Imagination In Animals

Up to this point the imagination has been treated analytically only.

This process alone would give us but a very imperfect idea of its

essentially concrete and lively nature were we to stop here. So this

part continues the subject in another shape. I shall attempt to follow

the imagination in its ascending development from the lowest to the most

complex forms, from the animal to the human infant, to primitive man,

e to the highest modes of invention. It will thus be exhibited in

the inexhaustible variety of its manifestations which the abstract and

simplifying process of analysis does not permit us to suspect.


I shall not dwell at length on the imagination of animals, not only

because the question is much involved but also because it is hardly

liable to a positive solution. Even eliminating mere anecdotes and

doubtful observations, there is no lack of verified and authentic

material, but it still remains to interpret them. As soon as we begin to

conjecture we know how difficult it is to divest ourselves of all


The question has been formulated, even if not treated, with much system

by Romanes in his Mental Evolution in Animals. Taking

"imagination" in its broadest sense, he recognizes four stages:

1. Provoked revival of images. For example, the sight of an orange

reminds one of its taste. This is a low form of memory, resting on

association by contiguity. It is met with very far down in the animal

scale, and the author furnishes abundant proof of it.

2. Spontaneous revival. An object present calls up an absent object.

This is a higher form of memory, frequent in ants, bees, wasps, etc.,

which fact explains the mistrustful sagacity of wild animals. At night,

the distant baying of a hound stops the fox in his course, because all

the dangers he has undergone are represented in his mind.

These two stages do not go beyond memory pure and simple, i.e.,

reproductive imagination. The other two constitute the higher


3. The capacity of associating absent images, without suggestion derived

from without, through an internal working of the mind. It is the lower

and primitive form of the creative imagination, which may be called a

passive synthesis. In order to establish its existence, Romanes reminds

us that dreams have been proven in dogs, horses, and a large number of

birds; that certain animals, especially in anger, seem to be subject to

delusions and pursued by phantoms; and lastly, that in some there is

produced a condition resembling nostalgia, expressing itself in a

violent desire to return to former haunts, or in a wasting away

resulting from the absence of accustomed persons and things. All these

facts, especially the latter, can hardly be explained without a vivid

recollection of the images of previous life.

4. The highest stage consists of intentionally reuniting images in order

to make novel combinations from them. This may be called an active

synthesis, and is the true creative imagination. Is this sometimes found

in the animal kingdom? Romanes very clearly replies, no; and not without

offering a plausible reason. For creation, says he, there must first be

capacity for abstraction, and, without speech, abstraction is very weak.

One of the conditions for creative imagination is thus wanting in the

higher animals.

We here come to one of those critical moments, so frequent in animal

psychology, when one asks, Is this character exclusively human, or is it

found in embryo in lower forms? Thus it has been possible to support a

theory opposing that of Romanes. Certain animals, says Oelzelt-Newin,

fulfill all the conditions necessary for creative imagination--subtle

senses, good memory, and appropriate emotional states. This

assertion is perhaps true, but it is purely dialectic. It is equivalent

to saying that the thing is possible; it does not establish it as a

fact. Besides, is it very certain that all the conditions for creative

imagination are present here, since we have just shown that there is

lack of abstraction? The author, who voluntarily limits his study to

birds and the construction of their nests, maintains, against Wallace

and others, that nest-building requires "the mysterious synthesis of

representations." We might with equal reason bring the instances of

other building animals (bees, wasps, white ants, the common ants,

beavers, etc.). It is not unreasonable to attribute to them an

anticipated representation of their architecture. Shall we say that it

is "instinctive," consequently unconscious? At least, may we not group

under this head, changes and adaptations to new conditions which these

animals succeed in applying to the typical plans of their construction?

Observations and even systematic experiments (like those of Huber,

Forel, et al.) show that, reduced to the alternative of the

impossibility of building or the modification of their habits, certain

animals modify them. Judging from this, how refuse them invention

altogether? This contradicts in no way the very just reservation of

Romanes. It is sufficient to remark that abstraction or dissociation has

stages, that the simplest are accessible to the animal intelligence. If,

in the absence of words, the logic of concepts is forbidden it, there

yet remains the logic of images, which is sufficient for slight

innovations. In a word, animals can invent according to the extent that

they can dissociate.

In our opinion, if we may with any truthfulness attribute a creative

power to animals, we must seek it elsewhere. Generally speaking, we

attribute only a mediocre importance to a manifestation that might very

well be the proper form of animal fancy. It is purely motor, and

expresses itself through the various kinds of play.

Although play may be as old as mankind, its psychology dates only from

the nineteenth century. We have already seen that there are three

theories concerning its nature--it is "expenditure of superfluous

activity," "a mending, restoring of strength, a recuperation," "an

apprenticeship, a preliminary exercise for the active functions of life

and for the development of our natural gifts." The last position,

due to Groos, does not rule out the other two; it holds the first valid

for the young, the second for adults; but it comprehends both in a more

general explanation.

Let us leave this doctrinal question in order to call attention to the

variety and richness of form of play in the animal world. In this

respect the aforementioned book of Groos is a rich mine of evidence to

which I would refer the reader. I limit myself to summing up his

classification. He distinguishes nine classes of play, viz.: (1) Those

that are at bottom experimental, consisting of trials at hazard without

immediate end, often giving the animal a certain knowledge of the

properties of the external world. This is the introduction to an

experimental physics, optics, and mechanics for the brood of animals.

(2) Movements or changes of place executed of their own accord--a very

general fact as is proven by the incessant movements of butterflies,

flies, birds, and even fishes, which often appear to play in the water

rather than to seek prey; the mad running of horses, dogs, etc., in free

space. (3) Mimicry of hunting, i.e., playing with a living or dead

prey: the dog and cat following moving objects, a ball, feather, etc.

(4) Mimic battles, teasing and fighting without anger. (5) Architectural

art, revealing itself especially in the building of nests: certain birds

ornament them with shining objects (stones, bits of glass), by a kind of

anticipation of the esthetic feeling. (6) Doll-play is universal in

mankind, whether civilized or savage. Groos believes he has found its

equivalent in certain animals. (7) Imitation through pleasure, so

familiar in monkeys (grimaces); singing-birds which counterfeit the

voices of a large number of beasts. (8) Curiosity, which is the only

mental play one meets in animals--the dog watching, from a wall or

window, what is going on in the street. (9) Love-plays, "which differ

from the others in that they are not mere exercises, but have in view a

real object." They have been well-known since Darwin's time, he

attributing to them an esthetic value which has been denied by Wallace,

Tylor, Lloyd Morgan, Wallaschek, and Groos.

Let us recapitulate in thought the immense quantity of motor expressions

included in these nine categories and let us note that they have the

following characters in common: They are grouped in combinations that

are often new and unforeseen; they are not a repetition of daily life,

acts necessary for self-preservation. At one time the movements are

combined simultaneously (exhibition of beautiful colors), again (and

most often) successively (amorous parades, fights, flight, dancing,

emission of noises, sounds or songs); but, under one form or another,

there is creation, invention. Here, the imagination acts in its

purely motor character; it consists of a small number of images that

become translated into actions, and serve as a center for their

grouping; perhaps even the image itself is hardly conscious, so that all

is limited to a spontaneous production and a collection of motor


It will doubtless be said that this form of imagination belongs to a

very shallow, poor psychology. It cannot be otherwise. It is necessary

that imaginative production be found reduced to its simplest expression

in animals, and the motor form must be its special characteristic mark.

It cannot have any others for the following reasons: incapacity for the

work that necessarily precedes abstraction or dissociation, breaking

into bits the data of experience, making them raw material for the

future construction; lack of images, and especially fewness of possible

combinations of images. This last point is proven alike from the data of

animal psychology and of comparative anatomy. We know that the nervous

elements in the brain serving as connections between sensory

regions--whether one conceive of them as centers (Flechsig), or as

bundles of commisural fibers (Meynert, Wernicke)--are hardly outlined in

the lower mammalia and attain only a mediocre development in the higher


By way of corroboration of the foregoing, let us compare the higher

animals with young children: this comparison is not based on a few

far-fetched analogies, but in a thorough resemblance in nature. Man,

during the first years of his life, has a brain but slightly

differentiated, especially as regards connections, a very poor supply of

images, a very weak capacity for abstraction. His intellectual

development is much inferior to that of reflex, instinctive, impulsive,

and imitative movements. In consequence of this predominance of the

motor system, the simple and imperfect images, in children as in

animals, tend to be immediately changed into movements. Even most of

their inventions in play are greatly inferior to those enumerated above

under nine distinct heads.

A serious argument in favor of the prevalence of imagination of the

motor type in the child is furnished by the principal part taken by

movements in infantile insanity: a remark made by many alienists. The

first stage of this madness, they say, is found in the convulsions that

are not merely a physical ailment, but "a muscular delirium." The

disturbance of the automatic and instinctive functions of the child is

so often associated with muscular disturbances that at this age the

mental disorders correspond to the motor ganglionic centers situated

below those parts that later assume the labor of analysis and of

imagination. The disturbances are in the primary centers of organization

and according to the symptoms lack those analytic or constructive

qualities, those ideal forms, that we find in adult insanity. If we

descend to the lowest stage of human life--to the baby--we see that

insanity consists almost entirely of the activity of a muscular group

acting on external objects. The insane baby bites, kicks, and these

symptoms are the external measure of the degree of its madness. Has

not chorea itself been called a muscular insanity?

Doubtless, there likewise exists in the child a sensorial madness

(illusions, hallucinations); but by reason of its feeble intellectual

development the delirium causes a disorder of movements rather than of

images; its insane imagination is above all a motor insanity.

To hold that the creative imagination belonging to animals consists of

new combinations of movements is certainly an hypothesis. Nevertheless,

I do not believe that it is merely a mental form without foundation, if

we take into account the foregoing facts. I consider it rather as a

point in favor of the motor theory of invention. It is a singular

instance in which the original form of creation is shown bare. If we

wanted to discover it, it would be necessary to seek it where it is

reduced to the greatest simplicity--in the animal world.