Imagination and Creativity in Childhood

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Summary of Imagination and Creativity in Childhood

Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol. 42, no. 1, January–February 2004, pp. 7–97. © 2004 M.E. Sharpe, Inc. All rights reserved. ISSN 1061–0405/2004 $9.50 + 0.00. LEV SEMENOVICH VYGOTSKY Imagination and Creativity in Childhood Chapter 1. Creativity and Imagination Any human act that gives rise to something new is referred to as a creative act, regardless of whether what is created is a physical object or some mental or emotional construct that lives within the person who created it and is known only to him. If we consider a person’s behavior and all of his activity, we are readily able to distinguish two basic types. One type of activity we could call reproductive, and is very closely linked to memory; essentially it consists of a person’s reproducing or repeating previously devel- oped and mastered behavioral patterns or resurrecting traces of earlier impressions. When I recall the house where I spent my childhood or the distant lands I have visited in the past, I retrieve traces of the impressions that I formed in early childhood or in my travels. In exactly the same way, when I draw from life, write or do something following a specific model, I am merely reproduc- ing what exists in front of me or what I have mastered and devel- oped earlier. What is common to all these instances is the fact that my actions do not create anything new, but rather are based on a English translation © 2004 M.E. Sharpe, Inc., from the Russian text Voobrazhenie i tvorchestvo v detskom vozraste (Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 1967). 7 8 JOURNAL OF RUSSIAN AND EAST EUROPEAN PSYCHOLOGY more or less accurate repetition of something that already exists. It is easy to understand what enormous significance such reten- tion of previous experience has in a person’s life insofar as it facilitates his adaptation to the world around him, giving rise to and fostering development of habits that are repeated under a par- ticular set of conditions. The organic basis for such reproductive activity or memory is the plasticity of our neural substance. Plasticity is a term denoting the property of a substance that allows it to change and retain the traces of that change. Thus, in this sense, wax is more plastic than, let us say, iron or water, because it undergoes changes more readily than iron, and retains the traces of these changes better than water. The plasticity of our nervous system depends on both of these properties taken together. Our brain and our nerves, possessing enormous plasticity, readily alter their finest structure under the influence of one or another type of stimulation, and if the stimula- tion is strong enough or is repeated a sufficient number of times, retain memory traces of these changes. Something analogous to what happens to a piece of paper when we fold it in the middle takes place in the brain; a crease remains where the fold was made and this trace, resulting from the change that was made, makes it easier to repeat the same change in the future. One need only blow on this paper for it to bend at the crease. The same thing happens with the trace made by a wheel on soft earth; a track forms, which bears the imprint of the changes made by the wheel and facilitates movement of the wheel along this track in the future. Similarly, strong or frequently repeated stimu- lation lays down new tracks in our brain. Thus, our brain proves to be an organ that retains our previous experience and facilitates the reproduction of this experience. However, if the brain’s activity were limited merely to retaining previous experience, a human being would be a creature who could adapt primarily to familiar, stable conditions of the environment. All new or unexpected changes in the environment not encountered in his previous experience would fail to induce the appropriate adaptive reactions in humans. 9 JANUARY–FEBRUARY 2004 In addition to its function of storing previous experience, the brain has another, no less important function. Aside from repro- ductive activity, we can readily observe another type of activity in human behavior, what can be called combinatorial or creative activity. When, in my imagination, I draw myself a mental picture of, let us say, the future life of humanity under socialism or a pic- ture of life in the distant past and the struggle of prehistoric man, in both cases I am doing more than reproducing the impressions I once happened to experience. I am not merely recovering the traces of stimulation that reached my brain in the past. I never actually saw this remote past, or this future; however, I still have my own idea, image, or picture of what they were or will be like. All human activity of this type, activity that results not in the reproduction of previously experienced impressions or actions but in the creation of new images or actions is an example of this second type of creative or combinatorial behavior. The brain is not only the organ that stores and retrieves our previous experience, it is also the organ that combines and creatively reworks elements of this past experience and uses them to generate new propositions and new behavior. If human activity were limited to reproduction of the old, then the human being would be a creature oriented only to the past and would only be able to adapt to the future to the extent that it reproduced the past. It is precisely human creative activity that makes the human being a creature oriented toward the future, creating the future and thus altering his own present. This creative activity, based on the ability of our brain to com- bine elements, is called imagination or fantasy in psychology. Typi- cally, people use the terms imagination or fantasy to refer to something quite different than what they mean in science. In every- day life, fantasy or imagination refer to what is not actually true, what does not correspond to reality, and what, thus, could not have any serious practical significance. But in actuality, imagination, as the basis of all creative activity, is an important component of abso- lutely all aspects of cultural life, enabling artistic, scientific, and technical creation alike. In this sense, absolutely everything around us that was created by the hand of man, the entire world of human 10 JOURNAL OF RUSSIAN AND EAST EUROPEAN PSYCHOLOGY culture, as distinct from the world of nature, all this is the product of human imagination and of creation based on this imagination. [Theodule] Ribot says: Every invention, whether large or small, before being implemented, embodied in reality, was held together by the imagination alone. It was a structure erected in the mind through the agency of new combi- nations and relationships. . . . The overwhelming majority of inventions were created by unknown inventors; only a few names of great inventors are extant. The imagi- nation forever remains true to its nature, whether it manifests itself individually or collectively. No one knows how many acts of imagina- tion it took to transform the plow, which started out as a simple piece of wood with a fire-sharpened end, from this simple manual tool, into what it became after a long series of alterations that are described in the works devoted to this subject. In the same way, the dim flame from a branch of resinous wood, which was the first crude primitive torch, led us, through a long series of inventions, to gas and electric lighting. All the objects used in everyday life, including the simplest and most ordinary ones, are, so to speak, crystallized imagination. This quotation makes it clear that our everyday idea of creativ- ity does not fully conform to the scientific understanding of this word. According to everyday understanding, creativity is the realm of a few selected individuals, geniuses, talented people, who pro- duce great works of art, are responsible for major scientific dis- coveries or invent some technological advances. We readily acknowledge and easily recognize the role of creativity in the ac- complishments of [Leo] Tolstoy, [Thomas] Edison, and [Charles] Darwin, but we typically believe that such creativity is completely lacking in the life of the ordinary person. However, as we have already stated, this view is incorrect. To use an analogy devised by a Russian scholar, just as electricity is equally present in a storm with deafening thunder and blinding lightning and in the operation of a pocket flashlight, in the same way, creativity is present, in actuality, not only when great histori- cal works are born but also whenever a person imagines, com- bines, alters, and creates something new, no matter how small a JANUARY–FEBRUARY 2004 11 drop in the bucket this new thing appears compared to the works of geniuses. When we consider the phenomenon of collective cre- ativity, which combines all these drops of individual creativity that frequently are insignificant in themselves, we readily understand what an enormous percentage of what has been created by human- ity is a product of the anonymous collective creative work of un- known inventors. The overwhelming majority of inventions were produced by unknown individuals, as Ribot rightly says. A scientific understand- ing of this phenomenon thus compels us to consider creativity as the rule rather than the exception. Of course, the highest expres- sions of creativity remain accessible only to a select few human geniuses; however, in the everyday life that surrounds us, creativ- ity is an essential condition for existence and all that goes beyond the rut of routine and involves innovation, albeit only a tiny amount, owes its existence to the human creative process. If we understand creativity in this way, it is easy to see that the creative processes are already fully manifest in earliest childhood. One of the most important areas of child and educational psychol- ogy is the issue of creativity in children, the development of this creativity and its significance to the child’s general development and maturation. We can identify creative processes in children at the very earliest ages, especially in their play. A child who sits astride a stick and pretends to be riding a horse; a little girl who plays with a doll and imagines she is its mother; a boy who in his games becomes a pirate, a soldier, or a sailor, all these children at play represent examples of the most authentic, truest creativity. Everyone knows what an enormous role imitation plays in children’s play. A child’s play very often is just an echo of what he saw and heard adults do; nevertheless, these elements of his previ- ous experience are never merely reproduced in play in exactly the way they occurred in reality. A child’s play is not simply a repro- duction of what he has experienced, but a creative reworking of the impressions he has acquired. He combines them and uses them to construct a new reality, one that conforms to his own needs and 12 JOURNAL OF RUSSIAN AND EAST EUROPEAN PSYCHOLOGY desires. Children’s desire to draw and make up stories are other examples of exactly this same type of imagination and play. Ribot tells of a little boy of three and a half who saw a lame man walking on the street and cried, “Mama, look at that poor man’s leg.” Then he began to make up a story: the man had been riding a big horse, he fell on a large rock, he hurt his leg badly, and some kind of medicine had to be found to make him better. In this case, the combinatorial operation of the imagination is extremely clear. What we have here is a situation the child has created. All the elements of this situation, of course, are known to the child from his previous experience, otherwise he could not have come up with them; however, the combination of these ele- ments is something new, creative, something that belongs to the child himself, and does not simply reproduce what the child hap- pened to observe or see. It is this ability to combine elements to produce a structure, to combine the old in new ways that is the basis of creativity. Many authors, with complete justification, suggest that the roots of such creative combination may be noted in the play of animals. Animal play very often represents the product of motor imagina- tion. However, these rudiments of creative imagination in animals cannot lead to any stable or major developments in the conditions under which they live; only man has developed this form of activ- ity to its true height. JANUARY–FEBRUARY 2004 13 more, it does not occupy a separate place in human behavior, but depends directly on other forms of human activity, especially ac- crual of experience. In order to understand the psychological mechanism underly- ing imagination and the creative activity associated with it, it is best to start by elucidating the relationship between fantasy and reality in human behavior. We have already said that the everyday perspective, which draws a strict line between fantasy and reality, is incorrect. Now we will attempt to explain the four basic ways in which the operation of imagination is associated with reality. This explanation will help us understand that imagination is not just an idle mental amusement, not merely an activity without conse- quences in reality, but rather a function essential to life. The first type of association between imagination and reality stems from the fact that everything the imagination creates is al- ways based on elements taken from reality, from a person’s previ- ous experience. It would be a miracle indeed if imagination could create something out of nothing or if it had other sources than past experience for its creations. Only religious and mystic ideas about human nature could claim that products of the imagination origi- nate not out of our previous experience, but from some external, supernatural force. According to this view, it is gods or spirits who put dreams into people’s head, provide poets with inspiration for their work, and supplied lawgivers with the Ten Commandments. Scientific analy- sis of works of the imagination that are as fantastic and remote from reality as they could possible be, such as fairy tales, myths, legends, dreams, and the like, persuasively argue that the most fantastic cre- ations are nothing other than a new combination of elements that have ultimately been extracted from reality and have simply under- gone the transformational or distorting action of our imagination. A hut on chicken legs exists, of course, only in fairy tales, but the elements from which this fairy tale image is constructed are taken from real human experience, and only their combination bears traces of the fantastic, that is, does not correspond to reality. 14 JOURNAL OF RUSSIAN AND EAST EUROPEAN PSYCHOLOGY Let us take as an example the image of the fairy tale world as [Alexander] Pushkin depicts it: Beside the bow shaped shore a green oak grows, an oak engirt with golden chain, and day and night, leashed by this chain, a learned cat in circles goes. When he goes right he sings a folksong, when he goes left a tale he tells. What wonders there: the wood sprite wanders, a mermaid sits upon a bough; strange creatures stalk forgotten trails; a hut stands there on chicken legs that has no windows and no door. We could go through this whole excerpt word for word and dem- onstrate that it is only the combination of elements that is fantastic in this tale, while the elements themselves were taken from real- ity. An oak, a gold chain, a cat, songs—all these things exist in reality, it is only the image of the learned cat who circles on a golden chain and tells tales, only the combination of all these ele- ments is fantastic. As for the pure fairy tale images in the next lines, the wood sprite and hut on chicken legs—these too are only complex combinations of certain elements hinted at by reality. In the image of the mermaid, for example, the idea of a woman meets the idea of a bird sitting on a branch; in the enchanted hut the idea of chicken legs is combined with the idea of a hut, and so forth. Thus, imagination always builds using materials supplied by reality. It is true, as can be seen from the excerpt cited, that imagi- nation may create more and more new levels of combination, com- bining first the initial elements of reality (cat, chain, oak), then secondarily combining fantastic elements (mermaid, wood sprite), and so forth, and so on. But the ultimate elements, from which the most fantastic images, those that are most remote from reality, are constructed, these terminal elements will always be impressions made by the real world. Now we can induce the first and most important law governing the operation of the imagination. This law may be formulated as follows: the creative activity of the imagination depends directly on the richness and variety of a person’s previous experience because this experience provides the material from which the JANUARY–FEBRUARY 2004 15 products of fantasy are constructed. The richer a person’s experi- ence, the richer is the material his imagination has access to. This is why a child has a less rich imagination than an adult, because his experience has not been as rich. If we trace the history of great works, great discoveries, then we can almost always establish that they were the result of an enormous amount of previously accumulated experience. Every act of imagination starts with this accumulation of experience. All else being equal, the richer the experience, the richer the act of imagination. After the accumulation of experience, says Ribot, comes an incubation period. This period lasted for seventeen years for Newton, and at the moment when he finally confirmed his study through computation, he was overcome with such strong emotion that he had to entrust someone else with completing this computation for him. The mathematician Hamilton tells us that his method of quarternions suddenly appeared to him fully formed as he was standing on the Dublin Bridge. “At that moment I obtained the result of fifteen years of work.” Darwin collected material during his travels, long observed plants and animals, and only then when he was struck by a book by Malthus that he had happened to pick up, did he define his theory in final form. Similar examples are also numerous with respect to literary and artis- tic creations. The implication of this for education is that, if we want to build a relatively strong foundation for a child’s creativity, what we must do is broaden the experiences we provide him with. All else being equal, the more a child sees, hears, and experiences, the more he knows and assimilates, the more elements of reality he will have in his experience, and the more productive will be the operation of his imagination. Even this primitive form of linkage between fantasy and reality clearly shows how unjustified it is to consider them to be oppo- sites. The combinatorial function of our brain is not something completely different from its memory storage function, but is merely a further elaboration of the latter. Fantasy is not the opposite of 16 JOURNAL OF RUSSIAN AND EAST EUROPEAN PSYCHOLOGY memory, but depends on it and utilizes its contents in ever new combinations. The combinatorial action of the brain is ultimately based on the same process by which traces of previous stimuli are stored in the brain, and the only new thing about this function is that, in operating on the traces of these stimuli, the brain combines them in ways that are not encountered in actual experience. The second linkage between fantasy and reality is quite differ- ent. It involves a more complex association, not between the ele- ments of an imaginary structure and reality, but between the final product of imagination and some complex real phenomenon. When on the basis of study and stories of historians or travel, I construct a picture for myself of the French Revolution or the African desert, then in both cases the picture is the result of creative activity of the imagination. It does not reproduce what I perceived in my previous experience, but creates new combinations from that experience. In this sense, it is completely governed by the first law that we have just described. These products of the imagination also con- sist of transformed and reworked elements of reality and a large store of experience is required to create these images out of these elements. If I did not have a concept of lack of water, sand, enor- mous spaces, animals that live in deserts, and so forth, I, of course, could not generate the concept of this desert. If I did not possess a large number of historic concepts, I also would not be able to cre- ate a picture of the French Revolution in my imagination. The dependence of imagination on previous experience is ex- ceptionally clearly manifest in this context. But at the same time, there is something new in these constructs of fantasy, something that distinguishes them very substantially from the excerpt from Pushkin’s fairy tale that we examined above. Both the image of the bow-shaped seashore with the learned cat and the image of the African desert, which I have never seen, are equally imaginary constructions built by combining elements from reality. But the product of the imagination, the combination of these elements themselves, is in one case unreal (a fairy tale) and in the other the association of these elements, the product of imagination itself, not just its elements, corresponds to some real phenomenon. This JANUARY–FEBRUARY 2004 17 leads to an association of the final product of the imagination and one or another real phenomenon to which it corresponds. Such associations are examples of the second type of linkage between reality and fantasy. This type of linkage is made possible by virtue of the experi- ence of someone else or so-called social experience. If no one had ever seen or described the desert or the French revolution, then it would be impossible for us to form an appropriate image of either one. It is only because in these cases my imagination operates not freely, but directed by someone else’s experience, as if according to someone else’s instructions, that we can obtain the result we get in this case, that is, the fact that a product of the imagination cor- responds to reality. In this sense imagination takes on a very important function in human behavior and human development. It becomes the means by which a person’s experience is broadened, because he can imagine what he has not seen, can conceptualize something from another person’s narration and description of what he himself has never directly experienced. He is not limited to the narrow circle and narrow boundaries of his own experience but can venture far beyond these boundaries, assimilating, with the help of his imagi- nation someone else’s historical or social experience. In this form, imagination is a completely essential condition for almost all hu- man mental activity. When we read a newspaper and find out about a thousand events that we have not directly witnessed, when a child studies geography or history, when we merely learn what has been happening to another person by reading a letter from him—in all these cases our imagination serves our experience. Thus there is a double, mutual dependence between imagination and experience. If, in the first case, imagination is based on experi- ence, in the second case experience itself is based on imagination. The third type of association between the functioning of imagi- nation and reality is an emotional one. This association manifests itself in two ways. On the one hand, every feeling, every emotion seeks specific images corresponding to it. Emotions thus possess a kind of capacity to select impressions, thoughts, and images that 18 JOURNAL OF RUSSIAN AND EAST EUROPEAN PSYCHOLOGY resonate with the mood that possesses us at a particular moment in time. Everyone knows that we see everything with completely dif- ferent eyes depending on whether we are experiencing at the same time grief or joy. Psychology has long noted the fact that every feel- ing has not only an external, physical expression, but an internal expression associated with the choice of thoughts, images, and im- pressions. This phenomenon has been named the dual expression of feeling. Fear, for example, is expressed not only through pallor, trem- bling, dry throat, and changes in respiration and heart rate, but also in the fact that all the impressions a person receives during the time he is fearful and all the thoughts in his head are typically permeated by the feeling that possesses him. When the proverb says that a scared raven takes fright even at a bush, it means that the influence of the emotion we are experiencing colors our perception of exter- nal objects. Just as people long ago learned to express their internal states through external expressions, so do the images of imagina- tion serve as an internal expression of our feelings. Human sorrow and mourning is indicated by the color black, happiness by white, serenity by light blue, and rebellion by red. The images of imagina- tion also provide an internal language for our emotion. The emotion selects separate elements from reality and combines them in an as- sociation that is determined from within by our mood, and not from without by the logic of the images themselves. Psychology calls this influence of the emotions on combinatory fantasy the law of the general emotional sign. The essence of this law is that impressions or images that have a common emotional sign, that is, produce similar emotional effects in us, have a ten- dency to cluster together, despite the fact that there is no associa- tion among them either based on external similarity or contiguity. A combined product of the imagination is generated, which is based on the common feeling or common emotional sign uniting these diverse elements that have become associated. Ribot says: Images accompanied by one and the same human affect subsequently are associated with each other. Affective similarity unites and ties JANUARY–FEBRUARY 2004 19 together objectively dissimilar images. This phenomenon differs from association based on contiguity, which is a repetition of experience, and from association based on similarity in the intellectual sense. Such images are linked not because they were previously paired and not because we perceive some association of similarity between them, but because they have a common affective tone. Happiness, sadness, love, hatred, surprise, boredom, pride, fatigue, and so on, may become the centers of gravity that hold together images or events that have no rational relationship to each other, but that are imprinted with the same emotional sign or mark: for example, happy, sad, erotic, and so forth. These types of associations are very often present in dreams or day- dreams, that is, in states of mind in which the imagination has free rein and works at random, any which way. It is easy to understand that this overt or latent influence of emotions is likely to facilitate the occur- rence of completely unexpected groupings and represents an almost unlimited arena for new combinations because the number of images that have identical emotional imprints is very large. As a very simple example of this sort of combining of images with a common emotional sign, we can cite ordinary instances of associating any two different impressions that do not have any- thing at all in common, aside from the fact that they induce similar moods in us. When we call blue a cool color, and red a warm one, we are identifying the impression of blue and cold only on the basis that they induce similar moods in us. It is easy to understand that fantasy, which is governed by a similar emotional factor—the internal logic of feeling will represent the most subjective, most internal form of imagination. However the inverse relationship between emotion and imagi- nation also holds. While, in the example we described, emotion influences imagination, in other cases imagination influences emotion. This phenomenon could be called the law of the emo- tional reality of the imagination. Ribot formulates the essence of this law as follows. “All forms of creative imagination,” he says, “include affective elements.” This means that every construct of the imagination has an effect on our feelings, and if this construct does not in itself correspond to reality, nonetheless the feelings it evokes are real 20 JOURNAL OF RUSSIAN AND EAST EUROPEAN PSYCHOLOGY feelings, feelings a person truly experiences. Let us imagine the simplest type of illusion. When he goes into his room in the half dark, a child may have the illusion that clothes hanging up are a strange man or a robber who has broken into his house. The image of the robber, created by the child’s imagination, is not real, but the fear and terror the child experiences are completely real, the child’s true experience. Something similar happens with every real construct of fantasy and it is this psychological law that should explain to us why works of art created by their authors’ imagina- tions can have such a strong emotional effect on us. The passions and fates of imaginary characters, their joys and sorrows move, disturb, and excite us, despite the fact that we know these are not real events, but rather the products of fantasy. This occurs only because the emotions that take hold of us from the artistic images on the pages of books or from the stage are com- pletely real and we experience them truly, seriously, and deeply. Frequently, a simple combination of external impressions, such as a musical composition, induce a whole complex world of experi- ences and feelings in a person listening to the music. This expan- sion and deepening of feelings, their creative restructuring constitutes the psychological basis for the art of music. We must still mention the fourth and last type of association between imagination and reality. This last type is, on the one hand, intimately associated with the one just described, and, on the other, very different from it. The essence of this association is that a construct of fantasy may represent something substantially new, never encountered before in human experience and without corre- spondence to any object that actually exists in reality; however, once it has been externally embodied, that is, has been given mate- rial form, this crystallized imagination that has become an object begins to actually exist in the real world, to affect other things. In this way imagination becomes reality. Examples of such crys- tallized or embodied imagination include any technical device, machine, or instrument. These were created by the combinatory imagination of human beings and do not correspond to any model existing in reality, but they have the most persuasive, active, and JANUARY–FEBRUARY 2004 21 practical association with reality in that once they have been given material form, they become just as real as other things and affect the surrounding real environment. Such products of the imagination have a very long history, which perhaps it would be worthwhile to outline briefly. One could say that their development takes a circular path. The elements out of which they are constructed were taken by the human inventor from reality. Within the mind of this inventor, in his thoughts, these elements underwent complex reworking and were transformed into products of the imagination. Finally, once they were given material form, they returned to reality, but returned as a new active force with the potential to alter that reality. This is the complete cycle followed by the cre- ative operation of the imagination. It would be incorrect to suppose that only in the area of technol- ogy, in the area of practical effects on nature, is imagination capable of completing this full cycle. Such a circle can also be found in the area of emotional imagination where it is not difficult to trace. It is a fact that precisely when we confront a full circle com- pleted by the imagination is when we find that both factors—the intellectual and the emotional—are equally necessary for an act of creation. Feeling as well as thought drives human creativity. Ribot writes: Every dominant thought is supported by some need, aspiration, or desire, that is, an element of affect, so that it would be complete non- sense to believe in the constancy of any idea existing in a purely intel- lectual state, in all its dryness and coldness. Every dominant thought (or emotion) must be concentrated in an idea or image to give it flesh, to provide it with a system, without which it would remain in an indis- tinct state. . . . Thus, we see that these two terms—dominant thought and dominant emotion—are almost equal in value insofar as both include two inseparable elements and the only difference is which pre- dominates. This can be demonstrated most effectively using an example drawn from artistic imagination. Indeed, why do we need works of art? Do they not influence our internal world, our thoughts and