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.

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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