Research shows the human imagination becomes more active with age

Olivia Miller
Picture by English Heritage/Jim Holden

Research from Kent, commissioned by English Heritage, has shown that, contrary to popular opinion, the adult imagination is not only as vivid as that of a child but even becomes more active with age.

The research into the effects of age on the imagination, which was conducted by Kent’s School of Psychology, directly refutes the commonly held belief that we become less imaginative as we get older.

Over 470 people aged between 4 and 81 were asked to imagine how unfamiliar historical objects could have been used and the answers were evaluated for their fluency (number of responses), flexibility (how many different categories such as cooking, religion, art the responses crossed), proximity (how close to the actual function of the object the responses were), elaboration (how detailed they were) and originality.

It was found that, with increasing age, people were more likely to imagine uses that were closer to the actual function of the objects. However, there was also an increase in originality with age, and older adults were more likely to provide more detailed or colourful ideas. Interestingly, adolescents and young adults scored higher for fluency and flexibility of imagination. They came up with a larger number of suggestions and these ideas spanned a wider range of categories than other age groups, suggesting that different age groups have different strengths when it comes to the imagination.

Dr Angela Nyhout, Assistant Professor at Kent’s School of Psychology, led the team that conducted the research. She explains: ‘These new findings dispel the commonly held belief that humans lose their imaginations as they age. Instead, it shows that our imaginations continue to grow and change, even throughout adulthood, with the over 60s actually showing the most originality. Adults’ imaginations can be just as vivid as children’s, but what they already know about the world constrains their imagination in some cases and enhances it in others. We just need the freedom of the right environment and opportunity to explore the limits of our imagination, and historical places are a perfect place to do this.’

The research has been used by English Heritage to focus its ‘One Extraordinary Summer’ events programme on bringing the imagination to life and the charity will be introducing hands-on history sessions and historical ‘dress up’ costumes targeted at adults in at 11 of its sites this summer.

Beth Stone, Head of Visitor Experience at English Heritage, added: ‘This research has confirmed what we already suspected from watching our visitors interact on site: that imagination simply doesn’t diminish with age. We’ll be encouraging adult participation at our blockbuster events and hands-on history sessions, whilst our new costumes will hopefully help our older visitors leave their inhibitions at the door and let their imaginations take them back in time.’

The new adult dressing-up costumes range from Roman togas, Medieval chainmail and WWII uniform, through to smart Victorian suits and exquisite Tudor gowns and will be available at 11 sites, including Dover Castle in Kent, Eltham Palace in London and Osborne on the Isle of Wight.

Find out more about English Heritage’s ‘One Extraordinary Summer’ at