Spontaneous imagination is defined as effortless, surprising and instantaneous. For example, you’re washing the dishes and suddenly have a great new idea for a drawing. It feels like your idea literally “came out of nowhere.”
Controlled imagination is defined as a process that is consciously initiated, guided and terminated. For example, you’re washing the dishes and consciously decide to think about how to resolve a conflict with your roommate. You intentionally stay on task, brainstorming ideas and refining until you have an answer, at which time you stop thinking about it.
From Musing’s entry re the TFIS test.
In the comments section, Mados, Musings, and I (mostly Mados and Musings, I just contributed once and read the convo in fascination) ended up getting into a conversation about different modes of thought and types of imagination (which are heavily linked, I believe, thus this post covering both), which provided the inspiration for this post. I actually meant to get this done a week and a half ago, but… yeah.
So, another “Let’s Talk About” post.
First of all, about how I did myself on the TFIS test (so one can see where I’m coming from). The scoring (taken from Musing’s post) is as follows:
equal to or less than 45 = low spontaneous imagination
46 to 59 = proportionate spontaneous/controlled imagination
equal to or greater than 60 = high spontaneous imagination
One of the things Musings was exploring in her post was the correlation between the results of the TFIS test and the results of the Alexithymia Questionnaire (alexithymia is the condition of having trouble identifying and describing emotions, as well as distinguishing between emotional and physical issues, and alexithymia is common in ASD individuals – as per Musings). Apparently one of the traits of alexithymia is supposed to be impoverished imagination, though the two studies that Musings found had no info on that.
My scores on both are as follows.
Alexithymia Questionnaire (the numbers in angle brackets are the “normal” set):
Category: Difficulty Identifying Feelings: 24 Points <15 – 18> In this category you show high alexithymic traits.
Category: Difficulty Describing Feelings: 20 Points <10 – 12> In this category you show high alexithymic traits.
Category: Vicarious Interpretation of Feelings: 11 Points <8 – 9> In this category you show high alexithymic traits.
Category: Externally-Oriented Thinking: 22 Points <18 – 21> In this category you show high alexithymic traits.
Category: Restricted Imaginative Processes: 17 Points <18 – 21> In this category you show no alexithymic traits.
Category: Problematic Interpersonal Relationships: 20 Points <15 – 18> In this category you show high alexithymic traits.
Category: Sexual Difficulties and Disinterest: 13 Points <10 – 12> In this category you show high alexithymic traits.
I got 44.0 – low spontaneous imagination, but pretty much right on the cusp. Very hard to choose answers that felt appropriate; I sometimes (but not always) start with spontaneous imagination and go on to controlled, and then back to spontaneous (for the end).
In both the Alexithymia Questionnaire and the TFIS Test posts, Musings was also writing about how for some reason, the general impression of the public is that ASDers have no imagination. I really had to agree with her confusion about that, because I know I certainly have a very strong imagination! My parents used to worry that I spent all my time in my imaginary worlds, and not enough time in the Real World. (And they may very well have been right to. Even now, I prefer to spend time with my imagination and imaginary characters than with Real People and Real Situations.)
Not to mention, take a look at my post Creativity: ASD Specialty. That effectively sums up my thoughts concerning ASDers and creativity, which is heavily reliant on imagination. And since then, I’ve encountered the poetry of Amy Sequenzia, an autistic who is non-verbal and needs Facilitative Communication in order to communicate (see Emma’s Hope Book for some details about FC and the controversy surrounding it, as well as the help good facilitators can provide), and it is wonderfully expressive. Her poetry is wonderful.
All right, enough background. Now, let’s actually get talking about imagination and modes of thought.
The only details I’m going to include here are my own, as neither Mados nor Musings have given me permission to include theirs (not that I’ve asked, admittedly; I’m trying to start up a conversation where they can write their own out here); if you’re curious, and you can’t find their details here, you can always go up to the links to Musing’s post and the conversation and take a look.
As mentioned above, in my quote from my reply to Musing’s TFIS post (not the conversation with Mados, but my direct reply), based on the description of “spontaneous” and “controlled” imagination, I tend to start out with spontaneous, go to controlled, and then go back to spontaneous – in some of my imaginings. I tend to get hit with an idea, then I guide that idea along, but some surprises crop up. (The reason that in my writing, I tend to say that the characters are the ones directing the story – I just record it.)
However, I’m not really sure that “spontaneous” and “controlled” are the best descriptors for imagination. The TFIS was very difficult to answer; I suspect that if I’d understood one or two questions just a little differently, I would have ended up with a “proportionate” score.
Imagination is very difficult to classify. The definition, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, is:
the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses : she’d never been blessed with a vivid imagination.
• the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful : technology gives workers the chance to use their imagination.
• the part of the mind that imagines things : a girl who existed only in my imagination.
How do we quantify something so amorphous, something that exists in one’s own mind; especially those of us who have difficulty with communication (at least with allistics) in the first place? Perhaps this is part of the reason why early studies of autism got the idea that ASDers / autistics don’t have imagination. It’s like asking someone to describe what they see when they see the colour green. The description is based on the describer’s experience, and can’t be communicated in a hugely meaningful way to anyone else.
That was actually a thought-experiment I came up with as a pre-adolescent (I was somewhere between 10 and 12 when I first came up with it); the idea of what other people actually perceived when they were talking about a certain colour – I chose green because it was my favourite. Did they perceive what I did when I talked about blue? All we know is that we’ve come to a collective agreement, in language, that this particular colour (and now codified by frequency of light wavelengths) is “green”. We don’t have the insight into other people’s brains that would allow us to know how they actually perceive the colour itself. What an interesting possibility for telepathy!
See? Use of imagination right there!
So… how to discuss imagination? Well… that leads me into modes of thought.
Mados, in the conversation, found some articles that described different “modes of thought”. The predominant “mode of thought” seems to be visual, with verbal as the secondary (though most people have “mixed-thinking” modes). There are, however, also kinesthetic thinkers (movement, spatial orientation), musical / aural thinkers (sound, rhythm), and mathematical / logical thinkers (categories, etc.), as well as other, rarer ones. Donna Williams, whose article “Not Thinking in Pictures” Mados was quoting when referring to those, apparently suggests that some of these other modes of thought (particularly kinesthetic) might be how some non-verbal ASDers think. (This to counter the claims Temple Grandin has made about how autistic thinking is visual rather than verbal; approximately 60-65% of the population, apparently, are visual or partially visual thinkers.)
On to my own mode of thinking.
My Mode of Thinking
I’m going to quote what I wrote in the conversation with Mados and Musings, because I think I said it very well there, and then add a bit more after.
I tend to think mostly in words. (At least, at a conscious level.) Sometimes those words are actually visualized as text, sometimes they’re… not. I think. (I know that I definitely visualize them as text sometimes – usually against an ‘empty’ background, but I’m not sure if the rest of the time I’m visualizing them as a scroll-through that just goes fast enough I don’t realize it, or if they’re more abstract.)
I also sometimes think / imagine in visual scenes, but those tend to not really have a huge amount of detail. At least, not that I can recall. It’s more like a flash in which I get the gist of the scene, who’s in it, what’s going on; but not, oh, say, what clothes the characters are wearing, or details of the background, or whatever. So visual, but somewhat abstracted, is how I’d describe it. Colours tend to come through as light or pale (even if I know they’re actually intense), and there are sometimes “general” emotions attached. (I say “general” meaning the basic – happy, sad, content, tender, angry, frustrated, worried – set of emotions, without really any of the intensity or blending / mixing that you tend to get in RL, that is what I often have trouble distinguishing.)
Partly as a result of the above, one of the things I have to work on with my writing is my description. I can visualize everything going on, but because it’s got that “somewhat abstracted” element, I don’t always remember that other people need more details to build a picture. (That’s when one of my allistic betas comes in *really* handy! She has a habit of pointing out where I’m missing descriptions.)
Those are the basics of how I think, as far as I’m aware. I believe that there’s also a slight aural element – why I like listening to songs and the like when I’m being creative, and why it sometimes seems in my brain like I’m reading the visualized words out loud… but I also think that aural element might be easily disrupted. It would also partly explain why I react so badly to sound, where my primary hypersensitivity is actually visual. (Yes, I’m hypersensitive to aural input as well, but there are times when it isn’t as overwhelming as the visual, and other times when it just thoroughly disrupts my thinking. But please do note that this is just speculation.)
I also tend towards analogies / metaphors that use concrete examples (or examples I consider concrete, which includes things like computer programs, because I understand the basics of how they work) in order to understand more abstract concepts (like habits of behaviour created in childhood, to go on with what I use the computer program analogy for). I know, ASDers are supposed to have trouble with “figurative” language, but when I think of metaphors and analogies, I think of direct comparisons, rather than just using the figurative language without also saying what it refers to. So maybe I should call them similes and comparisons… but analogies sounds better and more accurate to me.
What does all this mean?
Well, it means that when I imagine things, I tend to imagine scenes in a mixture of verbal (words, not necessarily aural) and visual components. I have a “script”, and I have a “scene”, and they affect each other. The “script” tends to be the more “controlled”, to use the TFIS terms, mode of imagination, and the “scene” tends to be the more “spontaneous”. (I very rarely start imagining with a script, it usually starts with a scene presenting itself, and then the script starts based on that.) This applies whether I’m writing, or just imagining something for my own relaxation.
Anyway, I would definitely welcome any thoughts you chose to share on this topic; it’s a fascinating one (at least to me it is!), and I really want to hear more about how others, both autistic and allistic, would characterize their imagination and modes of thought. Even if you just write a few words, or “I have no idea, but this is an interesting post”, I would love to hear from you. Let’s get talking!
[Edit: I have since done more thinking about my personal modes of thought. The revised details are available at: Let’s Talk About: Modes of Thought – Followup.]