By Bruce Bliven
WHICH WEIGHS more, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead? Everybody knows the answer: they both weigh the same. An interesting point, however, is what sort of image popped into your head when you read those words.
One person who answered this question saw, distinctly a pair of scales with a cube of lead on one scale balancing a big mound of feathers on the other. A second person got o mental image but simply conceived of the problem in terms of words. People differ greatly in their power to “make pictures in their heads.” Years ago the British scientist Sir Francis Galton asked a group of colleagues to try to visualize the breakfast table as they had sat down to eat that morning. Some of them saw the table in sharp detail and in color. Others saw it only in black and white. Still others saw a blurred outline, as if through a badly adjusted magic lantern. Many could get no visual image at all.
Scientists believe that most people are born with the ability to summon up in the mind’s eye precise visual images of past experiences, but that many of us lose this power as we grow up simply because we fail to exercise it. Yet the ability can be of material value as Will Irwin once proved when he was a reporter on the New York Sun.
It was in 1906, and San Francisco was in flames. Irwin, who had worked on the San Francisco Chronicle knew the city well. At his desk in New York he took the fragmentary dispatches and figures-all that was coming out of San Francisco about the fire-and for eight days wrote lively and remarkably accurate accounts of what was happening 3000 miles away. In all that time he used no reference books or maps; he was able to evoke for his readers detailed pictures of people and places in San Francisco-by recalling his own mental images of them. “It was,” commented a rival paper, “an unusual example of that imaginative reconstruction of an event which whether based upon his own observed facts or the reports of others, every great reporter achieves at his creative best.”
That we all have this latent ability in some degree is demonstrated by the fact that almost everybody, under hypnosis can call up mental images of the utmost sharpness and detail. In San Francisco, a man was killed by a hit-and-run driver. A number of people witnessed the accident, but were vague or contradictory in their accounts. To clarify their testimony, several of them voluntarily submitted to hypnosis, and in this way were able to provide the police with valuable details.
Nearly all children have far better visual imagery than adults. This explains why so many of them are natural artists until their gifts are obscured in the process of growing up. Some children have remarkable powers. One small boy was shown a picture of a crocodile with its mouth open’ a year later he was asked how many teeth the crocodile had. He recalled the visual image from his memory, and gave the correct number. A few adults, also, posses unusual visual imagery. The great chess masters who can play 15 or 20 games simultaneously while blindfolded have this power to the highest degree. Such a player sees in his mind each board, one by one, with every chessman in the place where it was after the latest moves.
Able mathematicians usually have a strong visual sense; they can picture complicated mathematical problems, arrayed as though on a mental blackboard. Mathematical geniuses like John Von Neumann could “see” the final result of an elaborate computation, written out in their minds so that they had only to “read it off.” The late Charles Evans Hughes, onetime Chief Justice of the United States, had remarkable gifts. I was once in the room when Mr. Hughes, then Secretary of State, dictated a speech to a stenographer. Two hours later he delivered the same speech, without looking at a manuscript. I had a copy of the speech before me and saw that he repeated the entire text, which took about half an hour, word for word.
Whether you are able to visualize readily seems to have no correlation with your I.Q test your ability, start with a line of printed type (preferably rather large type) and a piece of paper. Cover up the bottom two thirds of the line, horizontally and see whether you can still read the words. If you can, your power of visualization is fairly strong. Since nearly all of us have far greater powers of imagery than we use, it would be to our advantage to cultivate them. If you are forgetful of names and faces as most of us are look hard at the next stranger you meet, with the silent promise to yourself that after he has left the room you will summon up his features in your mind-in full color. With a little practice nearly all of us can improve. And next time you have to do a simple sum in addition or subtraction put the figures on an imaginary blackboard and try to get the answer without resorting to paper and pencil.
Rudyard Kipling in his famous novel Kim, tells how Lurgan sahib a member of the Indian espionage system when the British still were in power trained Kim and another small boy. He put before them a tray on which various jewels were carelessly spread out. The boys were allowed to look at the tray for only a few seconds; then it was covered and the boys recited what they had seen. The first time Kim tried this he was unable to list all the jewels, but the other boy-who had several month’s training-recited them perfectly. This was Lurgan Sahib’s method of teaching the boys to observe closely, and remember correctly.
A remarkable story is told about Gen. George Marshall, who once said that he actually saw a printed page of figures interview during World War ll General Marshall began by asking each of the 60 war correspondents present, in turn, what question he wished to ask. After the 60 men had put their queries to the general, he looked off into space for perhaps 30 seconds, then began. He spoke for 40 minutes giving a detailed and connected account of the war situation in which he included a complete answer to each of the 60 questions. While the correspondents were amazed at the General’s brilliant and encyclopedic mind, one thing particularly astonished the: as General Marshall reached the point in his narrative which concerned a specific question he looked directly at the man who had asked it!
Few of us can attain General Marshall’s brilliance, but we can develop our ability to recall the images of past experiences-to live again in memory our travels through beautiful scenery to enjoy the recollection of great paintings seen, or operas or plays attended. But beyond such practical uses of visual imagery, we are more complete persons when we restore this ability with which we were born. Nature has a reason for everything she does; it is always a pity when we, through ignorance of carelessness, destroy some of her handiwork.
By Bruce Bliven