When we started studying imagination, we faced two puzzling challenges.

The first was that everyone we asked said that they had some sort of imagination. Alas, no comprehensive psychological test existed to measure and describe imagination.

The second surprise was that everybody we spoke to said that they thought imagination was in principle a good thing. But nobody quite knew for what. 

We’ve spent the past two years trying to solve both paradoxes, and we think we found some *preliminary* answers. For one, we’ve developed a battery of tests that assess individual differences in imagination. For the other, we administered these tests to various groups – students, mothers, working adults – to see if imagination predicted specific outcomes or behaviours. But let’s start at the beginning … what is imagination?

Imagination is the tendency to create mental representations of objects, ideas and sensations and ideas that are not contemporaneously perceived by the senses. Imagination ranges from re-creating images in the mind of realities that we have previously seen or experienced to crafting images anew independent of prior actual sensory input. It is an intrinsic, stable dimension of individual differences that is at the crossroads of intelligence — our ability to create mental representations — and personality — our typical tendency to create mental representations.

imQ test battery

Our imagination test battery includes two types of tests. The first is explicit: These are tests that assess the aspects of your personality or character that people are aware of. We know ourselves quite well, and if someone asks me if I like daydreaming I can give a qualified answer. However, not all parts of our individuality are accessible to us through introspection. It’s not necessarily that we don’t want to see certain things about ourselves (although that does happen too) but rather that we don’t know ourselves completely. In psychology, characteristics that are not available through introspection are assessed by implicit tests that try to identify subconscious motivations or automatic associations in memory.

To assess explicit imagination, we developed the self-report Imagination Behaviour Engagement Scale (IBES). This test captures individual differences in engaging into typical, everyday imaginative behaviours, for example daydreaming or playing with ideas in your mind. The test includes overall seven domains of imaginative behaviours.

To assess implicit association, we created the Conditional Reasoning Test for Curiosity (CRT-C). Hold on, why curiosity and not imagination? The reason is that curiosity is part of the broader construct space of imagination. Specifically, curiosity describes individual differences in the tendency to seek out novel experiences, ranging from intellectual learning opportunities to sensory explorations within and outside one’s own mind. By comparison, imagination refers to creating mental representations of our experiences and so, curiosity and imagination go hand in hand.

Here’s one of our papers on how to assess imagination.

What is imagination good for?

Imagination is likely to be related to many behaviours, for example how creative you are or how often you have exceptional sensory experiences. At the Hungry Mind Lab, we are particularly excited about one behavioural outcome: learning achievement.

People differ in their capacity to learn: some of us are smarter and have greater reasoning capacities than others. People also differ in the type and amount of knowledge that they accumulate — some of us know more than others. Our differences in knowledge, however, are only partially a function of our differences our reasoning capacities.

Many other factors play a role for learning, for example motivation and interest, but the one we are most interested in is personality. In particular, we are interested in investment personality traits that determine where, when and how people apply and invest their reasoning capacities to accumulate knowledge. The idea that personality traits affect learning is also known as the investment theory of adult intelligence. 

We wanted to test if imagination is an investment personality trait. We invited just over 200 British students to visit our lab for 3 weeks and show us how they learned. Each week, we asked the students to study a complex scholarly text: in week 1, the text focused on the Cuban missile crisis; in week 2, it was about CRISPR; and in week 3, they read about the dot.com bubble. We asked them to study the texts as best as they could, because they were later to answer exam-style multiple-choice tests on the texts. We then tested if the students’ imagination was associated with how well they did on the exam-style questions.

We found a small positive association between imagination and learning achievement, suggesting that imagination may indeed be an investment personality trait. Because imagination helps translating experience into conceptual knowledge, it may be a key variable for learning. More powerful was the prediction of openness to experience, a trait related to imagination, for learning. You can read a paper on what we found here.