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The Emotional Factor

The influence of emotional states on the working of the imagination is a
matter of current observation. But it has been studied chiefly by
moralists, who most often have criticised or condemned it as an endless
cause of mistakes. The point of view of the psychologist is altogether
different. He does not need at all to investigate whether emotions and
passions give rise to mental phantoms--which is an indisputable
fact--but why and how they arise. For, the emotional factor yields
in importance to no other; it is the ferment without which no creation
is possible. Let us study it in its principal forms, although we may not
be able at this moment to exhaust the topic.


It is necessary to show at the outset that the influence of the
emotional life is unlimited, that it penetrates the entire field of
invention with no restriction whatever; that this is not a gratuitous
assertion, but is, on the contrary, strictly justified by facts, and
that we are right in maintaining the following two propositions:

1. All forms of the creative imagination imply elements of feeling.

This statement has been challenged by authoritative psychologists, who
hold that "emotion is added to imagination in its esthetic aspect, not
in its mechanical and intellectual form." This is an error of fact
resulting from the confusion, or from the imperfect analysis, of two
distinct cases. In the case of non-esthetic creation, the role of the
emotional life is simple; in esthetic creation, the role of emotional
element is double.

Let us consider invention, first, in its most general form. The
emotional element is the primal, original factor; for all invention
presupposes a want, a craving, a tendency, an unsatisfied impulse, often
even a state of gestation full of discomfort. Moreover, it is
concomitant, that is, under its form of pleasure or of pain, of hope, of
spite, of anger, etc., it accompanies all the phases or turns of
creation. The creator may, haphazard, go through the most diverse forms
of exaltation and depression; may feel in turn the dejection of repulse
and the joy of success; finally the satisfaction of being freed from a
heavy burden. I challenge anyone to produce a solitary example of
invention wrought out in abstracto, and free from any factors of
feeling. Human nature does not allow such a miracle.

Now, let us take up the special case of esthetic creation, and of forms
approaching thereto. Here again we find the original emotional element
as at first motor, then attached to various aspects of creation, as an
accompaniment. But, in addition, affective states become material for
the creative activity. It is a well-known fact, almost a rule, that the
poet, the novelist, the dramatist, and the musician--often, indeed, even
the sculptor and the painter--experience the thoughts and feeling of
their characters, become identified with them. There are, then, in this
second instance, two currents of feeling--the one, constituting emotion
as material for art, the other, drawing out creative activity and
developing along with it.

The difference between the two cases that we have distinguished consists
in this and nothing more than this. The existence of an emotion-content
belonging to esthetic production changes in no way the psychologic
mechanism of invention generally. Its absence in other forms of
imagination does not at all prevent the necessary existence of affective
elements everywhere and always.

2. All emotional dispositions whatever may influence the creative

Here, again, I find opponents, notably Oelzelt-Newin, in his short and
substantial monograph on the imagination. Adopting the twofold
division of emotions as sthenic and asthenic, or exciting and
depressing, he attributes to the first the exclusive privilege of
influencing creative activity; but though the author limits his study
exclusively to the esthetic imagination, his thesis, even understood
thus, is untenable. The facts contradict it completely, and it is easy
to demonstrate that all forms of emotion, without exception, act as
leaven for imagination.

No one will deny that fear is the type of asthenic manifestations. Yet
is it not the mother of phantoms, of numberless superstitions, of
altogether irrational and chimerical religious practices?

Anger, in its exalted, violent form, is rather an agent of destruction,
which seems to contradict my thesis; but let us pass over the storm,
which is always of short duration, and we find in its place milder
intellectualized forms, which are various modifications of primitive
fury, passing from the acute to the chronic state: envy, jealousy,
enmity, premeditated vengeance, and so forth. Are not these dispositions
of the mind fertile in artifices, stratagems, inventions of all kinds?
To keep even to esthetic creation, is it necessary to recall the saying
facit indignatio versum?

It is not necessary to demonstrate the fecundity of joy. As for love,
everyone knows that its work consists of creating an imaginary being,
which is substituted for the beloved object; then, when the passion has
vanished, the disenchanted lover finds himself face to face with the
bare reality.

Sorrow rightly belongs in the category of depressing emotions, and yet,
it has as great influence on invention as any other emotion. Do we not
know that melancholy and even profound sorrow has furnished poets,
musicians, painters, and sculptors with their most beautiful
inspirations? Is there not an art frankly and deliberately pessimistic?
And this influence is not at all limited to esthetic creation. Dare we
hold that hypochondria and insanity following upon the delirium of
persecution are devoid of imagination? Their morbid character is, on the
contrary, the well whence strange inventions incessantly bubble.

Lastly, that complex emotion termed "self-feeling," which reduces itself
finally to the pleasure of asserting our power and of feeling its
expansion, or to the pitiable feeling of our shackled, enfeebled power,
leads us directly to the motor elements that are the fundamental
conditions of invention. Above all, in this personal feeling, there is
the satisfaction of being a causal factor, i.e., a creator, and every
creator has a consciousness of his superiority over non-creators.
However petty his invention, it confers upon him a superiority over
those who have invented nothing. Although we have been surfeited with
the repeated statement that the characteristic mark of esthetic creation
is "being disinterested," it must be recognized, as Groos has so truly
remarked, that the artist does not create out of the simple pleasure
of creating, but in order that he may behold a mastery over other
minds. Production is the natural extension of "self-feeling," and
the accompanying pleasure is the pleasure of conquest.

Thus, on condition that we extend "imagination" to its full sense,
without limiting it unduly to esthetics, there is, among the many forms
of the emotional life, not one that may not stimulate invention. It
remains to see this emotional factor at work,--to note how it can give
rise to new combinations; and this brings us to the association of


We have said above that the ideal and theoretic law of the recurrence of
images is that of "total redintegration," as e.g., recalling all the
incidents of a long voyage in chronological order, with neither
additions nor omissions. But this formula expresses what ought to be,
not what actually occurs. It supposes man reduced to a state of pure
intelligence, and sheltered from all disturbing influences. It suits the
completely systematized forms of memory, hardened into routine and
habit; but, outside of these cases, it remains an abstract concept.

To this law of ideal value, there is opposed the real and practical law
that actually obtains in the revival of images. It is rightly styled the
"law of interest" or the affective law, and may be stated thus: In every
past event the interesting parts alone revive, or with more intensity
than the others. "Interesting" here means what affects us in some way
under a pleasing or painful form. Let us note that the importance of
this fact has been pointed out not by the associationists (a fact
especially worth remembering) but by less systematic writers, strangers
to that school,--Coleridge, Shadworth Hodgson, and before them,
Schopenhauer. William James calls it the "ordinary or mixed
association." The "law of interest" doubtless is less exact than the
intellectual laws of contiguity and resemblance. Nevertheless, it seems
to penetrate all the more in later reasoning. If, indeed, in the problem
of association we distinguish these three things--facts, laws,
causes--the practical law brings us near to causes.

Whatever the truth may be in this matter, the emotional factor brings
about new combinations by several processes.

There are the ordinary, simple cases, with a natural, emotional
foundation, depending on momentary dispositions. They exist because of
the fact that representations that have been accompanied by the same
emotional state tend later to become associated: the emotional
resemblance reunites and links disparate images. This differs from
association by contiguity, which is a repetition of experience, and from
association by resemblance in the intellectual sense. The states of
consciousness become combined, not because they have been previously
given together, not because we perceive the agreement of resemblance
between them, but because they have a common emotional note. Joy,
sorrow, love, hatred, admiration, ennui, pride, fatigue, etc., may
become a center of attraction that groups images or events having
otherwise no rational relations between them, but having the same
emotional stamp,--joyous, melancholy, erotic, etc. This form of
association is very frequent in dreams and reveries, i.e., in a state
of mind in which the imagination enjoys complete freedom and works
haphazard. We easily see that this influence, active or latent, of the
emotional factor, must cause entirely unexpected grouping to arise, and
offers an almost unlimited field for novel combinations, the number of
images having a common emotional factor being very great.

There are unusual and remarkable cases with an exceptional emotional
base. Of such is "colored hearing." We know that several hypotheses have
been offered in regard to the origin of this phenomenon.
Embryologically, it would seem to be the result of an incomplete
separation between the sense of sight and that of hearing, and the
survival, it is said, from a distant period of humanity, when this state
must have been the rule; anatomically, the result of supposed
anastamoses between the cerebral centers for visual and auditory
sensations; physiologically, the result of nervous irradiation;
psychologically, the result of association. This latter hypothesis seems
to account for the greater number of instances, if not for all; but, as
Flournoy has observed, it is a matter of "affective" imagination. Two
sensations absolutely unlike (for instance, the color blue and the
sound i) may resemble one another through the equal retentive quality
that they possess in the organism of some favored individuals, and this
emotional factor becomes a bond of association. Observe that this
hypothesis explains also the much more unusual cases of "colored" smell,
taste, and pain; that is, an abnormal association between given colors
and tastes, smells, or pains.

Although we meet them only as exceptional cases, these modes of
association are susceptible to analysis, and seem clear, almost
self-evident, if we compare them with other, subtle, refined, barely
perceptible cases, the origin of which is a subject for supposition, for
guessing rather than for clear comprehension. It is, moreover, a sort of
imagination belonging to very few people: certain artists and some
eccentric or unbalanced minds, scarcely ever found outside the esthetic
or practical life. I wish to speak of the forms of invention that permit
only fantastic conceptions, of a strangeness pushed to the extreme
(Hoffman, Poe, Baudelaire, Goya, Wiertz, etc.), or surprising,
extraordinary thoughts, known of no other men (the symbolists and
decadents that flourish at the present time in various countries of
Europe and America, who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are
preparing the esthetics of the future). It must be here admitted that
there exists an altogether special manner of feeling, dependent on
temperament at first, which many cultivate and refine as though it were
a precious rarity. There lies the true source of their invention.
Doubtless, to assert this pertinently, it would be necessary to
establish the direct relations between their physical and psychical
constitution and that of their work; to note even the particular states
at the moment of the creative act. To me at least, it seems evident that
the novelty, the strangeness of combinations, through its deep
subjective character, indicates an emotional rather than an intellectual
origin. Let us merely add that these abnormal manifestations of the
creative imagination belong to the province of pathology rather than to
that of psychology.

Association by contrast is, from its very nature, vague, arbitrary,
indeterminate. It rests, in truth, on an essentially subjective and
fleeting conception, that of contrariety, which it is almost impossible
to delimit scientifically; for, most often, contraries exist only by and
for us. We know that this form of association is not primary and
irreducible. It is brought down by some to contiguity, by most others to
resemblance. These two views do not seem to me irreconcilable. In
association by contrast we may distinguish two layers,--the one,
superficial, consists of contiguity: all of us have in memory associated
couples, such as large-small, rich-poor, high-low, right-left, etc.,
which result from repetition and habit; the other, deep, is resemblance;
contrast exists only where a common measure between two terms is
possible. As Wundt remarks, a wedding may be compared to a burial (the
union and separation of a couple), but not to a toothache. There is
contrast between two colors, contrast between sounds, but not between a
sound and a color, at least in that there may not be a common basis to
which we may relate them, as in the previously given instances of
"colored" sound. In association by contrast, there are conscious
elements opposed to one another, and below, an unconscious element,
resemblance,--not clearly and logically perceived, but felt--that evokes
and relates the conscious elements.

Whether this explanation be right or not, let us remark that association
by contrast could not be left out, because its mechanism, full of
unforeseen possibilities, lends itself easily to novel relations.
Otherwise, I do not at all claim that it is entirely dependent upon the
emotional factor. But, as Hoeffding observes, the special property of
the emotional life is moving among contraries; it is altogether
determined by the great opposition between pleasure and pain. Thus, the
effects of contrasts are much stronger than in the realm of sensation.
This form of association predominates in esthetic and mythic creation,
that is to say, in creation of the free fancy; it becomes dimmed in the
precise forms of practical, mechanical, and scientific invention.


Hitherto we have considered the emotional factor under a single aspect
only--the purely emotional--that which is manifested in consciousness
under an agreeable or disagreeable or mixed form. But thoughts,
feelings, and emotions include elements that are deeper--motor, i.e.,
impulsive or inhibitory--which we may neglect the less since it is in
movements that we seek the origin of the creative imagination. This
motor element is what current speech and often even psychological
treatises designate under the terms "creative instinct," "inventive
instinct;" what we express in another form when we say that creators are
guided by instinct and "are pushed like animals toward the
accomplishment of certain acts."

If I mistake not, this indicates that the "creative instinct" exists in
all men to some extent--feeble in some, perceptible in others, brilliant
in the great inventors.

For I do not hesitate to maintain that the creative instinct, taken in
this strict meaning, compared to animal instinct, is a mere figure of
speech, an "entity" regarded as a reality, an abstraction. There are
needs, appetites, tendencies, desires, common to all men, which, in a
given individual at a given moment can result in a creative act; but
there is no special psychic manifestation that may be the "creative
instinct." What, indeed, could it be? Every instinct has its own
particular end:--hunger, thirst, sex, the specific instincts of the bee,
ant, beaver, consist of a group of movements adapted for a determinate
end that is always the same. Now, what would be a creative instinct in
general which, by hypothesis, could produce in turn an opera, a
machine, a metaphysical theory, a system of finance, a plan of military
campaign, and so forth? It is a pure fancy. Inventive genius has not a
source, but sources.

Let us consider from our present viewpoint the human duality, the homo

Suppose man reduced to a state of pure intelligence, that is, capable of
perceiving, remembering, associating, dissociating, reasoning, and
nothing else. All creative activity is then impossible, because there is
nothing to solicit it.

Suppose, again, man reduced to organic manifestations; he is then no
more than a bundle of wants, appetites, instincts,--that is, of motor
activities, blind forces that, lacking a sufficient cerebral organ, will
produce nothing.

The cooperation of both these factors is indispensable: without the
first, nothing begins; without the second, nothing results. I hold that
it is in needs that we must seek for the primary cause of all
inventions; it is evident that the motor element alone is insufficient.
If the needs are strong, energetic, they may determine a production, or,
if the intellectual factor is insufficient, may spoil it. Many want to
make discoveries but discover nothing. A want so common as hunger or
thirst suggests to one some ingenious method of satisfying it; another
remains entirely destitute.

In short, in order that a creative act occur, there is required, first,
a need; then, that it arouse a combination of images; and lastly, that
it objectify and realize itself in an appropriate form.

We shall try later (in the Conclusion) to answer the question, Why is
one imaginative? In passing, let us put the opposite question, Why is
one not imaginative? One may possess in the mind an inexhaustible
treasure of facts and images and yet produce nothing: great travelers,
for example, who have seen and heard much, and who draw from their
experiences only a few colorless anecdotes; men who were partakers in
great political events or military movements, who leave behind only a
few dry and chilly memoirs; prodigies of reading, living encyclopedias,
who remain crushed under the load of their erudition. On the other hand,
there are people who easily move and act, but are limited, lacking
images and ideas. Their intellectual poverty condemns them to
unproductiveness; nevertheless, being nearer than the others to the
imaginative type, they bring forth childish or chimerical productions.
So that we may answer the question asked above: The non-imaginative
person is such from lack of materials or through the absence of

Without contenting ourselves with these theoretical remarks, let us
rapidly show that it is thus that these things actually happen. All the
work of the creative imagination may be classed under two great
heads--esthetic inventions and practical inventions; on the one hand,
what man has brought to pass in the domain of art, and on the other
hand, all else. Though this division may appear strange, and
unjustifiable, it has reason for its being, as we shall see hereafter.

Let us consider first the class of non-esthetic creations. Very
different in nature, all the products of this group coincide at one
point:--they are of practical utility, they are born of a vital need, of
one of the conditions of man's existence. There are first the inventions
"practical" in the narrow sense--all that pertains to food, clothing,
defense, housing, etc. Every one of these special needs has stimulated
inventions adapted to a special end. Inventions in the social and
political order answer to the conditions of collective existence; they
arise from the necessity of maintaining the coherence of the social
aggregate and of defending it against inimical groups. The work of the
imagination whence have arisen the myths, religious conceptions, and the
first attempts at a scientific explanation may seem at first
disinterested and foreign to practical life. This is an erroneous
supposition. Man, face to face with the higher powers of nature, the
mystery of which he does not penetrate, has a need of acting upon it;
he tries to conciliate them, even to turn them to his service by magic
rites and operations. His curiosity is not at all theoretic; he does
not aim to know for the sake of knowing, but in order to act upon the
outside world and to draw profit therefrom. To the numerous questions
that necessity puts to him his imagination alone responds, because his
reason is shifting and his scientific knowledge nil. Here, then,
invention again results from urgent needs.

Indeed, in the course of the nineteenth century and on account of
growing civilization all these creations reach a second moment when
their origin is hidden. Most of our mechanical, industrial and
commercial inventions are not stimulated by the immediate necessity of
living, by an urgent need; it is not a question of existence but of
better existence. The same holds true of social and political inventions
which arise from the increasing complexity and the new requirements of
the aggregates forming great states. Lastly, it is certain that
primitive curiosity has partially lost its utilitarian character in
order to become, in some men at least, the taste for pure
research--theoretical, speculative, disinterested. But all this in no
way affects our thesis, for it is a well-known elementary psychological
law that upon primitive wants are grafted acquired wants fully as
imperative. The primitive need is modified, metamorphosed, adapted;
there remains of it, nonetheless, the fundamental activity toward

Let us now consider the class of esthetic creations. According to the
generally accepted theory which is too well known for me to stop to
explain it, art has its beginning in a superfluous, bounding activity,
useless as regards the preservation of the individual, which is shown
first in the form of play. Then, through transformation and
complication, play becomes primitive art, dancing, music, and poetry at
the same time, closely united in an apparently indissoluble unity.
Although the theory of the absolute inutility of art has met some strong
criticism, let us accept it for the present. Aside from the true or
false character of inutility, the psychological mechanism remains the
same here as in the preceding cases; we shall only say that in place of
a vital need it is a need of luxury acting, but it acts only because
it is in man.

Nevertheless, the inutility of play is far from proven biologically.
Groos, in his two excellent works on the subject, has maintained
with much power the opposite view. According to him the theory of
Schiller and Spencer, based on the expenditure of superfluous activity
and the opposite theory of Lazarus, who reduces play to a
relaxation--that is, a recuperation of strength--are but partial
explanations. Play has a positive use. In man there exist a great number
of instincts that are not yet developed at birth. An incomplete being,
he must have education of his capacities, and this is obtained through
play, which is the exercise of the natural tendencies of human
activities. In man and in the higher animals plays are a preparation, a
prelude to the active functions of life. There is no instinct of play
in general, but there are special instincts that are manifested under
the forms of play. If we admit this explanation, which does not lack
potency, the work of the esthetic imagination itself would be reduced
to a biological necessity, and there would be no reason for making a
separate category of it. Whichever view we may adopt, it still remains
established that any invention is reducible, directly or indirectly, to
a particular, determinate need, and that to allow man a special
instinct, the definite specific character of which should be stimulation
to creative activity, is a fantastic notion.

Whence, then, comes this persistent and in some respects seductive idea
that creation is an instinctive result? Because a happy invention has
characteristics that evidently relate it to instinctive activity in the
strict sense of the word. First, precocity, of which we shall later give
numerous examples, and which resembles the innateness of instinct.
Again, orientation in a single direction: the inventor is, so to speak,
polarized; he is the slave of music, of mechanics, of mathematics; often
inapt at everything outside his own particular sphere. We know the
witticism of Madame du Deffant on Vaucanson, who was so awkward, so
insignificant when he ventured outside of mechanics. "One should say
that this man had manufactured himself." Finally, the ease with which
invention often (not always) manifests itself makes it resemble the work
of a pre-established mechanism.

But these and similar characteristics may be lacking. They are necessary
for instinct, not for invention. There are great creators who have been
neither precocious nor confined in a narrow field, and who have given
birth to their inventions painfully, laboriously. Between the mechanism
of instinct and that of imaginative creation there are frequently great
analogies but not identity of nature. Every tendency of our
organization, useful or hurtful, may become the beginning of a creative
act. Every invention arises from a particular need of human nature,
acting within its own sphere and for its own special end.

If now it should be asked why the creative imagination directs itself
preferably in one line rather than in another--toward poetry or physics,
trade or mechanics, geometry or painting, strategy or music, etc.--we
have nothing in answer. It is a result of the individual organization,
the secret of which we do not possess. In ordinary life we meet people
visibly borne along toward love or good cheer, toward ambition, riches
or good works; we say that they are "so built," that such is their
character. At bottom the two questions are identical, and current
psychology is not in a position to solve them.

Next: The Unconscious Factor

Previous: The Intellectual Factor

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