Pretending with no mental images

Monika Chylińska is a research and teaching assistant at Catholic University of Lublin (KUL), Department of Philosophy and recently engaged in the project "Counterfactual Imagination and Pretend Play: The Cognitive Underpinnings of Human Creativity" (funded by National Science Centre in Poland). She received her MA in philosophy and psychology from KUL. Her research topics include pretense, creativity, imagination and counterfactuals. During free time she likes brewing coffee in a small coffee shop called Heca (in the picture).

Monika Chylińska is a research and teaching assistant at Catholic University of Lublin (KUL), Department of Philosophy and recently engaged in the project "Counterfactual Imagination and Pretend Play: The Cognitive Underpinnings of Human Creativity" (funded by National Science Centre in Poland). She received her MA in philosophy and psychology from KUL. Her research topics include pretense, creativity, imagination and counterfactuals. During free time she likes brewing coffee in a small coffee shop called Heca (in the picture).

A post by Monika Chylińska.

As children, my brothers and I used to play a game of pretense in which we were surrounded by sharks. We would bounce vigorously on a large rubber ring (similar to this one but three times bigger), expecting one of us to fall down or touch the ground with a foot or a hand. Falling down meant being eaten by sharks (sudden death); touching the ground with a body part meant that the sharks had bitten off that part. We greatly enjoyed all the elements of our pretense: the jumping, the falling, the shouting. There was no goal to be the survivor because there was no goal except for fun. Even after being 'annihilated' one was back right away, bouncing with the rest.

Pretending to be dealing with sharks or any other dangerous phenomena seems to be a common practice among children. You likely also played it or something like it too. If you did, I am curious whether you recall your mental experience of such play. Let me be more clear about my curiosity: Did you objectually imagine sharks (or aliens, or lava, etc.)? Did you picture them in your mind or projected their image onto something?

If you are struggling with your memories, do not let yourself be bothered for long. Let us see how these questions have been answered by others. In one recent paper, Picciuto and Carruthers (2016) define pretense as an embodied imagination, so as "acting as if P (without believing it) while imagining that P" (p. 317). They also make it clear that by using the term 'imagining' they intend to include both supposing and generating mental images: "A child who pretends that the banana is a telephone needs to suppose that the banana is a telephone, or to imagine the banana as a telephone". Importantly, they add that "pretending only lasts for as long as imagination actively guides one’s movements" (p. 317). Consequently, if we follow their line of thinking, we would be claiming that for the child to pretend that the banana is a phone is (in one version) to imagine the banana as a phone for as long as her pretense goes on, or to maintain the mental image of a phone (or a hybrid banana-phone?) long enough[1].

Treating pretense as engaging mental images, which we can call the 'i-imaginative' treatment (where 'i' would be a shortcut for 'imagistic'), can also be surely spotted elsewhere. For instance, Van Leeuwen (2011) describes pretense as the result of integrating mental imagery with one’s veridical perception. According to him, some of the objects in the pretender’s perceptual field may be imaginary mental images. Van Leeuwen gives an example: "The sword I duck in make-believe is the one I visualize in your (actual empty) hand as you make a slicing motion aimed at my hand" (p. 71).

I think that such an i-imaginative view on pretend play partly mirrors our folk understanding of children’s pretense. We tend to say that pretending children are 'seeing things' that we (adult people) cannot see. For a little entertainment, take a look at this short YouTube video: How Kids See the World. In this video, children who engage in make-believe actions are presented as seeing some new objects or occurrences in their actual surroundings: a rough sea, a lava, a stream of light coming from a toy-weapon. There is even a boy pictured as escaping from a shark that he visualizes in an extremely vivid way. Now you see: pretending to be dealing with sharks is a truly important business!

Are all the make-believe sharks really being imagined? Did we (me and my brothers) visualize a number of sharks while simultaneously bouncing on our ring? Speaking for myself: I do not recall such a mental experience. I do not recall vividly seeing any animals (other than our dog) in our pretense. What is more, I do not recall visualizing my brothers without legs or hands, or seeing their body-parts as bleeding in consequence of being 'bitten'. (However, I suppose that your mental imagery might be a bit triggered right now). What I mostly remember is our joy at our bouncing movements, our laughs and shouts, and our excitement when someone fell down or was going to fall down. I believe we played mainly to feel these emotions.

Now, you may protest that my pointing to my childhood memories is a project of a dubious nature. First: how can I even remember what I underwent then? Second: how could I have been so bad in imagining sharks as a child? Right, I should not appeal only to my own mental experience.

Still, I see a major problem with the i-imaginative view of pretense. It is that acting as if P while imagining that P seems to be an extremely demanding mental task, both for children and adults. Try it yourself: start by vividly imagining a couple of sharks around you and, then, if no one is watching, proceed to act accordingly to their imaginary movements. Can you actually do it? Do not you have troubles with imagining more than one circling shark already? Imagining itself posits a great demand on our cognitive processes. It is much easier when we close our eyes, like when we consciously dream about something before we fall asleep. It is, however, seriously hard to maintain a relatively sharp mental image while simultaneously doing something else or while even looking at something. Can we actually believe that pretending kids imagine sharks as vividly and as long as the boy from the video was pictured doing it?

Do not misunderstand me at this point: I do not claim that mental images are completely excluded from pretending. Obviously, they may occur in there — for example, the child might visualize a rough image of a shark at some point in his play. Still, it does not seem that these mental images are what constitutes a pretense episode in its full length. Imagistic imagination does not have to "actively guide one’s movements" for as long as pretense lasts. First, this demand simply looks to be far too heavy for our cognition. Second, pretending children (or adults) are rather occupied by different things than visualizing certain invisible phenomena[2]. There are yet too many visible happenings around to be grasped.

One interesting alternative to the imaginative view on pretend play has been proposed by Rucińska (2016, 2017) — look for her Junkyard post coming in November! Drawing on enactivist ideas, she claims that pretending relies on active manipulations with the given objects, on seeing-affordances-in the objects or in the environment, as well as on maneuvering between affordances and reacting to what is perceived or to what has been just discovered during a pretense action. She tries to explain basic forms of pretense without referring to any representational states, including the imaginative ones.

What I like about Rucińska’s approach (and what has greatly affected my own studies) is her emphasis on action, perception, and environmental context of pretend play, without theorizing too much about the child’s cognitive processes. What I think is still problematic though is whether the impulse to pretend may only come from what is being actually perceived or discovered through the child’s manipulations. Surely, the rubber ring affords bouncing on it in many different ways. I cannot, however, see how it can afford pretending that sharks are circling around. 

How did we then arrive at playing sharks at some point? Now, I wonder if referring to suppositional imagination (finally!) or to any other forms of hypothetical mental states will not actually help us in solving this problem. Maybe in an analysis of pretense, I should not fully give up on imagination. Admittedly, it is probable that what initiated our play was one of us (possibly recalling the movie Jaws) who proposed that there are sharks around the ring and that we can be bitten or eaten by them if we touch the ground. Setting up such counterfactual (or counterpossible) scenarios looks to be a domain of suppositional imagination[3]. If this is right, then — even if mental images are truly redundant here — the standard picture of imaginative pretenders is partly saved.      

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This post is based on research supported by the National Science Centre in Poland under research grant “Counterfactual Imagination and Pretend Play: The Cognitive Underpinnings of Human Creativity” (2016/21/N/HS1/03495). 

[1] Interestingly, it looks that modern children pretend phone calls by using TV remotes or rectangular wooden blocks rather than bananas (according to what my friends who are parents have noticed). Bananas are outdated — they do not resemble actual phones anymore. 

[2] It is worth adding that talking about invisible or absent objects is a common practice in literature on pretense. For example, when Weisberg (2015) describes the developmental trajectory of pretense, she says that in the early preschool years “children begin to pretend with invisible objects, in which the pretence occurs entirely in the child’s imagination” (p. 2.). For an interesting criticism of that view, see: Rucińska (forthcoming in AVANT).  

[3] According to Harris (2000) “pretend play is an […] initial exploration of the possible worlds” (p.28). However, i believe that pretending children can be also positing the states of affairs that could not possibly happen. For instance, they can propose that in their make-believe scenario sharks are both fish and humans.


Harris, P. L. (2000). The work of the imagination. Oxford: Blackwell.

Van Leeuwen, N. (2011). Imagination is Where the Action Is. The Journal of Philosophy, 108(2), 55–77.

Picciuto, E., & Carruthers, P. (2016). Imagination and Pretense. In A. Kind (Ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Imagination (pp. 314-325). New York: Routledge.

Rucińska, Z. (2016). Enactive Mechanism of Make-Belief Games. In P. Turner (Ed.), Digital Make-Believe (pp. 141-160). Springer International Publishing.

Rucińska, Z. (2017). The Role of Affordances in Pretend Play. In C. Durt, T. Fuchs, & C. Tewes (Eds.), Embodiment, Enaction, and Culture: Investigating the Constitution of the Shared World (pp. 257-278). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rucińska, Z. (forthcoming). Social and Enactive Perspectives on Pretending. AVANT.

Weisberg, D. S. (2015). Pretend play, WIREs Cognitive Science;. doi:10.1002/wcs.1341.