the process by which your plans or ideals change? Do you ever try to put yourself in the other person's place?

7. Take some fanciful unreality which your imagination has constructed and see whether you can select from it familiar elements from actual experiences.

8. What use do you make of imagination in the common round of duties in your daily life? What are you doing to improve your imagination?



Whence came the thought that occupies you this moment, and what determines the next that is to follow? Introspection reveals no more interesting fact concerning our minds than that our thoughts move in a connected and orderly array and not in a hit-and-miss fashion. Our mental states do not throng the stream of consciousness like so many pieces of wood following each other at random down a rushing current, now this one ahead, now that. On the contrary, our thoughts come, one after the other, as they are beckoned or caused. The thought now in the focal point of your consciousness appeared because it sprouted out of the one just preceding it; and the present thought, before it departs, will determine its successor and lead it upon the scene. This is to say that our thought stream possesses not only a continuity, but also a unity; it has coherence and system. This coherence and system, which operates in accordance with definite laws, is brought about by what the psychologist calls association.


We may define association, then, as the tendency among our thoughts to form such a system of bonds with each other that the objects of consciousness are vitally connected both (1) as they exist at any given moment, and (2) as they occur in succession in the mental stream.

THE NEURAL BASIS OF ASSOCIATION.—The association of thoughts—ideas, images, memory—or of a situation with its response, rests primarily on a neural basis. Association is the result of habit working in neurone groups. Its fundamental law is stated by James as follows: "When two elementary brain-processes have been active together or in immediate succession, one of them, on recurring, tends to propagate its excitement into the other." This is but a technical statement of the simple fact that nerve currents flow most easily over the neurone connections that they have already used.

It is hard to teach an old dog new tricks, because the old tricks employ familiar, much-used neural paths, while new tricks require the connecting up of groups of neurones not in the habit of working together; and the flow of nerve energy is more easily accomplished in the neurones accustomed to working together. One who learns to speak a foreign language late in life never attains the facility and ease that might have been reached at an earlier age. This is because the neural paths for speech are already set for his mother-tongue, and, with the lessened plasticity of age, the new paths are hard to establish.

The connections between the various brain areas, or groups of neurones, are, as we have seen in an earlier chapter, accomplished by means of association fibers. This function requires millions of neurones, which unite every part of the cortex with every other part, thus making it possible for a neural activity going on in any particular center to extend to any other center whatsoever. In the relatively unripe brain of the child, the association fibers have not yet set up most of their connections. The age at which memory begins is determined chiefly by the development of a sufficient number of association fibers to bring about recall. The more complex reasoning, which requires many different associative connections, is impossible prior to the existence of adequate neural development. It is this fact that makes it futile to attempt to teach young children the more complicated processes of arithmetic, grammar, or other subjects. They are not yet equipped with the requisite brain machinery to grasp the necessary associations.

ASSOCIATION THE BASIS OF MEMORY.—Without the machinery and processes of association we could have no memory. Let us see in a simple illustration how association works in recall. Suppose you are passing an orchard and see a tree loaded with tempting apples. You hesitate, then climb the fence, pick an apple and eat it, hearing the owner's dog bark as you leave the place. The accompanying diagram will illustrate roughly the centers of the cortex which were involved in the act, and the association fibers which connect them. (See Fig. 18.) Now let us see how you may afterward remember the circumstance through association. Let us suppose that a week later you are seated at your dining table, and that you begin to eat an apple whose flavor reminds you of the one which you plucked from the tree. From this start how may the entire circumstance be recalled? Remember that the cortical centers connected with the sight of the apple tree, with our thoughts about it, with our movements in getting the apple, and with hearing the dog bark, were all active together with the taste center, and hence tend to be thrown into activity again from its activity. It is easy to see that we may (1) get a visual image of the apple tree and its fruit from a current over the gustatory-visual association fibers; (2) the thoughts, emotions, or deliberations which we had on the former occasion may again recur to us from a current over the gustatory-thought neurones; (3) we may get an image of our movements in climbing the fence and picking the apple from a current over the gustatory-motor fibers; or (4) we may get an auditory image of the barking of the dog from a current over the gustatory-auditory fibers. Indeed, we are sure to get some one or more of these unless the paths are blocked in some way, or our attention leads off in some other direction.

FACTORS DETERMINING DIRECTION OF RECALL.—Which of these we get first, which of the images the taste percept calls to take its place as it drops out of consciousness, will depend, other things being equal, on which center was most keenly active in the original situation, and is at the moment most permeable. If, at the time we were eating the stolen fruit, our thoughts were keenly self-accusing for taking the apples without permission, then the current will probably discharge through the path gustatory-thought, and we shall recall these thoughts and their accompanying feelings. But if it chances that the barking of the dog frightened us badly, then more likely the discharge from the taste center will be along the path gustatory-auditory, and we shall get the auditory image of the dog's barking, which in turn may call up a visual image of his savage appearance over the auditory-visual fibers. It is clear, however, that, given any one of the elements of the entire situation back, the rest are potentially possible to us, and any one may serve as a "cue" to call up all the rest. Whether, given the starting point, we get them all, depends solely on whether the paths are sufficiently open between them for the current to discharge between them, granting that the first experience made sufficient impression to be retained.

Since this simple illustration may be made infinitely complex by means of the millions of fibers which connect every center in the cortex with every other center, and since, in passing from one experience to another in the round of our daily activities, these various areas are all involved in an endless chain of activities so intimately related that each one can finally lead to all the others, we have here the machinery both of retention and of recall—the mechanism by which our past may be made to serve the present through being reproduced in the form of memory images or ideas. Through this machinery we are unable to escape our past, whether it be good or bad; for both the good and the bad alike are brought back to us through its operations.

When the repetition of a series of acts has rendered habit secure, the association is relatively certain. If I recite to you A-B-C-D, your thought at once runs on to E, F, G. If I repeat, "Tell me not in mournful numbers," association leads you to follow with "Life is but an empty dream." Your neurone groups are accustomed to act in this way, so the sequence follows. Memorizing anything from the multiplication table to the most beautiful gems of poetic fervor consists, therefore, in the setting up of the right associative connections in the brain.

ASSOCIATION IN THINKING.—All thinking proceeds by the discovery or recognition of relations between the terms or objects of our thought. The science of mathematics rests on the relations found to exist between numbers and quantities. The principles and laws of natural science are based on the relations established among the different forms of matter and the energy that operates in this field. So also in the realm of history, art, ethics, or any other field of human experience. Each fact or event must be linked to other facts or events before it possesses significance. Association therefore lies at the foundation of all thinking, whether that of the original thinker who is creating our sciences, planning and executing the events of history, evolving a system of ethics, or whether one is only learning these fields as they already exist by means of study. Other things being equal, he is the best thinker who has his knowledge related part to part so that the whole forms a unified and usable system.

ASSOCIATION AND ACTION.—Association plays an equally important part in all our motor responses, the acts by which we carry on our daily lives, do our work and our play, or whatever else may be necessary in meeting and adapting ourselves to our environment. Some sensations are often repeated, and demand practically the same response each time. In such cases the associations soon become fixed, and the response certain and automatic. For example, we sit at the table, and the response of eating follows, with all its complex acts, as a matter of course. We lie down in bed, and the response of sleep comes. We take our place at the piano, and our fingers produce the accustomed music.

It is of course obvious that the influence of association extends to moral action as well. In general, our conduct follows the trend of established associations. We are likely to do in great moral crises about as we are in the habit of doing in small ones.


FUNDAMENTAL LAW OF ASSOCIATION.—Stated on the physiological side, the law of habit as set forth in the definition of association in the preceding section includes all the laws of association. In different phrasing we may say: (1) Neurone groups accustomed to acting together have the tendency to work in unison. (2) The more frequently such groups act together the stronger will be the tendency for one to throw the other into action. Also, (3) the more intense the excitement or tension under which they act together the stronger will be the tendency for activity in one to bring about activity in the other.

The corresponding facts may be expressed in psychological terms as follows: (1) Facts accustomed to being associated together in the mind have a tendency to reappear together. (2) The more frequently these facts appear together the stronger the tendency for the presence of one to insure the presence of the other. (3) The greater the tension, excitement or concentration when these facts appear in conjunction with each other, the more certain the presence of one is to cause the presence of the other.

Several different types of association have been differentiated by psychologists from Aristotle down. It is to be kept in mind, however, that all association types go back to the elementary law of habit-connections among the neurones for their explanation.

ASSOCIATION BY CONTIGUITY.—The recurrence in our minds of many of the elements from our past experience is due to the fact that at some time, possibly at many times, the recurring facts were contiguous in consciousness with some other element or fact which happens now to be again present. All have had the experience of meeting some person whom we had not seen for several months or years, and having a whole series of supposedly forgotten incidents or events connected with our former associations flood into the mind. Things we did, topics we discussed, trips we took, games we played, now recur at the renewal of our acquaintance. For these are the things that were contiguous in our consciousness with our sense of the personality and appearance of our friend. And who has not in similar fashion had a whiff of perfume or the strains of a song recall to him his childhood days! Contiguity is again the explanation.

AT THE MERCY OF OUR ASSOCIATIONS.—Through the law thus operating we are in a sense at the mercy of our associations, which may be bad as well as good. We may form certain lines of interest to guide our thought, and attention may in some degree direct it, but one's mental make-up is, after all, largely dependent on the character of his associations. Evil thoughts, evil memories, evil imaginations—these all come about through the association of unworthy or impure images along with the good in our stream of thought. We may try to forget the base deed and banish it forever from our thinking, but lo! in an unguarded moment the nerve current shoots into the old path, and the impure thought flashes into the mind, unsought and unwelcomed. Every young man who thinks he must indulge in a little sowing of wild oats before he settles down to a correct life, and so deals in unworthy thoughts and deeds, is putting a mortgage on his future; for he will find the inexorable machinery of his nervous system grinding the hated images of such things back into his mind as surely as the mill returns to the sack of the miller what he feeds into the hopper. He may refuse to harbor these thoughts, but he can no more hinder their seeking admission to his mind than he can prevent the tramp from knocking at his door. He may drive such images from his mind the moment they are discovered, and indeed is guilty if he does not; but not taking offense at this rebuff, the unwelcome thought again seeks admission.

The only protection against the return of the undesirable associations is to choose lines of thought as little related to them as possible. But even then, do the best we may, an occasional "connection" will be set up, we know not how, and the unwelcome image stands staring us in the face, as the corpse of Eugene Aram's victim confronted him at every turn, though he thought it safely buried. A minister of my acquaintance tells me that in the holiest moments of his most exalted thought, images rise in his mind which he loathes, and from which he recoils in horror. Not only does he drive them away at once, but he seeks to lock and bar the door against them by firmly resolving that he will never think of them again. But alas! that is beyond his control. The tares have been sown among the wheat, and will persist along with it until the end. In his boyhood these images were given into the keeping of his brain cells, and they are only being faithful to their trust.

ASSOCIATION BY SIMILARITY AND CONTRAST.—All are familiar with the fact that like tends to suggest like. One friend reminds us of another friend when he manifests similar traits of character, shows the same tricks of manner, or has the same peculiarities of speech or gesture. The telling of a ghost or burglar story in a company will at once suggest a similar story to every person of the group, and before we know it the conversation has settled down to ghosts or burglars. One boastful boy is enough to start the gang to recounting their real or imaginary exploits. Good and beautiful thoughts tend to call up other good and beautiful thoughts, while evil thoughts are likely to produce after their own kind; like produces like.

Another form of relationship is, however, quite as common as similars in our thinking. In certain directions we naturally think in opposites. Black suggests white, good suggests bad, fat suggests lean, wealth suggests poverty, happiness suggests sorrow, and so on.

The tendency of our thought thus to group in similars and opposites is clear when we go back to the fundamental law of association. The fact is that we more frequently assemble our thoughts in these ways than in haphazard relations. We habitually group similars together, or compare opposites in our thinking; hence these are the terms between which associative bonds are formed.

PARTIAL, OR SELECTIVE, ASSOCIATION.—The past is never wholly reinstated in present consciousness. Many elements, because they had formed fewer associations, or because they find some obstacle to recall, are permanently dropped out and forgotten. In other words, association is always selective, favoring now this item of experience, now that, above the rest.

It is well that this is so; for to be unable to escape from the great mass of minutiae and unimportant detail in one's past would be intolerable, and would so cumber the mind with useless rubbish as to destroy its usefulness. We have surely all had some experience with the type of persons whose associations are so complete and impartial that all their conversation teems with unessential and irrelevant details. They cannot recount the simplest incident in its essential points but, slaves to literalness, make themselves insufferable bores by entering upon every lane and by-path of circumstance that leads nowhere and matters not the least in their story. Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Shakespeare, and many other writers have seized upon such characters and made use of them for their comic effect. James, in illustrating this mental type, has quoted the following from Miss Austen's "Emma":

"'But where could you hear it?' cried Miss Bates. 'Where could you possibly hear it, Mr. Knightley? For it is not five minutes since I received Mrs. Cole's note—no, it cannot be more than five—or at least ten—for I had got my bonnet and spencer on, just ready to come out—I was only gone down to speak to Patty again about the pork—Jane was standing in the passage—were not you, Jane?—for my mother was so afraid that we had not any salting-pan large enough. So I said I would go down and see, and Jane said: "Shall I go down instead? for I think you have a little cold, and Patty has been washing the kitchen." "Oh, my dear," said I—well, and just then came the note.'"

THE REMEDY.—The remedy for such wearisome and fruitless methods of association is, as a matter of theory, simple and easy. It is to emphasize, intensify, and dwell upon the significant and essential in our thinking. The person who listens to a story, who studies a lesson, or who is a participant in any event must apply a sense of value, recognizing and fixing the important and relegating the trivial and unimportant to their proper level. Not to train one's self to think in this discriminating way is much like learning to play a piano by striking each key with equal force!


Since association is at bottom nothing but habit at work in the mental processes, it follows that it, like other forms of habit, can be encouraged or suppressed by training. Certainly, no part of one's education is of greater importance than the character of his associations. For upon these will largely depend not alone the content of his mental stream, the stuff of his thinking, but also its organization, or the use made of the thought material at hand. In fact, the whole science of education rests on the laws and principles involved in setting up right systems of associative connections in the individual.

THE PLEASURE-PAIN MOTIVE IN ASSOCIATION.—A general law seems to obtain throughout the animal world that associative responses accompanied by pleasure tend to persist and grow stronger, while those accompanied by pain tend to weaken and fall away. The little child of two years may not understand the gravity of the offense in tearing the leaves out of books, but if its hands are sharply spatted whenever they tear a book, the association between the sight of books and tearing them will soon cease. In fact, all punishment should have for its object the use of pain in the breaking of associative bonds between certain situations and wrong responses to them.

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