Thursday Program
Imagination and the Adapted Mind
Friday Program

Ellen Dissanayake
1605 E. Olive Street, #104
Seattle WA 98122

Becoming Homo Aestheticus:
Sources of Aesthetic Imagination in Mother-Infant Early Interactions
(revised 13 August 1999)

In mother-infant early interactions -- the familiar activity commonly known as "babytalk" -- infants from birth to six months display remarkable abilities to engage reciprocally with adults. Studies of these interactions offer fruitful insights into the ontogeny of what cognitive scientists call imaginary representations (what a layperson might call aesthetic imagination), an instance of the larger phenomenon of "decoupled cognition."

Four features of early interactions are described as being particularly relevant to understanding the development of aesthetic imagination: imitation as relational (occurrring interactively between a pair); neural processing as crossmodal, supramodal, and nonverbal; sociality and affiliative reinforcement; and play as "comparison."

Normal infants display a spectrum of inherent capacities for imitation -- from their earliest interactive matching or mirroring of behavior to subsequent pretense and imaginative play. It is concluded that the antecedents of imaginary representations do not arise in infants without the active participation of a partner. One can also say that infants' normal receptivity to interaction with a partner leads naturally to developing shared imaginary representations, and that these appear to serve initially as reinforcements of affiliation. Mother-infant interpersonal exchange is the earliest communicative system, and a scaffolding for all subsequent social communication -- including eventual spoken language and imaginary representations such as the arts.

Thus decoupled cognition, in this sense, is neither an evolutionary nor a cognitive "problem." Pretense (or "the unreal") is first experienced within a "real," shared context, by means of analogical intermodal representations that have intrinsic and pervasive emotional valences or overtones. Moreover, the importance to early interactions of expectation or anticipation, dependent on infant receptivity to maternal presentation of dynamically varied, temporally patterned sequences, suggests that, for adults (as well as infants), nonverbal "emotional narrative" that unfolds in time is as integral to the content and effect of imaginary representations -- fiction, poetry, and related arts -- as are their imagery, plot, and other more easily describable components.

Selected Background Reading

Beebe, Beatrice, Lachman, Frank and Joseph Jaffe. 1997. Mother-infant interaction structures and presymbolic self and object representations. Psychoanalytic Dialogues 7, 2: 133-182.

Nadel, Jacqueline. 1996. Early interpersonal timing and the perception of social contingencies. Infant Behavior and Development 19 (Special ICIS Issue), 202.

Stern, Daniel. 1985. The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books.

Trevarthen, Colwyn. 1993. The function of emotions in early infant communication and development, pp. 48-81 in J. Nadel and L. Camaioni (Eds.), New Perspectives in Early Communicative Development. London: Routledge.

Trevarthen, Colwyn. 1994. The self born in intersubjectivity: The psychology of an infant communicating, pp. 121-173 in U. Neisser (Ed.), The Perceived Self: Ecological and Interpersonal Soueces of Self-Knowledge. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Ellen Dissanayake is an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, whose approach to the arts synthesizes many disciplines, but is underpinned by the viewpoint of evolutionary biology. She is the author of three books, What Is Art For? (1988); Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (1992), and Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began (1999, forthcoming), all published by the University of Washington Press. She has taught at the New School for Social Research in New York, Sarah Lawrence College, The National Arts School in Papua New Guinea, and the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka. In 1997, she was Emens Distinguished Professor of the Arts at Ball State University in Indiana, and in 1998, Distinguished Visiting Speaker at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. She was Fulbright Senior Scholar in Sri Lanka in 1992-93, and in 1994-95, spent fourteen months as a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Her interests in part emerge from the years she has lived and worked in non-Western countries, among them Sri Lanka (for over a decade), Nigeria, India, Madagascar, and Papua New Guinea. A native Washingtonian, she currently resides in Seattle.

In addition to the above books, her selected published writings include:

1980. Art as a human behavior: Toward an ethological view of art, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 38/4, 397-406.

1982. Aesthetic experience and human evolution, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 41/2, 145-55.

1984. Does art have selective value? Empirical Studies of the Arts II, 1:35-49.

1992. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. Seattle: University of Washington Press, esp. Ch. VI: Empathy Theory Reconsidered, and Ch. VII: Does Writing Erase Art?

1995. Chimera, spandrel, or adaptation: Conceptualizing art in human evolution. Human Nature 6:2, 99-117.

1995. The pleasure and meaning of making, American Craft 55,2: 40-45.

1995. Reflecting on the past: Implications of prehistory and infancy for art therapy, ARTherapy 12, 1: 17-23.

1996. Darwin meets literary theory: Critical discussion," Philosophy and Literature 20:1, 229- 239.

1998. Komar and Melamid discover Pleistocene taste. Philosophy and Literature 22, 2: 486- 496.

1998. The beginnings of artful form, Surface Design Journal 22:2, 4-6.

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Thursday Program
Imagination and the Adapted Mind
Friday Program