Friday, December 11, 2015

William James Knows Me So Well

Once again this year, William James is looking inside my head and showing me everyday phenomena I hadn’t understood or even noticed before. I’m reading two chapters from Principles of Psychology this year. In the first, on imagination, James distinguishes “images” from each of the five external senses. Pausing between words as I type, I can virtually see Stonehenge, virtually hear the sound of my high-school music teacher’s voice, virtually feel the touch of velvet on my fingers, virtually smell hot apple cider, and virtually taste chocolate. These are all memories that I can call up in such a way that I have some hint, some degree of actual experience: as opposed to simply remembering that I have seen Stonehenge, the arrangement of stones comes into my field of vision in a ghostly way difficult to describe except by saying that I almost actually see it.

James usually drops a bomb somewhere in each chapter, and this year’s explosion involved the story of a psychologist named Galton who conducted some of the very first psychological studies based on surveys. How else to study the way people imagine things other than to ask them? So Galton put together his survey: How vivid are your visual imaginations? Are they in color? Are they bright or dim? How long can you hold a mental image? And so on. Fearing that nonscientists wouldn’t understand what he was after or know how to take it seriously, Galton asked fellow scientists first and found to his great surprise (and mine) that most scientists said they had no visual imagination at all!

My first response to this shocking news was to think, “How do they even think?” A page later, James announced that most people respond to the news with that very question. But then he proceeds to explain how they think: obviously they do think and must need some type of mental tokens for various ideas, so without visual imagination, they must think through other types of imagination. To the list of five possibilities corresponding to the senses, James also notes muscle memory – another very new concept at the time.

Studies on people with brain injuries discovered that people who lose their dominant mode of imagination lose function. One person who memorized words visually, for instance, lost his ability to read when he lost his visual imagination – lost it, that is, until he started tracing the letters with his finger, invoking kinesthetic memory of writing the words. So here, a hundred years before it became popular to talk about, is a theory of multiple learning styles. James even anticipates my frequent response to current teaching about learning styles: an old-fashioned method like having students rewrite information and then read it aloud works because it engages channels of sight, hearing, and motion simultaneously.

James’s views on imagination raised in my mind another question concerning education. In trying out the different kinds of imagination in my own mind, I found that my aural memories are by far the most vivid and detailed. If some people have no visual imagination at all, is it conceivable that some have no aural imagination? And could student struggles in my musical aural-skills classes arise from this deficiency? If so, I should try to help weak students by exercising memory of single notes. (Oh, don’t be so surprised to find that many music majors have trouble distinguishing one interval or scale from another.)

A last note: I felt a little less strange when James told me that I’m not the only person who hears words as I read. Some people, he notes, have the converse experience: they see words when they hear someone speak. I once had a student who told me she heard the names of pitches as she played her violin. She said she was embarrassed to reveal a quirk that, at least in her fears, might tend to make people doubt her sanity. I wonder if, like me, she wouldn’t feel less strange if she let William James look inside her head.

By the way, Galton eventually found out that nonscientists, especially women and children, love to answer surveys. Magazines at grocery stores would seem to confirm that observation.

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