The study of gifted children’s imagination was part of a larger investigation into their inner world as I described in “Mellow Out,” They Say. If I Only Could: Intensities and Sensitivities of the Young and Bright. Gifted children were asked: What are your special kinds of daydreams and fantasies? How precisely can you visualize events, real or imaginary? With what sense or senses do you feel the most pleasure?
Didn’t everything the human race created first exist in someone’s mind?
Responses to these and related questions suggest that imagination operates either as a free play of the mind or as focused, purposeful activity. The degree of absorption in the imagined experience is important, because it can be so complete that all the senses are fully engaged. For this reason it is called imaginal, because it can be experienced as quite real.
Free play: fantasy, daydreams, inventions
“I like to think about things not many people do. Like what will hydrants look like in the future.” [Girl, 13]
Purposeful: visualization, imaginary companions, imaginary worlds,
problem-solving through analogies and metaphors
[I can visualize] “very precisely. I do visualize it, too, with a sort of narrative along with the visuals. Real events are like a photograph, I can dissect and examine at length what happened in seconds. [Boy, 17]
The same boy also said:
“I enjoy visualizing imaginary events because I have control over the small details. If I imagine a person, for instance—I can see the eyes, their color, size, etc., everything.”
Absorption in thought, image, or experience
Imaginal: engagement of all five senses—”as real as real”
Absorption in an imagined experience:
[I can visualize] “pretty well, sometimes it seems like I can touch what I’m thinking about.” [Girl, 13]
When all five senses participate, the experience becomes “as real as real.” All the sensations are created internally while the outside input is partially or completely shut off.
[I imagine myself] “riding a strong, huge, white horse on a beach cantering full speed, riding so close to the ocean that the water splashes my face as the horse runs.” [Girl, 13]
One may have the experience of merging with an object or a sensation:
“I like tasting cold water (irrigation water) after working hard bailing hay in the hot sun….I am ‘merged’ with the experience in a total way, like I become nothing but the taste of cold water.” [Adult male]
Images are generated in the sensory cortex. In excellent imaginers sensory areas become as active as in actual experience in outer reality. To the brain they appear the same but we don’t know by what power the minds of the imaginers can produce the “as real as real” experience.
Adults tend to tolerate children’s imagination as playful fantasies with no foot in reality. They tend to think of “imaginary” as “not real.” Entering school ushers a child into a world of overwhelming insistence upon external “reality.” And yet, why can’t what is imagined be real as well? Didn’t everything the human race created first exist in someone’s mind?
We take imagination for granted when we look for a solution to a problem or need an idea for a creative project. We just let our imagination produce them. But some solutions to problems and some creative ideas are so unexpected that they stand out as truly original. What are the signs of rich and original imagination? Children and adults with excitable imagination tend to produce interesting images and metaphors, they tend to ask “what if” questions that are more about possibilities than about how things work; they like fantasy play and like to invent stories. Because of their rich imagination some children are happy to play for hours by themselves.
Many children have invisible friends (imaginary companions) but gifted children tend to have more of them. A child’s invisible friends are best accepted with tolerance. This is a child’s territory and is carefully guarded.
Some children assume the character of an animal or an object (for example, Peter Ustinov as a boy used to become a car). In character children often refuse to answer to human speech and resist being called out of their alternate existence. All frustrated parents can do is call upon their reserves of patience.
Children need their own private space, both physical and imagined. Some invent elaborate worlds of their own. These worlds can be quite realistic or quite unusual. Often they are developed in collaboration with siblings or friends.
Gifted children who become absorbed in their inner reality face the criticism of “spacing out.” They prefer their own way to organize their memory, make designs, test their inventions, etc. They prefer to learn by discovery, and this fits poorly into the regimented school day.
Respecting children’s imagination and deep absorption in their own self-constructed reality allows them to unfold their potential in a natural way.
—Michael M. Piechowski, PhD
Michael Piechowski is a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Educational Advancement and Professor Emeritus at Northland College and a contributor to the Handbook of Gifted Education and the Encyclopedia of Creativity.
By the Author
“Mellow Out” They Say. If I Only Could: Intensities and Sensitivities of the Young and Bright, by Michael M. Piechowski, Yunasa Books, 2006