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A scientific measure of our visual imagination shows it is surprisingly limited

29 March 2017

The human mind has been so successful in transforming the material world that it is easy to forget that it too is subject to its own constraints.

From biases in our judgment to the imperfection of our memory, psychology has done useful work mapping out many of these limits, yet when it comes to the human imagination, most of us still like to see it as something boundless. But new research in the journal Cognition, on the capacity of our visual imagination, suggests that we soon hit its limits.

Rebecca Keogh and Joel Pearson from the University of New South Wales conducted a series of tightly controlled experiments involving 72 participants, mostly students from the university. In every experiment, participants donned special glasses and sat before a computer screen to view dozens or hundreds of trials each composed of two phases.

In the first phase, the screen was lit up with dotted outlines marking out “imagination spaces”. The participants had to mentally “fill-in” between one and seven of these spaces with a simple pattern, either red with horizontal stripes or green with vertical stripes (similar to those pictured below).

Cues in the dotted outlines indicated which pattern to visualize in which space. Participants attempted to keep the imagination spaces appropriately coloured in their minds for six seconds.

Read more on our Research Digest blog.


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