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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,
thence 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.

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