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SENTENTIA. European Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

Impossible Phenomena as Mediators in Cognitive Functioning and Education

Subbotsky Eugene

Doctor of Psychology

Professor, the department of Psychology, Lancaster University, Great Britain

CR0 2GG, Velikobritaniya, London oblast', g. Croydon, ul. Saffron Square, 11

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Abstract: The manuscript assesses the role of impossible phenomena (entities and events) as psychological tools for enhancing cognitive functioning. In three studies, participants were exposed to films containing either impossible or contrasting possible phenomena, and then tested on creativity, the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality, and the ability to memorize commercial brands placed within films. In all of the studies, participants (British 4-, 6- and 8-year-old children, adolescents and adults) showed a significantly better improvement in the aforementioned abilities after watching the film with impossible phenomena than after watching the film with contrasting possible phenomena. For the first time the images of impossible (fantasy) phenomena is being viewed as the means to affect cognitive abilities (thoughts, perception, and memory) for the purpose of optimizing cognitive functionality. The results are discussed in terms of possible applications of impossible phenomena in a classroom.

Keywords: cognitive functioning, memory, perception, creative thinking, magical effects, impossible phenomena, training, alternative textbooks, impossible objects, advertising

There are images, such as the “impossible triangle” by an English mathematician Roger Penrose or the “impossible landscapes” crafted by a Dutch graphic artist Maurits Escher, which violate known laws of geometry and gravity yet look amazingly real. But why do scientists and artists create the impossible images in the first place? Are these images a mere curiosity, or might there be more to them? In this paper I am going to argue that the impossible images can be used as tools, or mediators for teaching and communication.

Mediation is one of key features of human development. According to Vygotsky, a person is connected to the world in two parallel ways: directly and indirectly, via mediators -- objects that are used to amplify the connection between the person and the world [1] These special objects, or mediators, perform multiple functions, such as upgrading innate cognitive abilities to the higher social forms, providing the mind with a symbolic “operational field”, and others [2][3].The function that is of special interest for the present analysis is the ability of mediators to enhance, or amplify, human actions. Building a ship with bare hands (an unmediated action) is more difficult and less efficient than building a ship with the assistance of tools (a mediated action), and communication by gaze referencing (an unmediated action) is less precise and powerful than communication by language (a mediated action). Thus, speaking of the development of attention in the child, Vygotsky writes “With the help of the indicatory function of words, ...he (the child – ES) begins to take control over his attention…distinguishing more and more new patterns from the background … and thus infinitely widening the ability to guide his attention” [4].

Mediators, (sometimes called “psychological tools”), include a wide variety of objects, ranging from ordinary tools (such as a hammer) to semiotic cultural artifacts (signs, symbols, texts, formulae, and language) [5][6][7][8]. Action amplification through mediation is not an exclusively human ability. Apes can use tools similar to those used by humans to amplify their actions: stones for cracking nuts, rods for fishing aunts, sounds and abstract images to enhance and direct their communications [9]. The principle of action amplification through mediation is so common that it almost became a triviality. Thus, efficacy of teaching can be assessed by efficacy of tools involved to amplify the teaching process, such as handbooks, teaching methods and teacher-student communication styles, and a position of a certain species of animals on the ladder of phylogenetic development can be defined by the animals’ ability to use tools.

There is, however, a kind of mediators less ordinary, which is unique to humans. This kind of mediators is images of objects and events, which are impossible. In this paper, by the impossible phenomena (“the IP”) I will refer to images of entities and events that violate known laws of science. The Penrose triangle, animals that can speak human languages, a wizard creating a castle by a magic spell are examples of the IP. The specific feature of the IP is that such entities exist only in one’s imagination (thinking, dreaming) and do not have corresponding referents in the real world. Along with the IP, in this paper the concept of contrasting possible phenomena (“the P”) will be employed. By the P I will refer to images of entities and events, which are the exact opposite to the IP. By definition, the P can exist both in imagination and in reality. For instance, for the IP such as “an apple flying upwards by itself” the P is “an apple falling down on earth”, for the IP such as a “half man-half horse” the P are “a man” and “a horse”.

The main question I am going to discuss in this paper can be put as follows: Are the IP a more efficient tool of amplifying cognition and action than are the P? Fiction literature and cinema are by far the most popular mediators for influencing human behavior. Recent experiments in neuroscience indicated that reading to participants clips from “Harry Potter” that included the IP activated areas in the participants’ brain different from those activated by reading clips that included the P [10]. It is therefore a relevant question to ask, which of the two kinds of mediators – the P or the IP – if framed within a film or a TV program, would affect children’s subsequent behavior to a greater extent. For example, is it more efficient to teach children the law of gravity by demonstrating them a movie in which a horse is falling down from a cliff (the P), or a movie in which a winged horse is flying up in the air (the IP)?

Regarding the aforementioned example, two alternative hypotheses can be put forward. Hypothesis 1 suggests that the P are better amplifiers of actions than the IP, because the P are embedded in children’s everyday experience and the IP are not (the P/IP hypothesis). For instance, in the everyday life children often see animals falling down from heights, whereas large animals flying up in the air (i.e., dragons) are a rare phenomenon that can only be seen in movies or dreams. Alternatively, Hypothesis 2 contends that the amplifying power of the IP should be greater than that of the P (the IP/P hypothesis), due to the “attention grabbing” nature of the IP [11]. Indeed, when a person is observing the P (i.e., a common horse), all that this image activates is the person’s memories about the horse. In contrast, when a person is observing the IP (i.e., a winged horse), this image activates the person’s memories about the winged horse. In addition, the person is aware that such an entity is impossible. This awareness, by association, activates the person’s memories about the P (i.e., the images of a common horse and a bird) (see Fig. 1). Because of this, when the IP is used as a mediator, its action amplifying power is

Fig. 1 Imagining possible versus impossible entities


added to by the action amplifying power of the P (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Action amplifying capacity of possible (P) versus impossible (IP) entities.


In this paper, three studies are reviewed, which compared the amplifying effect of the IP and the P on various types of cognitive functioning: creative thinking, perception and memory.

Comparing the amplifying effects of possible and impossible phenomena on cognitive functioning

The first study compared the efficacy of the IP and the P as facilitators of children's creative thinking [12]. Creativity is typically defined as the ability to generate “novel behavior that meets a standard of quality and/or utility” [13, p. 308]. On a certain kind of tasks creativity takes shape of divergent thinking - the ability to solve problems that have not one correct solution but a variety of alternative solutions. On these divergent thinking tasks , thinking about the P provides multiple realistic solutions (i.e., one can move from one place to another by using a car, a train, or a plain), and thinking about the IP provides multiple unrealistic (impossible) solutions (i.e., one can move from one place to another by using a broomstick, a magic carpet, or on a dragon). The common feature (divergent thinking) makes it possible to expect that engaging children in one of these activities—thinking about the IP—might enhance the other activity—creativity of realistic thinking, through prompting and (or) association.

Showing children a movie was chosen as a method of engaging the children in thinking about the P or the IP because the developmental research had shown that exposure to cinema and TV affects children’s subsequent behavior [14][15]. Cosequently, the study’s aim was to find out which of the two movie clips – the one that contains the P (the P film) or the one that contains the IP (the IP film) – would make observers to subsequently think more creatively in solving divergent thinking tasks.

Accordingly, in Experiment 1 of this study British children aged 4 and 6 years were divided into experimental and control groups. Children of the experimental groups were shown the IP film, and children of the control groups were shown the P film. Both films included clips taken from the original movie “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. The IP film contained impossible phenomena such as people riding broomsticks, animals turning into humans, and people becoming invisible. The P film included clips from the same movie, with the same characters doing similar actions (communicating, moving around, and doing things), however, no impossible phenomena happened. Independent experts rated the movies for such features, as impossibility of phenomena, pace, emotional attractiveness, and visual and sound effects. On all of these features, except the impossibility of phenomena, the films were rated as approximately identical.

Creativity was assessed on Torrance’s [16] “Creativity in Action and Movement” test, and on the modified version of Karmiloff–Smith’s [17] “Drawing the Impossible Entities” test. Both inventories contained divergent thinking tasks. On some subtests of these inventories children were tested before exposure to the films, and on the remaining subtests they were tested after exposure to the films. The results indicated that after, but not before exposure to the films, children in the experimental groups scored significantly higher than controls on the majority of TCAM subtests (see Fig. 3). The same tendency was observed in the drawing test.

Fig. 3. Mean summary scores on TCAM (fluency, originality and imagination) as a function of the type of Film (with impossible versus possible effects), and age (4 and 6 years) in Experiment 1.


The aim of Experiment 2 of this study was to replicate the data of Experiment 1, with different groups of children aged 6 and 8 years, coming from a different county of England, and with a different experimenter. Another aim was to find out whether watching the IP film, along with facilitating children’s creativity, would also increase the children’s belief in that the IP are in fact real. The procedure of this experiment was the same as in Experiment 1, except that, after exposure to the films, the children were also given a questionnaire, which tested their belief in reality of the IP [18]. As in Experiment 1, in Experiment 2, after but not before watching the films, in the experimental groups children showed significantly greater creativity scores than in the control groups (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Mean summary scores on TCAM (fluency, originality and imagination) as a function of the type of Film (with impossible versus possible effects), and age (6 and 8 years) in Experiment 2.


Interestingly, there were no significant differences found between experimental and control groups on children’s belief in reality of impossible phenomena. Altogether, both experiments supported the IP/P hypothesis, according to which exposing children to the IP film facilitated their creativity to a significantly stronger extent than exposing them to the P film. Simultaneously, it was shown that exposing children to the IP does not increase their belief in that the IP are real.

In another study, the effect of watching the IP or the P films on children’s ability to discriminate fantastic from realistic visual displays was investigated [19]. The ability to distinguish fantasy from reality appears early in child development [20][21]. This ability mediates the effect of mass media on children’s subsequent behavior. For example, children who believed a violent film clip was a documentary later reacted more aggressively compared to children who believed the film was fantasy [22][23]. Аs in the previous study, in this study the aim was to find out which kind of film - the IP or the P - would facilitate children's ability to discriminate fantasy from reality to a greater extent. It was hypothesized that exposing children to the IP would have a greater effect, due to the contrasting nature of human thinking. Indeed, seeing a picture of an impossible entity (i.e., a flying elephant) would make children imagine contrasting possible entities (i.e., a common elephant and a bird), and thus reflect upon the difference between impossible (fantastic) and possible (realistic) images, whereas seeing a picture of a possible entity (i.e., a common elephant) would not.

Participants were 6- and 9- year old children from a primary school in England. The same films were employed as in the previous study. Children were randomly divided into experimental and control groups. In the experimental groups children were shown the IP, and in the control groups children were shown the P. Before and after exposure to the films, the children were offered a computer interactive test on their ability to distinguish between possible and impossible visual images. The images were photos of the great paintings or their fragments. In a test trial, the child was presented a display, which had a target picture on top and two test pictures at the bottom. The pictures where showing fantastic or realistic images. The child was instructed to pick one of the pictures at the bottom that matched the target picture on top in regard to whether it was showing a possible or an impossible entity or event. There were 42 test trials altogether.

The results indicated that after, but not before exposure to the films, the children who watched the IP obtained significantly higher mean scores on correct identifications than children who watched the P (Fig.5). This result supported the IP/P hypothesis: children’s exposure to impossible phenomena

Fig. 5. Mean number of correct identifications (out of 42) as a function of Group (experimental vs control) and Time of testing (before vs, after exposure to the films)


enhanced the children’s ability to discriminate fantastic pictures from realistic ones to a significantly greater extent than exposure to equally interesting and colorful but realistic phenomena.

Finally, an attempt was made to investigate whether the IP/P effect is also true for memory [24]. For that purpose, commercial TV advertisements were used. The aim of the study was to examine whether framing advertised products in the context of the IP could facilitate the viewers’ memory for these products to the same, smaller or greater extent than framing the products in the context of the P. Indeed, memory experts have long advocated that bizarre imagery facilitates learning through reduced interference (“bizarreness effect”) [25][26]. The IP are implausible and can therefore be described as bizarre. Studies have shown that placing commercial products within films can elicit successful recognition and recall of the advertised products through cues and association [27][28]. It was assumed in this study that marketing companies frame their advertised products in the context of the IP because they intuitively believe that the use of impossible phenomena makes viewers remember these products better.

To investigate whether this belief is true or false, British adolescents and adults were shown the P and the IP films, which contained television advertisements. The participants were asked to recall and recognize the films’ advertised products. The IP included advertising brands such as Mini Cooper, Levi, Paco Rabanne and Pepsi Maxx framed in the context of impossible phenomena (i.e., talking animals or inanimate objects coming to life), and the P showed clips with similar brands framed in the context of equally interesting and exiting but possible phenomena. The films were matched according to other dimensions, such as pace, action and emotional content. After watching the films, participants completed a general recall test and a recognition test. The recognition test included 18 brands, 9 of which had been shown in the film, and the other 9 were used as distractors.

The results showed that there was no difference on general recall between the IP and the P films; however, on the recognition test significant differences were obtained. On the immediate recognition, adolescents recognized significantly larger number of brands from the IP than from the P, but there was no such difference in adults (Fig.6). However, on delayed recognition two weeks later, the reverse results were obtained: adults, but not adolescents, showed the IP/P effect (Fig. 7).

Fig. 6. Mean number of correctly recognised brands on immediate testing, as a function of Film (with impossible vs possible effects) and Age (adolescents vs adults)


Fig. 7. Mean number of correctly recognised brands on delayed testing, as a function of Film (with impossible vs possible effects) and Age (adolescents vs adults)


Overall, the experiment’s results have shown that brands’ inclusion into the context of the IP does indeed provide a better memory on these brands compared with brands included into the context of the P. However, this improvement occurs not in participants’ explicit memory tested via general recall, but in implicit memory tested via recognition of brands.


It is natural for humans to think in comparisons. Whenever we think of something (i.e., about nice weather), we inevitably also think of something, which makes a contrast to it (i.e., bad weather). In most cases we are not aware of the fact that we think through contrasts, but we do.

Teachers sometimes take advantage of this feature of human thinking. For example, “compare and contrast” is a popular strategy used in a classroom in order to make students to comprehensively ponder and analyse a topic. Psychologists compared various forms of effective instruction at a classroom; they discovered that comparative analysis is superior to other forms of analyses and has the greatest effect on students’ achievements [29][30]. In children’s literature, books that use contrast for education are in the hundreds. In Raymond Briggs’ “Fungus the Bogeyman” [31], which is part of Year 2 curriculum in British education, the characters Bogeymen have a strange anatomy, sleep in dirty beds, keep their cloths and shoes in cold water and do all things unlike humans. In Roald Dahl’s [32] “The Twits”, the characters are people, not fungus, but they too do things in the most odd way. Using the IP can be viewed as a case of teaching through contrasts, with the aim of helping children to reflect upon and analyse known laws of physics and other sciences.

Even 3-year-olds show some realization that fantastic objects are less real than perceived or imagined physical objects [20][33]. Five-year-olds older children and are as good as adults are at distinguishing between fantastic and real objects [34]. When children of this age watch cartoons or TV advertisements, they become sensitive to violation of physical laws. Thus, the author observed a 7 year old boy who, when seeing a commercial in which washing machines are flying, commented “Washing machines can not fly”, and even the adult’s subsequent remark that the washing machines actually have small propellers attached to them could not reassure the child.

The aforementioned example highlights one of the psychological mechanisms that constitute the IPs amplifying power – the awareness through contrast. Three studies reviewed in this paper confirmed the hypothesis, according to which watching the IP enhances cognitive functioning to a significantly greater extent than watching the P. The IP/P effect worked in regard to various cognitive functions – creative thinking, perception and memory. The psychological mechanism behind this effect is hidden in the “attention grabbing” nature of the IP. Using this mechanism provides educationalists with an exciting opportunity to discuss scientific problems with children in a manner, which is free from didactic pressure and boredom of a traditional teaching style. Ultimately, this line of research can lead towards constructing special “alternative handbooks” on geometry, physics, biology, psychology and other subjects, in which events do not conform to the laws of nature, but violate these laws. This kind of handbooks would not replace the traditional ones, rather it would make a useful supplement to them, helping students better reflect upon the laws of science, understand and memorise these laws. As a matter of fact, this kind of “handbooks” already exists, albeit not in a printed form.

In some books, movies and computer games known properties of solid objects, light, gravity, animal and human psychology and biology are suspended. Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” in a classic example, and J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter is a more recent one. Thus, in the Harry Potter series, when Harry and his companions go through the solid wall at the railway station, to get into the magical side of the world, questions can be asked: Why other people in the station can’t do the same? If the wall can let people like Harry and their carts through, why can’t it let the light through at the same time? When, in another episode, Harry puts on a mantle that makes him invisible, other people can’t see him, but can he see other people? If he can, then the bottoms of his eyes should reflect light and be visible to others. If he can’t, he is blind and somebody could stumble upon him. When students of the Hogwarts School are riding the broomsticks, do they have weight or do they become weightless? If they have weight, how can they keep balance on a wooden stick without support when turning at sharp angles at a high speed? And if they are weightless, why do they sometimes fall from the broomsticks? When a python in the zoo communicates with Harry, does he understand what Harry says, or is he reading Harry’s mind directly? This kind of discussions can enrich and complement the direct instruction on the laws of science and help children better understand and remember these laws.

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