Tricks of the mind



Reading involves bit of trickery. Mental trickery. It engages the imagination and fools us into thinking we are there within the book: nestled beside the author, or better yet, beside the characters. Immersed in the created world, floating through it like a ghost in a haunted house movie, or perhaps in the imagined flesh, interacting on the mental stage.

We ask ourselves how we would play the scene, how we would decide, take action, engage the other characters. How would we behave at the dinner table with Becky and Rawdon? Would we defend Nancy from the rages of Bill Sykes? Would we warn Caesar on the steps of the forum? How would we greet Paul Atreides in a dusty sietch? Would we hide or expose Jean Valjean?

Our minds put us there, let us explore and build the what-if world of our own thoughts. Every paragraph opens another possibility, and our minds add it to the infinite number of scenarios we play out in them.

We imagine the walls, the furniture, the coolness of the water, the scent of spice on the breeze, the rustle of the leaves as we snake along the forest trail. Our brains get into high gear, populating the microcosm and making it real. We feel the stiffness of the starched collar, the smoothness of the velvet, the coolness of the rain as it soaks our clothes, the heat of the sun on the beach. We see the wallpaper as the sun moves across it, taste the soup served at the table, smell the lavender as we walk in the fields.

Imagination is such a powerful force that it can affect us like the real thing. We get a jolt from the coffee the hero drinks, we get aroused by the imagined sexual touch of the heroine. Our own hearts beat faster as the protagonist runs away in fear from the killer, our hair prickles when she enters the darkened room to confront the danger.

As A Scribbler’s Dreams says:

The curse of a voracious reader is having an amazing imagination. Having an amazing imagination that you feed by reading more and more books and picturing each world vividly. From the power vibrating in the Elder Wand to the smoke curling from Smaug’s nostrils, you, the reader, can picture each world and be sucked in – the only problem is that you can’t physically go there and talk to Liz Bennet or Peter Pevensie or Percy Jackson, no matter how hard you wish.

BooksA study at Dartmouth University, in 2013, showed that many areas of the brain are engaged in imaginative thinking. The “mind’s eye” where we construct our worlds is actually many scattered areas of our grey matter. Imagination isn’t limited to one or two areas. It lights up MRIs like one of those satellite photos of the world at night.

(Unlike watching TV, which activates specific areas, and can be bad for you because it can actually change brain structure in damaging ways, as well as negatively affect behaviour).

The Epicureans used to do this sort of imaginative exercise: mentally put themselves into situations and work through the results and to explore other options of thought and behaviour. So did the Stoics. Marcus Aurelius – a Stoic – wrote down some of his imaginings in his Meditations.

One of the uses of these exercises was to calm the mind – say, after the death of a loved one, or the loss of one’s possessions. Imagine life before your loved one entered it. Imagine life before your prized possession was stolen.

Buddhists often meditate on such imagined worlds to or objects to clear the mind. It might seem odd to clutter one’s mind in order to clear it, but it works. There’s a Jewish tale that illustrates this (see note, below). The busy Tibetan mandala is a material tool for such meditations: meditate on it, focus your attention on it, imagine all the worlds it shows, and soon you lose the forest and see the trees. Your mind becomes a microscope that focuses on smaller and smaller items until the big, busy picture is lost and you have only a small speck in your mind.

The Jesuit missionary Mateo Ricci described a similar technique in his 1596 treatise on the mnemonic arts. He used imagination as the foundation for remembering, based on techniques described by Aquinas.

Montaigne used his imagination like this, like the Stoics and Epicureans, centuries later. Although he can’t be so simply labelled a Stoic or Epicurean (his Essays seem to reflect both, transforming from the former to the latter as he aged, but he was also a Skeptic),

Montaigne did the same thing in his writing, Sarah Bakewell tells us. He tried Stoic techniques to overcome his grief when his closest friend died, and to comfort a grieving widow. They worked to a degree, albeit not fully for himself. Still, he understood the reason for the attempt and used it several times.

In part, this mental palace of imagination helps us practice for real life and our encounters. In part it helps us make decisions and it helps us plan for the future. We can imagine how to react, respond, to deal with matters and prepare for them. Imagination also helps us be better, more fulfilled humans. We can imagine what we can never have, be or do.

I was not born into riches, nor were my parents of the nobility. I have never lived in a castle, or a palace, or scaled Mount Everest, or sailed in a clipper ship around the Horn. But in my imagination, I can do those things. I can enjoy the cool marble floor under my feet, the susurrus of the fountain in the piazza, the dank, musty cell under the Venetian Leads, the sticky methane rain of Titan all in my imagination.

TV and movies are fine entertainment, but they fill it all in: they don’t let your imagination soar. They don’t let your mind wander and be creative. And it’s imagination that makes us fully human. It’s imagination that differentiates us from other species. That makes us visionaries.

Jimmy Carter expressed this when he made what turned out to be an unfortunate political quote:

“I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times.”

He was merely saying he was faithful to his wife by restricting his biological urges to his imagination, not expressing a desire to commit a deed in the flesh. It’s sad that his comment was so misundertood, turned into a media merry-go-round rather than allowing it to open a fuller discussion of the mind and imagination. Carter knew what the Stoics knew.

Each book is a microcosm: a tiny universe we can explore as we read. We learn from each one to live in this real-world macrocosm because the small reflects the larger, and what it lacks we fill in with our own imagination. We make it real because that’s how our brains work.

The author doesn’t tell us the colour of the walls? We fill them in. Doesn’t tells us what kind of tree we’re standing under? We flesh it out. We give the barely-described dog’s fur and floppy ears; we make the indistinct carriage fit our notions of propriety and propel it bumpily over the cobblestones. We make the sands of Dune hot and the snows of Kilimanjaro cold. We populate the halls of Versailles, the trenches at the Somme, the moonbase in Copernicus crater. How my muscles have ached as I’ve trod the Tuscan hills in my mind.

Fiction is, of course, a different platform from non-fiction, but they both work in similar manner for the immersed reader. Both require us to fill in the gaps.

Reading about the final year of WWII, I can imagine the sweaty space within a tank, the cramped cockpit of a fighter, the bustle of the command tent and the bruising rubble of the ruined cities. Reading Montaigne I can imagine his round turret room with its shelves of books lit by the small windows. I can imagine Elizabeth I passing in a corridor, voluminous dresses rustling as courtiers bow. I can fly over Mars, dipping low over canyons and craters. I can walk the streets of Renaissance Florence and stand in the line, musket raised, as the French cavalry sweep over the rise at Waterloo. I can walk with Machiavelli along the path to his house in the hills.

Imagination. It tricks the brain in such a lovely way. Of course, it’s not always good: it tricks us into seeing ghosts, angels, gods, aliens and secret government activities in clouds. It turns normal activities and natural phenomena into conspiracies. But we would be mere animals without it. And reading makes it work so well for us.


There is an old Jewish story about a man who lives in a very small house with his wife, many children, no space, and very little money. So the man goes to his rabbi for advice: “Rabbi, you are so wise, and here I am living in a small house, with no light and little space. And I am so poor. What can I do?” The rabbi listens and instructs the man: “Go to the market, buy a goat, and put the goat inside the house with you for a week and then come back to me.” The man is shocked: “But, rabbi, as I told you, I have very little space and money. If I buy a goat, I won’t have any space and I’ll lose all my money.” But the rabbi insists: “Get that goat!” So the man buys the goat. He takes it home with him. The goat eats the furniture. It’s too big and takes up all the space in the small home. The man’s life is miserable. After a week, he goes to the rabbi and cries: “Rabbi, I put a goat inside my house. There is really no space anymore. Please help!” The rabbi responds: “Go to the market, sell your goat, and come back to me in one week.” The man sells the goat and returns after a week to the rabbi. “Rabbi, this week my life was great! With no goat in the house, it’s really huge now and my family and I have so much space to live in. And after selling the goat, I actually have more money. You are a very wise man, rabbi!”

From here.. There are other versions (one linked above) that are more elaborate, but the message is the same.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top