Imagination in Infants

Claudia Passos-Ferreira is a philosopher and a psychologist in the NYU Center for Bioethics.  She works on the development of consciousness and self-consciousness, moral psychology, and other topics in the philosophy of psychology.

Claudia Passos-Ferreira is a philosopher and a psychologist in the NYU Center for Bioethics.  She works on the development of consciousness and self-consciousness, moral psychology, and other topics in the philosophy of psychology.

A post by Claudia Passos-Ferreira.

Can infants imagine?  What sort of imaginative phenomenology might they have?  The answer is not obvious.  For a start, it depends on what we mean by imagination.  There is not much evidence that infants can engage in propositional imagination, the cognitive process of imagining that something is the case (e.g., a child imagining that her mother is in the next room).  However, infants may have the capacity for sensory imagination, the sensory/motor process of imagining an object with a mental image or imagining an action through motor image (e.g., an infant forming a mental image of her mother’s face when her mother is not present).  In this post, I will outline the evidence for these claims, and then explore the question of infants’ imaginative phenomenology.

Let’s start with propositional imagination.  This goes along with the capacities for pretense, narrative, and mental time travel.  These capacities to transcend time, place and circumstance seem to require sophisticated cognitive abilities that infants (children of less than twelve months) still do not possess (Taylor 2013; Weisberg 2016).  Propositional imagination appears in development in the context of pretense behavior in children.  By the age of fifteen to eighteen months, children are capable of engaging in primitive games of make-believe and games of pretense initiated by others.  By the age of twenty-four months, most children are able to participate fully in those games (Harris 2000).  These early pretense behaviors often consist of object substitution, using one object as a stand-in for another.  They gradually develop more complex forms with invisible objects, invisible entities, and so on.  The experience of imagining is especially evident in children’s games of pretend play and role play, which occupy a considerable amount of time in young children’s lives (Gopnik 2009).  These develop along with a variety of cognitive skills that emerge in children’s development, such as imitation, theory of mind, meta-representation, perspective-taking, symbolic thinking, and planning. 

What about sensory imagination?  This involves mental imagery: quasi-perceptual states that occur in the absence of the appropriate external stimuli.  Psychologists have paid relatively little attention to sensory imagination in young children, compared to the intense work on propositional imagination.  This gap may be due to the absence of first-person methods to access mental imagery in infants.  Without first person reports, we must rely on behavior, neurobiological evidence and comparative studies to investigate early mental imagery.  As a result, most mental imagery studies in developmental psychology have studied older children where we can rely on verbal reports (Piaget and Inhelder 1971; Shepard and Metzer 1971; Kosslyn et al. 1990; Wimmer et al. 2015). 

There is nevertheless a body of evidence that suggests that mental imagery – both visual imagery and motor imagery -- emerges early in development (Rochat 2016).  For example, young infants seem to use visual imagery of recently viewed objects to reach for them in the dark.  In Clifton and colleagues (1991), infants viewed at a distance two kinds of objects: a small object that requires a one-handed grasp, and a large object that requires a two-handed grasp.  Each object was previously associated with a distinctive sound, and subsequently, infants were given the opportunity to reach for them in the dark.  Infants by the age of six months used the appropriate grasp, which suggests that they have used visual imagery to grasp the object.  Other evidence suggests that a year-old child can use mental rotation abilities to insert a ball into a circular aperture (Örnkloo and von Hofsten 2007).  In the context of action representation, the case of neonatal imitation provides evidence of motor imagery of another’s action (Meltzoff 2007).

Our next question concerns imaginative phenomenology.   Are the mental representations involved in infants’ sensory imagination experienced by the infant as a distinctive sort of experience, such as a quasi-perceptual experience?  To answer this question, we need to get clearer on the phenomenology of imagination more generally.

When I see yellow birds outside my study window, I have a visual experience that is phenomenologically discernible from my experience of imagining yellow birds even though both experiences share similar sensory features of the same object.  What distinguishes those perceptual and imaginative experiences? Do they have different contents or just different attitudes to the same content?  Kriegel (2015) proposes that perceiving and imagining present their content in a different manner.  My visual experience of yellow birds presents yellow birds as before my eyes, while my imaginative experience of yellow birds presents yellow birds as not before my eyes (as in the revised version proposed by Kind 2015).

There is evidence that preschool children have the capacity to identify their imaginative states.  They are able to make clear distinctions between thinking and imagining, perceiving and imagining, and desiring and imagining (Harris 2009).  They know whether they are in a perceptual state (e.g., “seeing this dog in the room”) or whether they are in an imaginative state (e.g., “visualizing a dog in the room.”) or imagining a possible scenario” (e.g., “imagining that a dog will enter the room).  This introspective ability provides at least some evidence that preschool children have distinctive experiences when in these states.

What about infants?  Are imagery states in infants conscious?  If so, what kind of phenomenology is associated with them?  There is not conclusive evidence here, but we can at least speculate.  In adults, visual imagery of an object that is momentarily out of sight or is absent often has a rich imagistic phenomenology.  If infants are capable of generating similar visual imagery, it seems plausible that their visual imagery will share this phenomenology.

Here is a speculative proposal regarding stages of sensory imagination in infant development.  At the first stage, in young infants, mental imagery is unconscious.  At this level, infants form mental images to generate action-guiding representation: for example, imitating a mother’s facial expression, or using leg movements to move an object.  There is evidence that visual imagery for generating multimodal action-guiding representations is usually unconscious (Brogaard and Gatzia 2017).  If so, there is no imaginative phenomenology associated with this sort of imagery.

At the second stage, a primitive imagistic phenomenology might be present, through sensory memory based directly on prior sensory experiences.  At this level, infants are able to form images of objects based on previously seen objects.  They are able to recognize an object as the same object and to categorize a new object in the absence of the previously seen objects.  For example, they can imagine the shape of an object previously seen in the absence of the visual experience of the object.  This sort of imagery may well be conscious, with a simple imagistic phenomenology.

At the third stage, full-blown sensory imagination is present, where images need not be sensory memories directly based on prior visual experience.  At this level, children are able to imagine possible positions of an object, for example, through mental rotation. There will be a corresponding imagistic phenomenology that departs from prior visual phenomenology.

At the fourth stage, propositional imagination emerges.  In pretense, children can imagine an object as a stand-in for another: for example, imagining a chair as being dad’s car.  Around this time, children start imagining fictional objects, as when a child imagines Peppa Pig going ice-skating. 

There is much more for philosophers and psychologists to investigate here.  Understanding the developmental trajectory of early states of mental imagery may help us to understand the development of consciousness in infants, as well as to clarify the phenomenology and the cognitive architecture of imagination more generally.


Brogaard, B and Gatzia, DE (2017) Unconscious Imagination and the Mental Imagery Debate. Front. Psychol. 8:799. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.0079

Clifton, RK, Rochat, P, Litovsky, RY, Perris, EE (1991) Object representation guides infants’ reaching in the dark. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance 17 (2): 323–329.

Gopnik, A (2009) The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us about Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Harris, P (2000) The Work of the Imagination. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kosslyn SM, Margolis JA, Barrett AM, Goldknopf EJ, Daly PF (1990) Age differences in imagery abilities. Child Development 61: 995–1010. 

Kind, A. (2016) Imaginative Phenomenology and Existential Status. Rivista Internazionale di Filosofia e Psicologia 7 (2):273-278.

Kriegel, U. (2015) The Varieties of Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Meltzoff, A.N.  (2007) ‘Like Me’: A Foundation for Social Cognition.  Developmental Science 10(1): 126–34.

Örnkloo, H, von Hofsten, C (2007) Fitting Objects Into Holes: On the Development of Spatial Cognition Skills. Developmental Psychology (43 #2) 404-416.

Piaget J, Inhelder B (1971) Mental imagery in the child. New York: Basic.

Rochat, P (2016) Roots of Typical Consciousness: Implications for developmental psychopathology. Dante Cicchetti, ed. Handbook of Developmental Psychopathology, N.Y.: Wiley Publishers. 

Shepard, RN, Metzler, J (1971)Mental rotation of three-dimensional objects. Science 171, 701- 703.

Taylor, M (2013) Imagination. In Philip D. Zelazo, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Developmental Psychology, Vol. 1: Body and Mind.

Weisberg, DS (2016) Imagination and Child Development. In Amy Kind, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination. Taylor and Francis.

Wimmer MC, Maras KL, Robinson EJ, Doherty MJ, Pugeault N (2015) How Visuo-Spatial Mental Imagery Develops: Image Generation and Maintenance. PLoS ONE 10(11): e0142566.