Overcomingfear.ca Home Psychotherapy Fear Understanding Crowds Psychology How to Succeed Imagination

The Organic Conditions Of The Imagination

Whatever opinion we may hold concerning the nature of the unconscious,
since that form of activity is related more than any other to the
physiological conditions of the mental life, the present time is
suitable for an exposition of the hypotheses that it is permissible to
express concerning the organic bases of the imagination. What we may
regard as positive, or even as probable, is very little.


First, the anatomical conditions. Is there a "seat" of the imagination?
Such is the form of the question asked for the last twenty years. In
that period of extreme and closely bounded localization men strained
themselves to bind down every psychic manifestation to a strictly
determined point of the brain. Today the problem presents itself no
longer in this simple way. As at present we incline toward scattered
localization, functional rather than properly anatomical, and as we
often understand by "center" the synergic action of several centers
differently grouped according to the individual case, our question
becomes equivalent to: "Are there certain portions of the brain having
an exclusive or preponderating part in the working of the creative
imagination?" Even in this form the question is hardly acceptable.
Indeed, the imagination is not a primary and relatively simple function
like that of visual, auditory and other sensations. We have seen that it
is a state of tertiary formation and very complex. There is required,
then, (1) that the elements constituting imagination be determined in a
rigorous manner, but the foregoing analysis makes no pretense of being
definitive; (2) that each of these constitutive elements may be strictly
related to its anatomic conditions. It is evident that we are far from
possessing the secret of such a mechanism.

An attempt has been made to put the question in a more precise and
limited form by studying the brains of men distinguished in different
lines. But this method, in avoiding the difficulty, answers our question
indirectly only. Most often great inventors possess qualities besides
imagination indispensable for success (Napoleon, James Watt, etc.). How
draw a dividing line so as to assign to the imagination only its
rightful share? In addition, the anatomical determination is beset with

A method flourishing very greatly about the middle of the nineteenth
century consisted of weighing carefully a large number of brains and
drawing various conclusions as to intellectual superiority or
inferiority from a comparison of the weights. We find on this point
numerous documents in the special works published during the period
mentioned. But this method of weights has given rise to so many
surprises and difficulties in the way of explanation that it has been
quite necessary to give it up, since we see in it only another element
of the problem.

Nowadays we attribute the greatest importance to the morphology of the
brain, to its histological structure, the marked development of certain
regions, the determination not only of centers but of connections and
associations between centers. On this last point contemporary anatomists
have given themselves up to eager researches, and, although the cerebral
architecture is not conceived by all in the same way, it is proper for
psychology to note that all with their "centers" or "associational
system" try to translate into their own language the complex conditions
of mental life. Since we must choose from among these various anatomical
views let us accept that of Flechsig, one of the most renowned and one
having also the advantage of putting directly the problem of the organic
conditions of the imagination.

We know that Flechsig relies on the embryological method--that is, on
the development--in the order of time, of nerves and centers. For him
there exist on the one hand sensitive regions (sensory-motor), occupying
about a third of the cortical surface; on the other hand,
association-centers, occupying the remaining part.

So far as the sensory centers are concerned, development occurs in the
following order: Organic sensations (middle of cerebral cortex), smell
(base of the brain and part of the frontal lobes), sight (occipital
lobe), hearing (first temporal). Whence it results that in a definite
part of the brain the body comes to proper consciousness of its
impulses, wants, appetites, pains, movements, etc., and that this part
develops first--"knowledge of the body precedes that of the outside

In what concerns the associational centers, Flechsig supposes three
regions: The great posterior center (parieto-occipito-temporal);
another, much smaller, anterior or frontal; and a middle center, the
smallest of all (the Island of Reil). Comparative anatomy proves that
the associational centers are more important than those of sensation.
Among the lower mammals they develop as we go up the scale: "That which
makes the psychic man may be said to be the centers of association that
he possesses." In the new-born child the sensitive centers are isolated,
and, in the absence of connections between them, the unity of the self
cannot be manifested; there is a plurality of consciousness.

This much admitted, let us return to our special question, which
Flechsig asks in these words: "On what does genius rest? Is it based on
a special structure in the brain, or rather on special irritability?
that is, according to our present notions, on chemical factors? We may
hold the first opinion with all possible force. Genius is always united
to a special structure, to a particular organization of the brain." All
parts of this organ do not have the same value. It has been long
admitted that the frontal part may serve as a measure of intellectual
capacity; but we must allow, contrariwise, that there are other regions,
"principally a center located under the protuberance at the top of the
head, which is very much developed in all men of genius whose brains
have been studied down to our day. In Beethoven, and probably also in
Bach, the enormous development of this part of the brain is striking. In
great scientists like Gauss the centers of the posterior region of the
brain and those of the frontal region are strongly developed. The
scientific genius thus shows proportions of brain-structure other than
the artistic genius." There would then be, according to our author,
a preponderance of the frontal and parietal regions--the former obtain
especially among artists; the latter among scientists. Already, twenty
years before Flechsig, Ruedinger had noted the extraordinary development
of the parietal convolutions in eminent men after a study of eighteen
brains. All the convolutions and fissures were so developed, said he,
that the parieto-occipital region had an altogether peculiar character.

By way of summary we must bear in mind that, as regards anatomical
conditions, even when depending on the best of sources, we can at
present give only fragmentary, incomplete, hypothetical views.

Let us now go on to the physiology.


We might have rightly asked whether the physiological states existing
along with the working of the creative imagination are the cause,
effect, or merely the accompaniment of this activity. Probably all the
three conditions are met with. First, concomitance is an accomplished
fact, and we may consider it as an organic manifestation parallel to
that of the mind. Again, the employment of artificial means to excite
and maintain the effervescence of the imagination assigns a causal or
antecedent position to the physiologic conditions. Lastly, the psychic
activity may be initial and productive of changes in the organism, or,
if these already exist, may augment and prolong them.

The most instructive instances are those indicated by very clear
manifestations and profound modifications of the bodily condition. Such
are the moments of inspiration or simply those of warmth from work which
arise in the form of sudden impulses.

The general fact of most importance consists of changes in the blood
circulation. Increase of intellectual activity means an increase of work
in the cortical cells, dependent on a congested, sometimes a temporarily
anaemic state. Hyperaemia seems rather the rule, but we also know that
slight anaemia increases cortical excitability. "Weak, contracted pulse;
pale, chilly skin; overheated head; brilliant, sunken, roving eyes,"
such is the classic, frequently quoted description of the physiological
state during creative labor. There are numerous inventors who, of their
own accord, have noted these changes--irregular pulse, in the case of
Lagrange; congestion of the head, in Beethoven, who made use of cold
douches to relieve it, etc. This elevation of the vital tone, this
nervous tension, translates itself also into motor form through
movements analogous to reflexes, without special end, mechanically
repeated and always the same in the same man--e.g., movement of the
feet, hands, fingers; whittling the table or the arms of a chair (as in
the case of Napoleon when he was elaborating a plan of campaign), etc.
It is a safety-valve for the excessive flow of nervous impulse, and it
is admitted that this method of expenditure is not useless for
preserving the understanding in all its clearness. In a word, increase
of the cerebral circulation is the formula covering the majority of
observations on this subject.

Does experimentation, strictly so called, teach us anything on this
point? Numerous and well-known physiological researches, especially
those of Mosso, show that all intellectual, and, most of all, emotional,
work, produces cerebral congestion; that the brain-volume increases, and
the volume of the peripheral organs diminishes. But that tells us
nothing particularly about the imagination, which is but a special case
under the rule. Latterly, indeed, it has been proposed to study
inventors by an objective method through the examination of their
several circulatory, respiratory, digestive apparatus; their general
and special sensibility; the modes of their memory and forms of
association, their intellectual processes, etc. But up to this time no
conclusion has been drawn from these individual descriptions that would
allow any generalization. Besides, has an experiment, in the strict
sense of the word, ever been made at the "psychological moment"? I know
of none. Would it be possible? Let us admit that by some happy chance
the experimenter, using all his means of investigation, can have the
subject under his hand at the exact moment of inspiration--of the
sudden, fertile, brief creative impulse--would not the experiment itself
be a disturbing cause, so that the result would be ipso facto
vitiated, or at least unconvincing?

There still remains a mass of facts deserving summary notice--the
oddities of inventors. Were we to collect only those that may be
regarded as authentic we could make a thick volume. Despite their
anecdotal character these evidences do not seem to be unworthy of some

It is impossible to enter here upon an enumeration that would be
endless. After having collected for my own information a large number of
these strange peculiarities, it seems to me that they are reducible to
two categories:

(1) Those inexplicable freaks dependent on the individual constitution,
and more often probably also on experiences in life the memory of which
has been lost. Schiller, for example, kept rotten apples in his work

(2) The others, more numerous, are easy to explain. They are
physiological means consciously or unconsciously chosen to aid creative
work; they are auxiliary helpers of the imagination.

The most frequent method consists of artificially increasing the flow of
blood to the brain. Rousseau would think bare-headed in full sunshine;
Bossuet would work in a cold room with his head wrapped in furs; others
would immerse their feet in ice-cold water (Gretry, Schiller). Very
numerous are those who think "horizontally"--that is, lying stretched
out and often flattened under their blankets (Milton, Descartes,
Leibniz, Rossini, etc.)

Some require motor excitation; they work only when walking, or else
prepare for work by physical exercise (Mozart). For variety's sake, let
us note those who must have the noise of the streets, crowds, talk,
festivities, in order to invent. For others there must be external pomp
and a personal part in the scene (Machiavelli, Buffon). Guido Reni would
paint only when dressed in magnificent style, his pupils crowded about
him and attending to his wants in respectful silence.

On the opposite side are those requiring retirement, silence,
contemplation, even shadowy darkness, like Lamennais. In this class we
find especially scientists and thinkers--Tycho-Brahe, who for twenty-one
years scarcely left his observatory; Leibniz, who could remain for
three days almost motionless in an armchair.

But most methods are too artificial or too strong not to become quickly
noxious. Every one knows what they are--abuse of wine, alcoholic
liquors, narcotics, tobacco, coffee, etc., prolonged periods of
wakefulness, less for increasing the time for work than to cause a state
of hyperesthesia and a morbid sensibility (Goncourt).

Summing up: The organic bases of the creative imagination, if there are
any specially its own, remain to be determined. For in all that has been
said we have been concerned only with some conditions of the general
working of the mind--assimilation as well as invention. The
eccentricities of inventors studied carefully and in a detailed manner
would finally, perhaps, be most instructive material, because it would
allow us to penetrate into their inmost individuality. Thus, the
physiology of the imagination quickly becomes pathology. I shall not
dwell on this, having purposely eliminated the morbid side of our
subject. It will, however, be necessary to return thereto, touching upon
it in another part of this essay.


There remains a problem, so obscure and enigmatic that I scarcely
venture to approach it, in the analogy that most languages--the
spontaneous expression of a common thought--establish between
physiologic and psychic creation. Is it only a superficial likeness, a
hasty judgment, a metaphor, or does it rest on some positive basis?
Generally, the various manifestations of mental activity have as their
precursor an unconscious form from which they arise. The sensitiveness
belonging to living substance, known by the names heliotropism,
chemotropism, etc., is like a sketch of sensation and of the reactions
following it; organic memory is the basis and the obliterated form of
conscious memory. Reflexes introduce voluntary activity; appetitions and
hidden tendencies are the forerunners of effective psychology. Instinct,
on several sides, is like an unconscious and specific trial of reason.
Has the creative power of the human mind also analogous antecedents, a
physiological equivalent?

One metaphysician, Froschammer, who has elevated the creative
imagination to the rank of primary world-principle, asserts this
positively. For him there is an objective or cosmic imagination working
in nature, producing the innumerable varieties of vegetable and animal
forms; transformed into subjective imagination it becomes in the human
brain the source of a new form of creation. "The very same principle
causes the living forms to appear--a sort of objective image--and the
subjective images, a kind of living form." However ingenious and
attractive this philosophical theory may be, it is evidently of no
positive value for psychology.

Let us stick to experience. Physiology teaches that generation is a
"prolonged nutrition," a surplus, as we see so plainly in the lower
forms of agamous generation (budding, division). The creative
imagination likewise presupposes a superabundance of psychic life that
might otherwise spend itself in another way. Generation in the physical
order is a spontaneous, natural tendency, although it may be stimulated,
successfully or otherwise, by artificial means. We can say as much of
the other. This list of resemblances it would be easy to prolong. But
all this is insufficient for the establishment of a thorough identity
between the two cases and the solution of the question.

It is possible to limit it, to put it into more precise language. Is
there a connection between the development of the generative function
and that of the imagination? Even in this form the question scarcely
permits any but vague answers. In favor of a connection we may allege:

(1) The well-known influence of puberty on the imagination of both
sexes, expressing itself in day-dreams, in aspirations toward an
unattainable ideal, in the genius for invention that love bestows
upon the least favored. Let us recall also the mental troubles, the
psychoses designated by the name hebephrenia. With adolescence coincides
the first flowering of the fancy which, having emerged from its
swaddling-clothes of childhood, is not yet sophisticated and

It is not a matter of indifference for the general thesis of the present
work to note that this development of the imagination depends wholly on
the first effervescence of the emotional life. That "influence of the
feelings on the imagination" and of "the imagination on the feelings" of
which the moralists and the older psychologists speak so often is a
vague formula for expressing this fact--that the motor element included
in the images is reinforced.

(2) Per contra, the weakening of the generative power and of the
constructive imagination coincide in old age, which is, in a word, a
decay of nutrition, a progressive atrophy. It is proper not to omit the
influence of castration. According to the theory of Brown-Sequard, it
produces an abatement of the nutritive functions through the suppression
of an internal stimulus; and, although its relations to the imagination
have not been especially studied, it is not rash to admit that it is an
arresting cause.

However, the foregoing merely establishes, between the functions
compared, a concomitance in the general course of their evolution and in
their critical periods; it is insufficient for a conclusion. There
would be needed clear, authentic and sufficiently numerous observations
proving that individuals bereft of imagination of the creative type have
acquired it suddenly through the sole fact of their sexual influences,
and, inversely, that brilliant imaginations have faded under the
contrary conditions. We find some of these evidences in Cabanis,
Moreau de Tours and various alienists; they would seem to be in favor of
the affirmative, but some seem to me not sure enough, others not
explicit enough. Despite my investigations on this point, and inquiry of
competent persons, I do not venture to draw a definite conclusion. I
leave the question open; it will perhaps tempt another more fortunate

Next: The Principle Of Unity

Previous: The Unconscious Factor

Add to Informational Site Network

Viewed 2173