Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 18.djvu/81

This page has been validated.

ent positions. If they see an object equally often in many positions, the memories confuse one another. They are less able to visualize the features of intimate friends than those of persons of whom they have caught only a single glance. Many such persons have expressed to me their grief at finding themselves powerless to recall the looks of dear relations whom they had lost, while they had no difficulty in recollecting faces that were uninteresting to them.

Others have a complete mastery over their mental images. They can call up the figure of a friend, and make it sit on a chair or stand up at will; they can make it turn round and attitudinize in any way, as by mounting it on a bicycle or compelling it to perform gymnastic feats on a trapeze. They are able to build up elaborate geometric structures bit by bit in their mind's eye, and add, subtract, or alter at will and at leisure. This free action of a vivid visualizing faculty is of much importance in connection with the higher processes of thought, though it is commonly abused, as may be easily explained by an example. Suppose a person suddenly to accost another with the following words: "I want to tell you about a boat." What is the idea that the word "boat" would be likely to call up? I tried the experiment with this result. One person, a young lady, said that she immediately saw the image of a rather large boat pushing off from the shore, and that it was full of ladies and gentlemen, the ladies being dressed in white and blue. It is obvious that a tendency to give so specific an interpretation to a general word is absolutely opposed to philosophic thought. Another person, who was accustomed to philosophize, said that the word "boat" had aroused no definite image, because he had purposely held his mind in suspense. He had exerted himself not to lapse into any one of the special ideas that he felt the word boat was ready to call up, such as a skiff, wherry, barge, launch, punt, or dingy. Much more did he refuse to think of any one of these with any particular freight or from any particular point of view. A habit of suppressing mental imagery must, therefore, characterize men who deal much with abstract ideas; and, as the power of dealing easily and firmly with these ideas is the surest criterion of a high order of intellect, we should expect that the visualizing faculty would be starved by disuse among philosophers, and this is precisely what I have found on inquiry to be the case.

Here, however, a fresh consideration comes in, which shows that the tendency to visualize is liable to be over-corrected, especially by those who are accustomed but not obliged to visualize in hard and persistent forms, and that they lose thereby the only means of obtaining a correct mental picture of a species or race. I proved two years ago[1] that a generalized picture did as a matter of fact admit of being produced. I threw magic-lantern portraits of different persons on the top

  1. "Journal Anthropological Institute," "Composite Portraits," vol. viii, 1878, p. 132. "Journal Royal Institution," "Generic Images," ix, 1879, p. 161.