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.