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The Creative Imagination In The Child

At what age, in what form, under what conditions does the creative
imagination make its appearance? It is impossible to answer this
question, which, moreover, has no justification. For the creative
imagination develops little by little out of pure reproduction by an
evolutionary process, not by sudden eruption. Nevertheless, its
evolution is very slow on account of causes both organic and

We could not dwell long on the organic causes without falling into
tiresome repetitions. The new-born infant is a spinal being, with an
unformed diffluent brain, composed largely of water. Reflex life itself
is not complete in him, and the cortico-motor system only hinted at; the
sensory centers are undifferentiated, the associational systems remain
isolated for a long time after birth. We have given above Flechsig's
observation on this point.

The psychological causes reduce themselves to the necessity for a
consolidation of the primary and secondary operations of the mind,
without which the creative imagination cannot take form. To be precise,
we might distinguish, as does Baldwin, four epochs in the mental
development of the child: (1) affective (rudimentary sensory processes,
pleasures and pains, simple motor adaptations); (2) and (3) objective,
in which the author establishes two grades, (a) appearance of special
senses, of memory, instincts primarily defensive, and imitation; (b)
complex memory, complicated movements, offensive activities, rudimentary
will; (4) subjective or final (conscious thought, constitutive will,
ideal emotions). If we accept this scheme as approximately correct, the
moment of imagination must be assigned to the third period (the second
stage of the objective epoch) which fulfills all the sufficient and
necessary conditions for its origination and for its rise above pure

Whatever the propitious age may be, the study of the child-imagination
is not without difficulties. In order to enter into the child-mind, we
must become like a child; as it is, we are limited to an interpretation
of it in terms of the adult, with much false interpretation possible,
agreeing too much or too little with the facts. Furthermore, the
children studied live and grow up in a civilized environment. The result
is that the development of their imagination is rarely unhampered and
complete; for as soon as their fancy passes the middle level, the
rationalizing education of parents and teachers is eager to master and
control it. In truth it gives its full measure and reveals itself in
the fulness of growth only among primitive peoples. With us it is
checked in its flight by an antagonistic power, which treats it as a
harbinger of insanity. Finally, children are not equally well-suited for
this study; we must make a distinction between the imaginative and
non-imaginative, and the latter should be eliminated.

When we have thus chosen suitable subjects, observation shows from the
start sufficiently distinct varieties, different orientations of the
imagination depending on intellectual causes, such as the predominance
of visual or acoustic or tactile-motor images making for mechanical
invention; or dependent on emotional causes, that is, of character,
according as the latter is timid, joyous, exuberant, retired, healthy,
sickly, etc.

If we now attempt to follow the development of the child-imagination, we
may distinguish four principal stages, without assigning them,
otherwise, a rigorous chronological order.

1. The first stage consists of the passage from passive to creative
imagination. Its history would be long were we to include all the hybrid
forms that are made up partly of memories, partly of new groupings,
being at the same time repetition and construction. Even in the adult,
they are very frequent. I know a person who is always afraid of being
smothered, and for this reason urgently asks that in his coffin his
shirt be not tight at the neck: this odd prepossession of the mind
belongs neither to memory nor to imagination. This particular case
illustrates in a very clear form the nature of the first flights of the
mind attempting to exercise its imaginative powers. Without enumerating
other facts of this kind, it is more desirable to follow the
imagination's development, limiting ourselves to two forms of the
psychic life--perception and illusion. The necessary presence of the
image in these two forms has been so often proven by contemporary
psychology that a few words to recall this to mind will be sufficient.

There seems to be a radical difference between perception, which seizes
reality, and imagination. Nevertheless, it is generally admitted that in
order to rise above sensation to perception, there must be a synthesis
of images. To put it more simply, two elements are required--one, coming
from without, the physiological stimulus acting on the nerves and the
sensory centers, which becomes translated in consciousness through the
vague state that goes by the name "sensation"; the other, coming from
within, adds to the sensations present appropriate images, remnants of
former experiences. So that perception requires an apprenticeship; we
must feel, then imperfectly perceive, in order to finally perceive well.
The sensory datum is only a fraction of the total fact; and in the
operation we call "perceiving," that is, apprehending an object
directly, a part only of the object is represented.

This, however, does not go beyond reproductive imagination. The decisive
step is taken in illusion. We know that illusion has as a basis and
support a modification of the external senses which are metamorphosed,
amplified by an immediate construction of the mind: a branch of a tree
becomes a serpent, a distant noise seems the music of an orchestra.
Illusion has as broad a field as perception, since there is no
perception but may undergo this erroneous transformation, and it is
produced by the same mechanism, but with interchange of the two terms.
In perception, the chief element is the sensory, and the representative
element is secondary; in illusion, we have just the opposite condition:
what one takes as perceived is merely imagined--the imagination assumes
the principal role. Illusion is the type of the transitional forms, of
the mixed cases, that consist of constructions made up of memories,
without being, in the strict sense, creations.

2. The creative imagination asserts itself with its peculiar
characteristics only in the second stage, in the form of animism or the
attributing of life to everything. This turn of the mind is already
known to us, though mentioned only incidentally. As the state of the
child's mind at that period resembles that which in primitive man
creates myths, we shall return to it in the next chapter. Works on
psychology abound in facts demonstrating that this primitive tendency to
attribute life and even personality to everything is a necessary phase
that the mind must undergo--long or short in duration, rich or poor in
inventions, according to the level of the child's imagination. His
attitude towards his dolls is the common example of this state, and
also the best example, because it is universal, being found in all
countries without exception, among all races of men. It is needless to
pile up facts on an uncontroverted point. Two will suffice; I choose
them on account of their extravagance, which shows that at this
particular moment animism, in certain minds, can dare anything. "One
little fellow, aged one year eight months, conceived a special fondness
for the letter W, addressing it thus: 'Dear old boy W.' Another little
boy well on in his fourth year, when tracing a letter L, happened to
slip, so that the horizontal limb formed an angle, thus:


He instantly saw the resemblance to the sedentary human form, and said:
'Oh, he's sitting down.' Similarly, when he made an F turn the wrong way
and then put the correct form to the left, thus,

+--- ---+

+-- --+

he exclaimed, 'They're talking together!'" One of Sully's correspondents
says: "I had the habit of attributing intelligence not only to all
living creatures ... but even to stones and manufactured articles. I
used to feel how dull it must be for the pebbles in the causeway to lie
still and only see what was round about. When I walked out with a basket
for putting flowers in, I used sometimes to pick up a pebble or two and
carry them out to have a change."

Let us stop a moment in order to try to determine the nature of this
strange mental state, all the more as we shall meet it again in
primitive man, and since it presents the creative imagination at its

a. The first element is a fixed idea, or rather, an image, or group of
images, that takes possession of consciousness to the exclusion of
everything else:--it is the analogue of the state of suggestion in the
hypnotized subject, with this sole difference--that the suggestion does
not come from without, from another, but from the child itself--it is
auto-suggestion. The stick that the child holds between his legs becomes
for him an imaginary steed. The poverty of his mental development makes
all the easier this contraction of the field of his consciousness, which
assures the supremacy of the image.

b. This has as its basis a reality that it includes. This is an
important detail to note, because this reality, however tiny, gives
objectivity to the imaginary creation and incorporates it with the
external world. The mechanism is like that which produces illusion, but
with a stable character excluding correction. The child transforms a bit
of wood or paper into another self, because he perceives only the
phantom he has created; that is, the images, not the material exciting
them, haunt his brain.

c. Lastly, this creative power investing the image with all its
attributes of real existence is derived from a fundamental fact--the
state of belief, i.e., adherence of the mind founded on purely
subjective conditions. It does not come within my province to treat
incidentally such a large question. Neglected by the older physiology,
whose faculty-method inclined it toward this omission, belief or faith
has recently become the object of numerous studies. I necessarily
limit myself to remarking that but for this psychic state, the nature of
the imagination is totally incomprehensible. The peculiarity of the
imagination is the production of a reality of human origin, and it
succeeds therein only because of the faith accompanying the image.

Representation and belief are not completely separated; it is the nature
of the image to appear at first as a real object. This psychological
truth, though proven through observation, has made itself acceptable
only with great difficulty. It has had to struggle on the one hand
against the prejudices of common-sense for which imagination is
synonymous with sham and vain appearance and opposed to the real as
non-being to being; on the other hand, against a doctrine of the
logicians who maintain that the idea is at first merely conceived with
no affirmation of existence or non-existence (apprehensio simplex).
This position, legitimate in logic, which is an abstract science, is
altogether unacceptable in psychology, a concrete science. The
psychological viewpoint giving the true nature of the image has
prevailed little by little. Spinoza already asserts "that
representations considered by themselves contain no errors," and he
"denies that it is possible to perceive without affirming."
More explicitly, Hume assigns belief to our subjective dispositions:
Belief does not depend on the nature of the idea, but on the manner in
which we conceive it. Existence is not a quality added to it by us; it
is founded on habit and is irresistible. The difference between fiction
and belief consists of a feeling added to the latter but not to the
former. Dugald Stewart treats the question purely as a psychologist
following the experimental method. He enumerates very many facts whence
he concludes that imagination is always accompanied by an act of belief,
but for which fact the more vivid the image, the less one would believe
it; but just the contrary happens--the strong representation commands
persuasion like sensation itself. Finally, Taine treats the subject
methodically, by studying the nature of the image and its primitive
character of hallucination. At present, I think, there is no
psychologist who does not regard as proven that the image, when it
enters consciousness, has two moments. During the first, it is
objective, appearing as a full and complete reality; during the second,
which is definitive, it is deprived of its objectivity, reduced to a
completely internal event, through the effect of other states of
consciousness which oppose and finally annihilate its objective
character. There is an affirmation, then negation; impulse, then

Faith, being only a mode of existence, an attitude of the mind, owes its
creative and vivifying power to general dispositions of our
constitution. Besides the intellectual element which is its content, its
material--the thing affirmed or denied--there are tendencies and other
affective factors (desire, fear, love, etc.) giving the image its
intensity, and assuring it success in the struggle against other states
of consciousness. There are active faculties that we sometimes designate
by the name "will," understanding by the term, as James says, not only
deliberate volition, but all the factors of belief (hope, fear,
passions, prejudices, sectarian feeling, and so forth), and this has
justly given rise to the truthful saying that the test of belief is
action. This explains how in love, religion, in the moral life, in
politics, and elsewhere, belief can withstand the logical assaults of
the rationalizing intelligence--its power is found everywhere. It lasts
as long as the mind waits and consents; but, as soon as these affective
and active dispositions disappear in life's experience, faith falls with
them, leaving in its place a formless content, an empty and dead

After this, is it necessary to remark that belief depends peculiarly on
the motor elements of our organization and not on the intellectual? As
there is no imagination without belief, nor belief without imagination,
we return by another route to the thesis supported in the first part of
this essay, that creative activity depends on the motor nature of

Insofar as concerns the special case of the child, the first of the two
moments (the affirming) that the image undergoes in consciousness is all
in all for him, the second (the rectifying) is nothing: there is
hypertrophy of one, atrophy of the other. For the adult the contrary is
true--in many cases, indeed, in consequence of experience and habit, the
first moment, wherein the image should be affirmed as a reality, is only
virtual, is literally atrophied. We must, however, remark that this
applies only partially to the ignorant and even less to the savage.

We might, nevertheless, ask ourselves if the child's belief in his
phantoms is complete, entire, absolute, unreserved. Is the stick that he
bestrides perfectly identified with a horse? Was Sully's child, that
showed its doll a series of engravings to choose from, completely
deceived? It seems that we must rather admit an intermittence, an
alteration between affirmation and negation. On the one hand, the
skeptical attitude of those who laugh at it displeases the child, who is
like a devout believer whose faith is being broken down. On the other
hand, doubt must indeed arise in him from time to time, for without
this, rectification could never occur--one belief opposes the other or
drives it away. This second work proceeds little by little, but then,
under this form, imagination retreats.

3. The third stage is that of play, which, in chronological order,
coincides with the one just preceding. As a form of creation it is
already known to us, but in passing from animals to children, it grows
in complexity and becomes intellectualized. It is no longer a simple
combination of images.

Play serves two ends--for experimenting: as such it is an introduction
to knowledge, gives certain vague notions concerning the nature of
things; for creating: this is its principal function.

The human child, like the animal, expends itself in movements, forms
associations new to it, simulates defence, flight, attack; but the child
soon passes beyond this lower stage, in order to construct by means of
images (ideally). He begins by imitating: this is a physiological
necessity, reasons for which we shall give later (see chapter iv.
infra). He constructs houses, boats, gives himself up to large plans;
but he imitates most in his own person and acts, making himself in turn
soldier, sailor, robber, merchant, coachman, etc.

To the period of imitation succeed more serious attempts--he acts with a
"spirit of mastery," he is possessed by his idea which he tends to
realize. The personal character of creation is shown in that he is
really interested only in a work that emanates from himself and of
which he feels himself the cause. B. Perez relates that he wanted to
give a lesson to his nephew, aged three and a half years, whose
inventions seemed to him very poor. Perez scratched in the sand a trench
resembling a river, planted little branches on both banks, and had water
flow through it; put a bridge across, and launched boats. At each new
act the child would remain cool, his admiration would always have to be
waited for. Out of patience, he remarked shortly that "this isn't at all
entertaining." The author adds: "I believed it useless to persist, and I
trampled under foot, laughing at myself, my awkward attempt at a
childish construction." "I had already read it in many a book, but
this time I had learned from experience that the free initiative of
children is always superior to the imitations we pretend to make for
them. In addition, this experience and others like it have taught me
that their creative force is much weaker than has been said."

4. At the fourth stage appears romantic invention, which requires a more
refined culture, being a purely internal, wholly imaginative (i.e.,
cast in images) creation. It begins at about three or four years of age.
We know the taste of imaginative children for stories and legends, which
they have repeated to them until surfeited: in this respect they
resemble semi-civilized people, who listen greedily to rhapsodies for
hours at a time, experiencing all the emotions appropriate to the
incidents of the tale. This is the prelude to creation, a semi-passive,
semi-active state, an apprentice period, which will permit them to
create in their own turn. Thus the first attempts are made with
reminiscences, and imitated rather than created.

Of this we find numerous examples in the special works. A child of three
and a half saw a lame man going along a road, and exclaimed: "Look at
that poor ole man, mamma, he has dot a bad leg." Then the romance
begins: He was on a high horse; he fell on a rock, struck his poor leg;
he will have to get some powder to heal it, etc. Sometimes the invention
is less realistic. A child of three often longed to live like a fish in
the water, or like a star in the sky. Another, aged five years nine
months, having found a hollow rock, invented a fairy story: the hole was
a beautiful hall inhabited by brilliant mysterious personages, etc.

This form of imagination is not as common as the others. It belongs to
those whom nature has well endowed. It forecasts a development of mind
above the average. It may even be the sign of an inborn vocation and
indicate in what direction the creative activity will be orientated.

Let us briefly recall the creative role of the imagination in language,
through the intervening of a factor already studied--thinking by
analogy, an abundant source of often picturesque metaphors. A child
called the cork of a bottle "door;" a small coin was called by a little
American a "baby dollar;" another, seeing the dew on the grass, said,
"The grass is crying."

The extension of the meaning of words has been studied by Taine, Darwin,
Preyer, and others. They have shown that its psychological mechanism
depends sometimes on the perception of resemblance, again on association
by contiguity, processes that appear and intermingle in an unforeseen
manner. Thus, a child applies the word "mambro" at first to his nurse,
then to a sewing machine that she uses, then by analogy to an organ that
he sees on the street adorned with a monkey, then to his toys
representing animals. We have elsewhere given more similar cases,
where we perceive the fundamental difference between thought by imagery
and rational thought.

To conclude: At this period the imagination is the master-faculty and
the highest form of intellectual development. It works in two
directions, one principal--it creates plays, invents romances, and
extends language; the other secondary--it contains a germ of thought and
ventures a fanciful explanation of the world which can not yet be
conceived according to abstract notions and laws.

Next: Primitive Man And The Creation Of Myths

Previous: Imagination In Animals

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