Human Arenas

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 79–91 | Cite as

From the Cradle to Society: “As-If” Thinking as a Matrix of Creativity

  • Roberta Patalano


In this paper, as-if thinking is addressed as a constitutive component of creativity at the individual and social level. We explore its functions across the life span and envision a fundamental continuity between its use in pretend play during childhood and its involvement in the process of social change. Psychoanalytic theory and its integration with developmental and cultural psychology constitute the background of our contribution and are used to define its starting hypothesis. On the basis of this literature, we also introduce a concept of everyday, ordinary creativity. Two main results are suggested. As-if thinking, that we learn to use in infancy when our capacity to symbolize starts to develop, can add a significant contribution to the process of social evolution. Many children develop creative capacities spontaneously. After childhood, however, the future of creativity is not predetermined and can follow different trajectories, depending on the level of investment in it.


As-if thinking Creativity Transitional space Imagination Social representations Social change 

Introductions and Aims

As-if thinking is an activity of mental simulation that involves imagination of alternative realities. In this contribution, we wish to show its relevance for creativity, both at the individual and social level.

In our perspective, as-if thinking is one of the many expressions that imaginative thought may take and not its unique form. Imagination is indeed a complex multimodal and embodied experience that can operate at multiple levels of consciousness by using different “languages” (Zittoun and Glăveanu 2017). In dreams, for example, it develops through the processes of condensation, displacement, figuration, and synthesis that were identified by Freud (1900) as the syntax of unconscious communication. In our diurnal life, imaginative thought includes free associations, metaphors and visual thinking. What these different modalities of expression seem to share is that imagination always demands a decoupling from the here-and-now dimension (Zittoun and Gillespie 2016). “As-if” in opposition to “as- is” thinking is one possibility to describe this decoupling in terms of the opening of a space for the potential.

According to psychoanalytic literature, the ability to develop imaginary scenarios and fill them with emotions starts to develop in early infancy and is typically expressed in play. Pretend play is a particular kind of play that specifically involves the use of objects and situations in their material but also symbolic dimension, as-if they stood for something that is actually absent. In the first part of the paper, Winnicott’s (1971) approach to play is discussed, with specific attention to the concept of creativity it involves. We then present a set of hypotheses on which the paper is built, and through these explain why psychoanalytic theory, integrated with results derived from social and developmental psychology, provides us with a theoretical framework that enriches and deepens the analysis of as-if thinking developed in the philosophical and cognitive field.

Despite its importance for play, the relevance of as-if thinking is not limited to childhood. Following Castoriadis’ work (Castoriadis 1975), we suggest that as-if thinking also represents an important channel through which individuals promote social change. In social representation theory, an evolution in the representation of society that individuals share is a fundamental prerequisite for planning and realizing change. Imagining society as if it were different represents a first step in the attempt to exit sclerotic modalities of organizing relationships, meanings, and values that are both openly and tacitly ingrained in institutions. By focusing on, and then re-imagining, the representations that support the current structure of society, individuals discover new interpretative possibilities and are able to create unpredictable ways of responding.

The capacity of social agents to develop innovation is not inherited nor genetically determined, but has to be learned and reinforced through life. In conclusion, we suggest that as-if thinking can make a significant contribution to this capacity if its importance is recognized and encouraged, both in educational and work contexts. At the same time, social change is not a casual, effortless event that develops without authorship. It has an agency, which lies in the individual and group capacity for imaginative thought.

As-If Thinking in Infancy

The concept of “as-if thinking” was principally developed by authors of the psychoanalytic tradition (Fonagy and Target 1996; Isaacs 1989; Winnicott 1971). Psychoanalysis has long recognized the central role of play for psychic development and for the cognitive and affective maturation of the child (Freud 1907; Klein 1930; Milner 1952; Winnicott 1971).

Freud (1907) saw play as aimed at expressing and mastering psychic tension.1 In 1907 he argues:

“We ought to look in the child for the first traces of imaginative activity. The child’s best loved and most absorbing occupation is play. Perhaps we may say that every child at play behaves like an imaginative writer, in that he creates a world of his own or, more truly, he arranges the things of his world and orders it in a new way that pleases him better. It would be incorrect to say that he does not take his world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and expends a great deal of emotions on it. The opposite of play is not serious occupation, but reality” (p. 231).

During play the child builds up an alternative to actuality and learns to control in fantasy emotions and urges that are difficult to master in reality (Courtney 1989).

Freud’s reflections on play show a strong continuity with his analysis of creativity of both ordinary and eminent people (Freud 1907; Freud 1910; Freud 1927). During play children experience pleasure as they have the opportunity to re-create reality in ways that better respond to their wishes. Analogously, an adult constructs dreams and phantasies to express her inner desires2 (Freud 1900).

In the literature on the psychic functions of play, particular attention has been devoted to “pretend play” as a specific form of playing that enhances creativity.

Let us consider an example. A child takes a glass of water from the kitchen table and “uses” it as if it were the swimming pool of her school. A narrative grows around the imaginary swimming pool: spoons and forks are going to bathe in it and then they will sunbathe, stretched out on the serviettes that are on the table and enter the story as if they were towels. During play, the child’s imagination enables her to apprehend reality as if it were different from how it is now. In so doing, she develops and makes use of the symbolic capacity to re-represent objects. Such a capacity is the essence of play and takes place in a specific area of experience that Winnicott has called “transitional” (Winnicott 1953; Winnicott 1971).

While reality and imagination are commonly treated as two separate realms: an external, objective one, versus an internal and subjective other, “the area of playing is not inner psychic reality. It is outside the individual, but it is not the external world” (Winnicott 1971, p. 69). Play unfolds in a third, intermediate space, which is neither solely personal nor solely external, and whose origin is intrinsically affective, for it first arises and acquires meaning in the relationship between an infant and her mother. At the beginning of life, a child is not able to differentiate where she ends and her mother begins, nor what is inside and outside of herself. This capacity, Winnicott argues, emerges gradually through early interactions as the infant begins to understand that her needs and emotions cannot be immediately met because the mother is not an extension of herself. This first form of separation can develop only if the infant’s emotions are mirrored by her mother and reflected back to the child after having been deprived of their destabilizing power (Bion 1962; Winnicott 1971). Mirroring and holding take place in the transitional space, where the infant feels safe enough to remain in deep contact with her emotions. From its very beginning, the transitional area of experiencing has, thus, a relational nature. It is built up in the early inter-subjectivity of baby and mother in order to promote differentiation. Its main function is that of introducing a not-me space through which the child starts learning the boundaries of her identity.

According to Winnicott (1953, 1971), transitional spaces also represent a privileged vertex from which creativity can be explored, for this develops where the boundary between me and not-me exists but is fluid. As we will see in this paper, Winnicott has in mind a form of “everyday creativity” which is potentially present in any human being and is based on imagination, curiosity and affect.3 This kind of creativity presupposes a differentiation, but not a disconnection, between the Self and the Other and is fuelled when these are linked by transitional objects and activities.

How can the Self and the Other be connected and separated at the same time? They are linked because a transitional space could not emerge without the existence of a relationship between them, e.g., between mother and child. They are separated because in the transitional area, the mother does not need to be concretely present: she can be represented by symbols, objects, activities that stand for her and evoke her presence, as if it were real. More importantly, symbols do this in a plurality of forms: the presence of the mother can be felt, represented and re-represented through different means and modalities, thus opening a fundamental space of re-elaboration for the child. For Winnicott, creativity consists in using this plurality of means to feel in deep contact with, and re-create, what is absent.

In Favor of a Psychoanalytic Informed Approach to Creative Thought

Notwithstanding their relationship with play, transitional spaces are not only important in infancy since they also continue to exert a function during the whole life span of individuals (Jovchelovitch 1996). To consider this, we must first explain why psychoanalytic literature on as-if thinking and its integration with concepts that have been introduced by developmental and social psychologists can offer us something unique, and indeed essential, to the comprehension of creativity as interpreted in this paper. In order to do so, we will define a set of hypotheses that constitute the starting point of our analysis. Most of these hypotheses address aspects that seem salient to us but appear to have been poorly represented or only partially developed in other branches of literature on mental simulation, in particular in the cognitive and philosophical field (see Markman et al. 2009, for a comprehensive overview).
  1. 1.

    Emotions and thought are not separate processes that eventually sum up, interfere with each other or interact. Indeed, the ability to think starts developing in early infancy within the relationship between child and mother and can be inhibited when such a relationship is dysfunctional (Bion 1962; Fonagy and Target 1996; Heimann 1952; Stern 2000; Trevarthen 1987; Winnicott 1965). The form it takes and maintains over life, its efficacy, and its subjective peculiarities depend on this unique affective bond. Moreover, the relational/affective nature of thinking is preserved over life. In an adult mind, thinking can be interpreted as the building of an imaginary relationship with an “object” (e.g., a representation) that activates feelings and states of mind. Feelings as well as higher cognitive mechanisms co-participate in the development of thought and the production of knowledge (Bion 1962; Piaget 1954; Vygotsky 1962).

  2. 2.

    The relationship between subjectivity and objectivity is more complex, and indeed richer, than traditionally assumed (Heimann 1952; Milner 1952; Winnicott 1953, 1971). For Winnicott, there exists “an intermediate, transitional area of experiencing – the third part of the life of a human being, a part that we cannot ignore” (Winnicott 1971, p. 3) in which inner and outer reality are differentiated but linked. A great deal of human experience seems to lie “in between” the inner psychic reality and the external world. Transitional objects bridge the fantasy of the child and the materiality of common things: in virtue of their symbolic function, they allow for the representation of something that is actually not there.

  3. 3.

    The symbolic activity which starts developing through play with transitional objects can be interpreted as a first form of creativity, for it involves re-thinking and recreating things as if they were different from the way they appear (Winnicott 1971; Vygotsky 1930/2004). This happens, for example, when a blanket is felt and used as a “symbol” of the mother and of the union with her. From this viewpoint, creativity is interpreted as an everyday, ordinary outcome that springs from the fertile ground of playfulness.4 It consists of making personal sense, of carving a unique, subjective interpretation out of the material that the child, and then the adult, receives as part of their relational world.

  4. 4.

    Making personal sense involves the appropriation and interpretation of reality from a personal viewpoint, with a simultaneous activation of thoughts and feelings, at different levels of consciousness. It has a historical and social dimension, for it requires the existence of other, consolidated interpretations, in terms of a shared stratified culture, that offer a root to personal thought: “Needless to say, from both a developmental and conceptual perspective, there is no possibility for symbolic formation outside of a network of already constituted signifieds. It is upon and within this web that the subject’s work of recreating what is already there takes place. The psychic subject therefore, is neither abstracted from social reality, nor condemned to be a mere reflexion of that social reality. Her task is to handle creatively the permanent tension between a world that, although preceding her, is open to her efforts to be a subject” (Jovchelovitch 1995, p.7).

  5. 5.

    During childhood, one of the most powerful expressions of creativity takes place in play, and in particular, pretend play, which is based on the capacity to be in relationship with objects from a material but also a symbolic dimension (Gardner 1982; Vygotsky 1930/2004; 1933/2002). In Isaacs’ words (1989 p.111), “observation made it clear that spontaneous make-believe play creates and fosters the first forms of ‘as-if’ thinking. In such play, the child re-creates selectively those elements in past situations which can embody his emotional or intellectual need of the present, and adapts the details, moment by moment, to the present play situation. This ability to evoke the past in imaginative play seems to be closely connected with the growth of the power to evoke the future in constructive hypothesis, and to develop the consequences of ‘ifs’. The child’s make-believe play is thus significant not only for the adaptive and creative intentions which when fully developed mark out the artist, the novelist and the poet, but also for the sense of reality, the scientific attitude and the growth of hypothetical reasoning”. By pushing Isaacs’ intuition further, we argue that the capacity to build as-if perspectives is a basic ingredient of creativity in society and social relationships.


Social Change and Social Representations

We will now propose an interpretation of social change that highlights the role of transitional spaces in societal evolution and in which our approach to creativity can be nested. Social change is considered as an eminently endogenous process which requires a dynamic in the representations—whether conscious or not—of subjects, in order to be imagined, sustained and legitimized.

Moscovici (1988, 1994) has pioneered the investigation of the role of social representations in establishing a consensual reality, orienting communication and guiding collective behavior. Jodelet (1991 p.36) defined social representations as “a form of knowledge, socially produced and with a practical function, namely to contribute to the construction of a reality shared by a social group or entity”. Through social representations, daily reality is appropriated and interpreted. Their ‘practical function’ is mainly that of making sense of the world.

Social representations have a structuring power because they provide criteria for interpreting and evaluating behaviors, social roles, and collective needs, and can orient us toward the definitions of problems that are felt and shared collectively (Patalano 2007, 2017). According to the approach suggested above, they are both comprised of beliefs and emotions, affect and ideas: indeed their cognitive and emotional dimensions are intertwined, for mental representation involves the attribution of affective weights/values to the elements of the representation. This aspect has been stressed by Kaës (1984), who attributes the emergence of representations to the use of dream mechanisms of thought, such as condensing and displacement.

Social representations are not developed by single individuals, although they find expression in individual minds and consolidate through mediation among different agents. Interestingly, Jovchelovitch (1996) has interpreted them as potential spaces by suggesting that they require an identity, in terms of a personal interpretation of reality and of one’s sense of Self, in order to be established but offer, at the same time, a space where such identity can evolve through contact with the Other. In her words, “social representations are a “potential space” of common fabrication, where each person goes beyond the realm of individuality to enter another-yet fundamentally related-realm: the realm of public life” (Jovchelovitch 1996 p.7). Not only do social representations emerge through a mediation among different perspectives, needs and individuals but they also constitute this mediation, and in that, their creative potential rests: on the one hand, they demarcate a boundary between the individual and the social texture; on the other, they offer the possibility to re-create such a boundary through the interplay between the individual and the collective dimension of social life.5

The creative functions of representations have been analyzed in depth by Castoriadis (1975), who addressed their roles in institutional contexts. Through the representational capacity of the mind, the individual selects imaginary elements, connects them in a texture and invests emotions in them. In this way she creates meanings and posits values that depend on her experience in time as a member of a specific social group. Representations are born in the relationships with others and evolve through reciprocal interaction. In this, they allow for a process of socialization of imaginary contents that represents the foundation of group life (Lawrence and Valsiner 1993, 2003; Patalano 2007; Zittoun and Gillespie 2016). Moreover, they always require an effort in terms of imaginative thought to be developed. Imagination is in fact a semiotic activity whose products work as signs/signifiers that enables human beings to go beyond the immediacy of experience (Salvatore and Zittoun 2011; Glăveanu 2018).

By defining what reality means for individuals, representations open a space for all the interpretations that are imaginable, thus reflecting the richness of inter-subjective variability. The role of representations in society can be clarified by focusing on their involvement in the genesis and evolution of institutions.

As-If Thinking in Society

In his seminal work, “The Imaginary Institution of Society” (1975), Castoriadis defines an institution as “a socially sanctioned, symbolic network in which a functional component and an imaginary component are combined in variable proportions and relations” (Castoriadis 1975/1987, p. 132). In his view, society institutes itself at two levels. At the imaginative level, social subjects make sense of the world in which they live by representing it in their minds. By so doing, they also build up images of themselves and of the society which could better serve their needs. Through socialization, the images of different subjects come in contact with each other, start to overlap, and become shared, at least partially. When an overlapping, shared nucleus of imaginary content emerges, an institution can be created to address the problems that have been identified as collectively relevant (Patalano 2007).

At the real level, institutions are created to represent, externally, the meanings/significations built up and socialized as mental contents. From this perspective, the emergence of institutions in their concrete form is always preceded by a representational activity that takes place in the realm of imagination and symbols that tie social subjects together.

Let us consider as an example the institution of the minimum wage. The minimum wage is the lowest remuneration that employers may legally pay to workers. Its introduction was first suggested by John Stuart Mill in his “Principles of Political Economy” (1848), but specific legislation was not introduced until 1894, initially in New Zealand, and now in over 90% of countries. Although minimum wage rates vary greatly across countries and jurisdictions, a common representational nucleus may be traced behind their introduction. Such a nucleus includes the socially shared beliefs that all workers have a dignity which deserves protection and that the employers’ profit can be limited by law in order to preserve the workers’ right to dignity. As a prerequisite for the legal institution of a minimum wage, a sufficiently large number of social subjects imagined, shared, and supported a representation of work relationships that are respectful of the right to benefit from the fruits of one’s own work. Without the socialization of such an imaginary content, the concrete/material introduction of a jurisdiction on a minimum wage would not have been possible. We can also observe that the representational activity that precedes the introduction of a minimum wage unfolds, for the most part, on the register of as-if thinking: workers are represented in the mind as if they deserved protection; public policy is seen as if it were an instrument of economic but also social intervention; markets are interpreted as if they could be regulated, at least partially.

On this point, Castoriadis (1975) suggests that the capacity to build up representations does not simply allow us to make sense of, and thus interpret, society as we inherited it by our predecessors. Instead, it offers us the chance to imagine social relationships and institutions differently than they are. Imagination expands the representation of reality beyond data and facts that already exist, as if another modality of organizing society were possible, “by seeing it double”, by seeing what is there and also what it is not (Castoriadis 1996).

Being based on as-if thinking, imagination is a natural ground for inventiveness, for any shift of meaning in which available ways of seeing reality are given a different, unexpected signification and this renders it a fundamental instrument for change. In an imagined scenario, as in a dream, one may experiment with a different modality of structuring social relationships, a different organization of social roles, an altered vision of the Other and even a different identity. When social subjects share a common image of another possible world, they may try to transform their representations in a concrete net of institutions. In fact, a fundamental application of the imaginative potential of human beings can be found, Castoriadis argues, in the evolution of the institutional texture.

In order to understand how as-if thinking can contribute to social change, let us consider the institution of slavery as a further example (Patalano 2010). Far from being merely a concrete way of organizing social relationships, slavery presupposes a representation of society in which an individual can be considered as if he were an object for another individual. For slavery to be institutionalized, such an imaginary content must be developed, shared and legitimized (at least by the parties in power). In support of the recurrent application of slavery in social contexts of the past, asymmetrical modalities of social relationships are valued and deemed possible. Not all men are considered equal: the richest, by virtue of his wealth, considers the poor as if he were an object to be appropriated. In order to abolish slavery, the social representation in which a man can be appropriated as if he were an object must evolve and change.

The emergence of novelty at the social and institutional level rests on the capacity to envision new modalities of structuring self-being and social relationships, and imagination is a crucial tool for this mental shift. It offers the unique chance to exit stereotyped, sedimented ways of seeing “the Self” and “the Other”, and to access new ones.

From the Cradle to Society and the Way Back

Winnicott introduced the concept of transitional space to describe an area of inter-subjective and affective exchange, which emerges in the context of “good-enough mothering” (Winnicott 1953). This area demarcates a first form of boundary between the child and the mother, me and not me, which is reinforced by the capacity to symbolize which the child acquires gradually. Play is the most typical activity that characterizes transitional spaces and enhances their potentiality. Through play, and in particular pretend play, the child can make use of imagination interpreting objects, people—but also ideas, perceptions, and rudimental memories—as if they were symbols of something which is actually absent. Reality and imagination work in tandem and their inextricable interaction offers the chance to signify the world and the affective relationships that compose it.

Transitional phenomena are not only important in infancy but continue to exert a function along the whole life span of individuals. Winnicott (1967) suggests that people live in three worlds: the inner, the outer, and the transitional and the latter becomes through life the area of “cultural experience” which includes play and humor but also art, music, religion philosophy, mathematics as they have developed and been ingrained in the “accumulated culture of the past five to ten thousand years.” We can imagine that once the child has grown up, she stops using games but maintains playfulness—its atmosphere, its potentialities—when engaging in cultural activities.

Two observations are worthy of note. First, transitional spaces remain affective in nature for they are the place where a sense of confidence and trust can be experienced, and where anything that happens has to do with the Self in relationship with a “significant Other”, whether real or symbolized. In infancy, the significant Other is a caregiver, usually the mother; in adulthood it is the whole nest of social relationships in which the individual is embedded that is invested by affective value. The child’s engagement with “objects”—artifacts, instruments of play, cultural symbols or people—remains a relational and affective one, throughout her life.

Second, as already argued in section III, Winnicott refers to a concept of creativity that is very different from the idea of an exclusive gift inherited by a limited number of extraordinary people. It is different in two main respects. Creativity is not a gift but a capability that can be acquired and developed by anybody who grows in a facilitating environment (Fonagy and Target 1996). It is not reserved to extraordinary individuals, although there can be different levels of creativity among people. It is an everyday resource that consists of the personal appropriation and re-signification of cultural materials. Through creativity, the subject defines his identity and finds an active modality of expressing his unique and original perspective on life (Zittoun and Gillespie 2016). In fact, everyday creativity involves a constructive modality of relationship with the external world in which agency plays a key role. In such a modality of relationship, we do not see ourselves as passive and we do not have to accept external conditions without margins of participation. On the contrary, we can participate in a relationship with others and with facts by transferring our needs and specificities in it, without being overwhelmed or annihilated.

Moreover, as Winnicott points out, the ability to see what we encounter in a new and personal way, without rendering it meaningless, remains significant well beyond infancy. It is instrumental to feeling alive and rewarded in our relationship with reality, which already exists and precedes us.

On the one hand, starting from birth, we have an important creative capacity, which changes form over the course of our lives but whose function remains the same: to give meaning to the world, at the point it is introduced to us or reaches us (Patalano 2016). On the other hand, the future of creativity after childhood is open. It can fade or be developed further depending on the recognition and appreciation it receives.

For Winnicott, after childhood, the most vital part of human beings’ life continues to take place “in between,” in a space where subjectivity and objectivity are differentiated but connected. This intrinsically social dimension of individuality—due to which an individual needs an area of exchange with the Other, at either or both the material or symbolic levels in order to be creative—amplifies when we take the whole social arena into consideration. In society, creativity acquires a transformative potential that transcends the boundaries of the individual world and defines the possibility to engage in change.

As we argued, change requires a dynamic in social representations in order to be felt as important, thought and realized. Such a dynamic starts in the representations that people share about society. Does society respond to their needs? Do institutions mirror their priorities? If not, how could the image of society be changed in order to better reflect the meanings and values that characterize a specific socio-historical context? In order to find an answer, society must be imagined as if it were different, in this or that respect. The way of organizing social relationships, roles, powers, and identities must be de-constructed and then re-signified. Imagination has a key role in allowing for novel, original perspectives to emerge.

From this viewpoint, as-if thinking that we learn to use in infancy when our capacity to symbolize starts to develop can give a simple, yet profound, contribution to the understanding of social evolution. At the root of this evolution, the same mechanism that is involved in pretend play activates: a symbolic re-representation/re-signification of what already exists, that aims at imagining something different and more aligned to shared feelings.


The capacity to imagine things otherwise than they are is crucial for the generation of novelty. At the same time, this capacity is highly influenced by our experiences in life: it must be acquired, can be reinforced or diminished, depending also on the investment that we and others in our relational context make in it.

By talking about creativity as a personal appropriation of cultural material, we have attributed a specific importance to infancy because it is the phase of the life in which we learn to use symbolization and playfulness. As-if thinking as involved in pretend play is a good example of a childhood activity whose creative use will remain significant throughout the life span. Children who grow up in a secure affective environment develop such capacity spontaneously. But still they can make use of it and reinforce their ability, or let it fade and vanish depending on the stimuli they receive. Analogously, work and social environments can be more or less open to imaginative individuals, can enhance and reward inventiveness or discourage it.

In our view, investing in imagination is far-sighted. As-if thinking co-participates in the evolution of social textures by allowing for the construction, de-construction and re-construction of representations of society that are shared collectively and bind social members together. Without the capacity to imagine things differently, human beings would be trapped in a vision of the world that is not challenged by innovation, and hence cannot be changed. The duality between an as-is and an as-if perspective on reality needs to be valued and preserved in order to promote the generation of novel modalities of interpreting and behaving.

Since the capacity to be creative is not inherited and given once and for all, but rather has to be learned and reinforced through time, a first conclusion of this paper concerns the importance of investing in imagination at various level of society, from the political to the managerial and educational and throughout the life span of individuals. More interdisciplinary research on this topic is needed in order to identify concrete areas of intervention.

At the same time, future inquiry should not be limited to the individual only. Although as-if thinking may appear as a “private” resource, its sociocultural background and effects should not be undervalued, as we tried to suggest. Every human group develops through the imaginative capacity of its member and through the imaginative capacity of the group as a whole.

As far as institutional and social contexts are considered, there is no need to bring imagination into them as imagination is already there as a personal and collective resource that contributes to interpret reality, make sense of it, build up future scenarios. What we certainly need, however, is to recognize the presence of imagination, become aware of its pervasiveness and revalue its roles.

Within institutions spaces may be created and even “bureaucratized” in order to foster contact among the imaginations of different people, thus enhancing the creativity of collective thought. As-if thinking may also be intentionally used as an instrument to envision plural possible futures, instead of only a single stereotyped one, and to define the institutions’ resources in different scenarios. We suggested elsewhere, for example, that imagination can be a valuable instrument in the institutions that work for national defense and in the arena of conflictual geo-political scenarios (Patalano 2017).

A further suggestion of the paper concerns the idea that future research on imagination should take not only potentialities but also its eventual “pathology” into account.

Castoriadis (1996) warned us of a risk that, far from being hypothetical, was in his view a concrete and possible degeneration of the Western culture, “the exhaustion of imagination”. With this expression, he described the situation of a socioeconomic system that is unable to rethink its values and imagine trajectories of possible development. A society that is not able to imagine cannot have a future other than its present and is condemned to repetition rather than evolution. Far from having only a speculative significance, imagination failures can have concrete and relevant implications (Patalano 2017; Bianchi and Patalano 2017).

In the developmental perspective that the title of the paper suggests—from the cradle to society—it seems particularly important to ask ourselves what would happen in a scenario of individuals that have lost the capacity of as-if thinking completely, or are able to use it only partially. Defining a pathology of imaginative thought could help us to identify possible remedies and to invest on prevention with more efficacy and awareness of the problem.


  1. 1.

    This view has been recently extended by Bretherton (1989) according to whom emotion regulation is the primary function of pretend play (Lillard et al. 2013).

  2. 2.

    From this point of view, an artist is not different from a dreamer: for both, creativity springs from the tension between reality and unconscious drives and aims at expressing unconscious wishes in a socially accepted manner. However, Freud recognizes also that the phantasies of a “man of literary talent” give us pleasure when we come in touch with them, whereas the phantasies of an ordinary day-dreamer may be boring, or even disturbing (1907). In facts, the artist is able to elaborate her unconscious thoughts so that they lose what is too personal about them and become significant for others. By doing so, the artist allows spectators to share the enjoyment that derives from her creative endeavors.

  3. 3.

    Many studies have associated creativity with genius and with extraordinary capacities that belong to few, gifted individuals. Glăveanu (2010) argued that three main paradigms dominated the literature on the topic:, the “He-paradigm”, “I-paradigm” and “the We-paradigm”. “The He-paradigm, based on individuality, insight, outstanding ability and fertility of the genius (Mason 2003), gives an elitist account of creativity” (p.3). The relationship between the genius and the community is not considered and the genius is often represented as a misunderstood, or antisocial person. In the I-paradigm the genius is replaced by the individual: “Everyone is capable of being creative since it is no longer a capacity of the few chosen by God, biology or unique psychological features” (ibidem, p. 4). At the same time, this approach “generated partial theoretical models that explore individual cognition and personality in a social vacuum and conceptualize creativity as a quality of the lone individual” (ibidem, p. 5). It is only with the advent of the We-paradigm that the cultural and social dimensions of creativity have gained growing attention, with specific reference to “the social and cultural working from within the creative person and process” (ibidem p. 8). Winnicott’s approach to creativity is syntonic with this last paradigm.

  4. 4.

    The concept of “ordinary creativity” has been interestingly analyzed by Glăveanu (2011, 2015, 2017, 2018), who stresses its potential “extraordinary effects,” in particular for “the maintenance and constant re-generation of human culture” (Glăveanu 2010, p.16).

  5. 5.

    “A representation is the activity of someone, who constructs a psychic substitution of something which is alter, other, to oneself. The subject and the object, therefore, do not coincide. There is a difference between them, and in order to bridge this difference, a representation emerges. This process does not involve a mirroring between the subject and the object; rather, it involves at one and the same time a work of constructing links and preserving differentiation between self and alterity. A representation links self and other and yet, by the same token, it differentiates self and other, for a representation is something that stands in place of something else. Representation is both a mediation that links presence and absence and a boundary that, in separating what is present from what is absent, allows for differentiation and meaning to emerge” (Jovchelovitch 1996, p. 9–10).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Parthenope University of NaplesNaplesItaly
  2. 2.RomaItaly

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