On the Study of the Mind

One of the greatest challenges posed by psychology research is the quantification of many of the constructs we seek to study. Unlike in (most of) physics, biology, and chemistry, much of the material studied by psychology cannot be boiled down to discretely observable phenomena. Certainly we are able to evaluate facial expressions, eye movement, brain imaging, etc., but a challenge emerges when we seek to measure such abstract concepts as imagination, nostalgia, and creativity. There is a camp of psychology arguing concepts such as these should receive no study under the umbrella of science, but many others, including myself, see this as a limiting and restricting approach to understanding our minds from a comprehensive point of view. Almost anybody around the world will tell that the imagination is a very real thing. We all possess an imagination and we all feel nostalgia. Our senses only reveal to us a small part of reality. Just because we can’t directly see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Much of my study relies on self-reported measures. While self-report measures certainly have their limits, they are in many cases the best option we have to evaluate psychological constructs.

So how am I quantifying the central variables of my study? Let’s start with imagination. Imagination encompasses a lot. The imagination that aimlessly wanders during a long train ride isn’t necessarily the same imagination used to solve a difficult engineering problem which isn’t necessarily the same imagination used to form a mental picture of, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger riding a unicorn. My study seeks to evaluate imagination in four separate components. The first of these is called “fantasy proneness”. Fantasy proneness evaluates just how prone a person is to creating, exploring, and giving attention to inner fantasies, whether they be reality based or not. The second is imagery vividness, which looks at how well a person is able to conjure up proposed images/scenarios using their mind. Next is imaginative suggestibility. Imaginative suggestibility looks at a person’s ability to experience imagined scenarios as real (i.e. the sensation of flying, getting warm, etc.). Finally, I am evaluating creativity. Creativity, at least in this study, is being evaluated in terms of a person’s ability to imagine novel and original uses for different objects (e.g. what are all the ways a brick can be used?). Creativity is another one of those big concepts, and I am certainly not covering all of it in this study. My hopes, however, are that if this portion of the study should yield significant results, that more research could be done on the subject in the future.

Nostalgia represents the independent variable of my study, or the variable which manipulates and, hypothetically, changes the dependent variables (imagination). Nostalgia is sometimes difficult to describe, but with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary, I have come to define nostalgia as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations”. Ask anyone about their favorite TV show as a kid or their favorite memory of high school and you can see nostalgia in action. Thanks to years of previous research on nostalgia from elsewhere in psychology, there are established methods for instilling nostalgia in individuals. The first of these uses a series of captioned pictures to prime nostalgic sentiment. The second method simply asks participants to write a small paragraph on a moment they feel nostalgic for.

Though I cannot physically invoke participants to feel nostalgia or visibly measure their imaginative capabilities, there are ways in which I and many others in the field of the social sciences feel confident in our abilities to study these invisible yet powerful forces of human existence.


  1. cchurtado says:

    I agree that it is important to study imagination, nostalgia, and creativity. I think that because they are more difficult to analyze, it gives us more reason to study them. Is there any sort of “control” for measuring the four components of imagination? I understand it is difficult to measure these for individual people who have different markers of what constitutes creativity or imagery vividness, so is there any way to compensate for the intricacies of their self-reports to an overall scale?

  2. Hi Conor,

    Your research sounds very interesting. The concept of nostalgia can be really difficult for me to place my finger on, yet the feeling itself is so very specific and powerful. It must be challenging to “manipulate” nostalgia, since everyone has their own, personal, and specific memories. I’m sorry if you clarified this elsewhere, but could you explain in more detail how psychologists observe/study “imagination?”