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Thinking in a second language drains the imagination of vividness

09 February 2018

Mental imagery helps us anticipate the future, and vivid mental pictures inject emotion into our thought processes.

If operating in a foreign language diminishes our imagination – as reported by a pair of psychologists at the University of Chicago in the journal Cognition – this could affect the emotionality of our thoughts, and our ability to visualise future scenarios, thus helping to explain previous findings showing that bilinguals using their second language make more utilitarian moral judgments, are less prone to cognitive bias and superstition, and are less concerned by risks.

Sayuri Hayakawa and Boaz Keysar began by instructing 359 online participants, all native English speakers who were also fluent in Spanish, to mentally simulate 35 different sensory experiences, such as imagining the feeling of sand, the taste of salt, or the sight of the sun sinking below the horizon.

After imagining each experience, the participants rated how vivid it was. Critically, half the participants performed the challenge in English, while for the others, all the instructions were in Spanish.

Read more on our Research Digest blog.

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