Judith Wolfe, University of St Andrews

Mapping the Imagination

What if art helped us see the world more clearly? What if religions were a way of seeing the depth and significance of the world? What if religions made the world a work of art? What if philosophers and psychologists understood and trusted each other more?

Grant Title
Mapping the Imagination
Legal Organization
University of St Andrews
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 September 2020
End Date: 31 July 2022
Grant Amount
Area of Focus
Art Seeking Understanding

Touching. Smelling. Tasting. Hearing. Seeing. Every second of every day, we’re barraged by sensory inputs. The human body is a greedy sensorium, taking everything in. The brain is its refinery, instantaneously processing load after load of raw data. In ways that are complex, primal and still not fully understood, our brains make sense of our senses – integrating, interpreting and creating meaning.

Most of the time, we experience this dynamic unconsciously, completely unaware it’s happening. We taste the difference between sour and sweet, smell the difference between fresh and musty, and feel the difference between rough and smooth. We see a shape on the ground and know it’s a leaf. We see something next to it and know it’s a stone. We hear a certain buzz and know it’s a mosquito. We hear another buzz and know it’s a hummingbird’s wings in flight. 

The human ability to internally form and assign meaning to external stimuli has fascinated philosophers for centuries. The arguments of great thinkers such as Aristotle and Immanuel Kant have described this phenomenon as “the imagination” … the capacity to perceive through the senses, with the mind. 

Since the beginning of the 20th century, many psychologists have also been interested in the interaction of the senses and the brain, creating a new field known as Gestalt psychology which focuses on the human ability to perceive a whole out of disparate inputs.

Differing Points of View

Although their aims of better understanding the human mind are similar, philosophers and psychologists think about perception from different perspectives and describe it in different ways. 

Philosophers explore imagination as one of several facilities of the mind – differing from reason, for example. They also suggest analogies between different levels of cognitive engagement: everyday, aesthetic and spiritual knowledge.  

In contrast, the work of psychologists primarily revolves around more mechanistic concepts of brain functions. Through tests such as Edgar Rubin’s century-old and now iconic “two profiles/one vase” and the more recent “blue/black vs. white/gold dress” controversy that went viral on social media in 2015, psychologists empirically study how people process and bring order to the stimuli they receive, based on principles such as figure/ground relationships or groupings in which the same stimulus can trigger different perceptions.

Instead of referring to the imagination, psychologists prefer terms such as top-down or predictive processing – essentially, the brain “sending down” stored information as it receives information from the stimulus, not unlike Google anticipating the subject of our search as we enter the first few letters.

But are philosophers and psychologists essentially talking about the same thing in different ways? What philosophical theories challenge psychological frameworks, and what psychological discoveries challenge philosophical concepts? What might be gained by marrying their insights and pursuing a more collaborative approach? Could a study that incorporates both perspectives be a springboard for new knowledge?

Exploring such questions is both a challenge and an opportunity, says Judith Wolfe, professor of philosophical theology and deputy head of the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. With funding from the Templeton Religion Trust, she has undertaken that challenge, leading a multidisciplinary research project that aims to build understanding of common interests across philosophy and psychology by expanding awareness of overlapping areas of inquiry and empirically testing emerging hypotheses.

Breaking Down Silos, Expanding Horizons

“Insofar as philosophers define ‘the imagination’ as a capacity and tendency to integrate parts into a structured whole, the term corresponds in some ways to types of cognitive processes identified by scientists,” Professor Wolfe notes. “Significant progress is achievable through careful mapping of philosophical concepts onto scientific concepts, paying appropriate attention to their distinct parameters and aims.”

It’s her contention that art offers a unique research platform for better understanding how the mind processes sensory inputs.

My guiding assumption in this work is that art deliberately elicits imaginative gestalt formation and, indeed, that such imaginative investment by the recipient is at the heart of what it means to see a painting or read a poem.
– Prof. Judith Wolfe, St. Andrews University

Poets, for example, force us to reconcile disparate elements of figurative language, such as “my love is a red, red rose.” Realist painters challenge us to “see” three-dimensionality and perspective in flat, two-dimensional paintings. Expressionistic and abstract artists challenge our concepts of reality, provoking us to decipher a meaning beyond what we see. 

“Picasso, for example, teases us with what seem to be interpretable as forms in space,” Wolfe explains. “But actually, he makes it impossible for us to complete the normal work of interpreting what we see as, say, a table with a chair and a guitar on it, because he’s messed it all up. And so he makes us conscious of the interpretative work that we would usually do by making its completion impossible. He throws us back on our own. We — as viewers — complete the work.”

Art historian E. H. Gombrich, in his classic study Art and Illusion, describes this dynamic of active reception as “the beholder’s share.” “We can never neatly separate what we see from what we know,” he writes. As much as Professor Wolfe ascribes to that viewpoint, she also believes that, like many philosophical theories, “it can no longer exist unchallenged.”

Challenging, Correcting & Extending

Professor Wolfe’s project includes literature reviews with careful cross-indexing and analysis of cognitive processes identified by scientists that correspond to elements of how philosophers describe human imagination. Additionally, interdisciplinary seminars are being hosted to encourage discussion and identify potential new areas of research. 

Also underway are pilot experiments, designed by a senior research fellow in psychology. In collaboration, they’re putting theories to the test of quantitative study. For example, in one experiment, a group of test subjects is shown pairs of images that they’re told are the works of a professional artist that were included in an exhibition titled “The Art of the Everyday: Objects from Daily Life.” Another group of test subjects is shown these same paired images but told simply that they are everyday images. Both groups are asked to evaluate the relationship between the pairs of images, testing the theory that people perceive more meaning when looking at what they perceive to be art compared to viewing ordinary images.

The aim, says Professor Wolfe, is “to gain a clearer understanding of the ways in which theoretical and empirical approaches challenge, correct and extend one another, where they appear incommensurable and where new research might arise from a patient probing of this incommensurability.”

Faith Seen Through the Lens of Art

At the horizon of this project is Professor Wolfe’s belief that a deeper understanding of aesthetic cognition can, in turn, yield a deeper understanding of spiritual belief and how people of faith see and interpret their world.

To have faith is not only to believe in unseen things, but also to see the visible world differently, as something like an artwork with immaterial "depth."
– Prof. Judith Wolfe, St. Andrews University

Through this project, she hopes to lay the groundwork for greater trust and future collaboration among philosophers, theologians and scientists, providing the motivation, tools and abilities to work together on joint challenges. 

“Psychologists nowadays, especially neuropsychologists, are very quick to reduce anything that we see to material processes, neurological causes and so forth. Whereas philosophers tend to be a bit head-in-the-air, not really interested in the mundane, nitty gritty. To understand how it is that we learn from art and how we can translate that into a healthier engagement with the world requires philosophers and theologians and psychologists to work together,” Professor Wolfe concludes.

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