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At the Museum of the City of New York, a video by the artist Neil Goldberg features short close-ups of individuals identifying the Manhattan street corner where they are standing. As I watched the video, I realized that the images I was really “seeing” were in my head: 14th and Tenth? I pictured the High Line. Or 89th and Fifth? The Guggenheim. Simultaneously, I saw my own memories: climbing the stairs to the High Line, waiting for a friend in the Guggenheim rotunda. And then my thoughts went farther afield, calling up hazy images for my own creative work.

I’m not usually so cognizant of what I see in my mind’s eye. But I became obsessed with the subject as I developed my exhibit for the RISD Museum. Over several months, I asked friends and acquaintances to use Photo Booth to record themselves while they worked on their laptops in their favorite café or library. In their videos, they occasionally pause and enter a deep-thought space, gazing away from or beyond their computer screen. I saw this again and again, and it made me wonder: What are they looking at?

When I asked my “subjects” what they had been working on, they remembered easily: designing a book proposal, puzzling out the script for a play, conceiving characters for a novel. But when I asked what they had been seeing in their mind’s eye, they were stumped. They acknowledged that whatever they were imagining was essential to conceptualizing their ideas, and yet they could not articulate, much less recall, what they “saw.”

As creative professionals, we mine the imagery of our physical worlds; our brains absorb massive amounts of visual data. Our mind’s eye is filled with animated scenarios that summon our emotions, senses and experiences. We use them to find design solutions and create original ideas. But do we access these scenes as robustly as we could? If we paid closer attention to our mind’s eye, would we be better at pushing our creative boundaries?

In his new book The Mind’s Eye, neurologist Oliver Sacks explores “mental images of an...abstract and visionary kind, images which have never been seen by the physical eye but which can be conjured up by the creative imagination.”

Sacks recounts the experiences of people who are blind—some from birth, some at an early age, others later in life—and the ways in which their visual capacity has grown, despite—or because of—their loss. He describes Zoltan Torey, a man who became blind at 21. Determined to utilize his “inner eye,” Torey “developed a remarkable power of generating, holding and manipulating images in his mind.”

Sacks continues, “...his newly strengthened visual imagery enabled him to think in ways that had not been available to him before, allowed him to project himself inside machines and other systems, to envisage systems, models and designs....He became able to imagine, to visualize the inside of a differential gearbox in action as if from inside its casing.”

Reflecting on these anecdotes, I thought, do we need to experience loss in order to gain an ability? Or is the capacity already there, waiting for us to find it by being more attentive?

Perhaps you’ve heard stories of scientists like Einstein and Faraday whose inner visions led to groundbreaking discoveries. Thomas West, in his 1997 book In the Mind’s Eye, cites the German chemist August Kekulé, who came upon the structure of the benzene ring, and subsequently revolutionized organic chemistry. Kekulé wrote: “I turned the chair to the fireplace and fell into a half sleep. The atoms flitted before my eyes. Long rows, variously, more closely, united; all in movement wriggling and turning like snakes....One of the snakes seized its own tail, and the image whirled before my eyes.” He goes on to describe waking and working on his hypothesis, ending with, “Let us learn to dream.”

As I mentioned, my “video subjects” had difficulty depicting what they had seen in their mind’s eye. But one woman, a painter, thought further and wrote, “I see the future; little hypotheticals playing out, developing and growing, turning from movie clips into abstraction. Sometimes, on the train, staring at the hem of a dress or a polished watch face, the reality before my eyes disappears, and I see only the abstraction of my thoughts.” She added that this attention made her think of her paintings differently. By being more aware, she gained insight.

If we are lucky, our mind’s eye is well-developed, and it offers us a constant rush of vivid imagery. Perhaps we don’t need to learn to dream; we just need to strengthen our grasp. ca

© 2012 W. Richmond

Editor’s note: Wendy Richmond’s exhibit at the RISD Museum runs through November 4, 2012.

Wendy Richmond (wendyrichmond.com) is a visual artist, writer and educator whose work explores public privacy, personal technology and creativity. Richmond has taught at Harvard University, the International Center of Photography and the Rhode Island School of Design, and she serves on the BRIC Artists Advisory Council and the MacDowell Fellows Executive Committee. Her latest book is Art Without Compromise*. Richmond’s column began in 1984.


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