Paul L. Harris, Ph.D.'s  picture
Paul L. Harris, Ph.D.
Victor S. Thomas Professor of Education
Harvard Graduate School of Education

Who Needs Imagination?

An Interview with Professor Paul Harris

Originally published in Usable Knowledge, a web site of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Paul Harris is a faculty member in the Human Development and Psychology area at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Miranda Christou of the Office of International Education conducted this interview, which was originally published in the Winter 2002 edition of the International Education newsletter.

Q: What have been the most surprising things you have learned from your research on children and imagination?

A: The message in my book The Work of the Imagination sums it up like this: suppose we think of pretend play and fantasy as something that’s quite characteristic of young children — it makes them playful and endearing but doesn’t really contribute to their later cognitive development and by adulthood it has in some sense disappeared. I tried to argue that this is wrong. Human beings have a gift for fantasy, which shows itself at a very early age and then continues to make all sorts of contributions to our intellectual and emotional life throughout the lifespan.

To give you some examples, imagination helps us to make causal judgments about how things might have turned out differently. Historians also do this and so do we with respect to our own decisions. If something goes wrong in life, then we ask ourselves where we went wrong. The imagination allows us to engage in thinking about alternatives in this prosaic form.

In making moral judgments we also think about alternatives. We look at something that has happened and we ask how it could have been done better or differently. And again we are exercising our imagination.

And then a third domain is simply language comprehension. There is a great deal of work showing that when adults listen to a narrative they build in their mind’s eye, so to speak, a mental image or a model of the situation that is being described and of the events that unfold. And it’s that mental model that they retain over a long period of time rather than the particular words. The ability to construct such models in the imagination is, in my view, something that emerges from these very early capacities that children show to engage in pretend play and to think about a time and place that is removed from their current situation.

So, depending on how you define the imagination, you can either see it as disappearing or waning during childhood or you can see it the way I do, as persisting throughout life.

Q: How is that related to the construction of memories and the role that imagination plays in enriching certain memories?

A: There is some very interesting work looking at the way young children gradually become able to reminisce about events with their parents; often it’s the mother. Some of this work suggests that part of the reason why we gradually build up endearing memories is indeed because we engage in this reminiscence process. For example, the child of 18 months seems to have some kind of recall of earlier events; but most of those memories fade away because they simply don’t get reminisced about. When parents refer back to an event that they shared with their child and elaborate upon it, inviting the child to think about aspects of the experience that may have not occurred to the child, the memories ultimately become richer, more complicated, and indeed more persistent by virtue of the elaboration that the parents offer.

Of course, you can also find circumstances in which conversation or reminiscence can be so enriching as to distort memory. You could even plant memories. There are cases of people thinking that something happened to them but actually what happened to them is really an act of the imagination. One famous case involved Piaget. Up until a certain period in his life he had a vivid childhood memory of an attempted kidnap in the park. His nurse was allegedly brave and prevented this from happening. But years later, the nurse confessed that she had invented this episode. From a psychological point of view, it’s interesting because Piaget had this genuine memory only to discover that he must have fabricated it on the strength of the discussion that had taken place within the family about this alleged kidnapping.

I am interested in those phenomena in which memory and imagination intermingle. If you compare human beings to other species, other species presumably have a reasonable memory for events; they can remember things that happened to them but they can never discuss those things. Human beings are blessed ultimately with two sources of information: their own powers of observation and the opportunity to discuss things with other people. So, it looks as if mother nature has endowed us with a memory system that can integrate those two sources of information: language-based information and first hand observation. And sometimes we can’t tell them apart.

Q: How did your comparative work with autistic children lead you to the study of imagination?

A: In the mid 1970s, I was working in Holland in a department that was training a large group of clinical developmental psychologists. The faculty was connected to a residential school/hospital for emotionally disturbed children. That provided me with a stimulus and an opportunity to start looking at emotional development, but being a cognitive developmental psychologist, I approached it in a relatively cognitive fashion by trying to look at the way children themselves make sense of their own emotions.

And that ultimately led to a book that was called Children and Emotion. That book was actually a wider current that we tend to think of now as research on the child’s theory of mind. So the question became not just how the child makes sense of his or her own emotion or of any mental state, be it a state of desire or belief or memory or perception. That work then widened out to embrace comparative studies of normal children and children with autism.

Children with autism are very interesting for several reasons. First of all, they notoriously have difficulty making connections with other people, making sense of their lives and their own lives. Secondly, they are usually impoverished in their ability to engage in pretend play. That started me thinking about pretend play and what it might or might not contribute. The classic authors in developmental psychology, people like Piaget or Freud, portray early fantasy and early pretend as something that is immature and will be outgrown. Piaget describes this narcissistic self absorption of unrealistic fantasies and he talks about pretend play as a form of associative thinking that will eventually disappear as the child becomes more objective. But if you look at children with autism and see how restricted their imagination is, you are forced to the conclusion that imagination is probably something that we can’t do without, and not something that we need to overcome.

So that led me to start thinking more carefully about normal children’s pretend play and the continuities that there might be between what we see in young children and what we see in adulthood. To take one intriguing continuity, children and adults alike become very absorbed in stories and films and plays. Yet psychologists haven’t spent much time thinking about that.

Q: Given all these interests, what does your move to a school of education imply about the kind of work that you are hoping to do here [at HGSE]?

A: I’m still a developmental psychologist, even having crossed the Atlantic to come here. I do think that developmental psychology has a lot to contribute to the way we think about teaching. That’s perhaps especially true as we now think much more about what we can offer to young children before they go to school. We are not constrained by any particular curriculum and so we have an opportunity to think carefully about what we would like to nurture, without having to look over our shoulder at various tests. It’s exciting that [HGSE] is trying to build up its strength with respect to early childhood and I see the role of developmental psychology as giving students the opportunity to think through the whole gamut of a young child’s capacities: not just curricular skills such as reading and arithmetic, but how the child develops emotionally, morally, imaginatively, linguistically and so forth. So, the course that I gave last term was an effort to paint a very rounded picture of young children.

Q: What would you say are some of the international dimensions of your work?

A: It has always intrigued me how many of the issues I study or have studied are specific to a particular culture, especially Western culture. I pursued that question in a variety of ways, certainly when I was doing work on emotion. Some of the work was started in Holland but that’s of course not such a stretch from the U.K. or the United States. We also did work in Nepal, interviewing children in a very remote village. Some of the work was done in Japan and some in China partly because the anthropological literature suggests that emotion socialization and the values that surround the display of emotion may vary importantly from culture to culture. And indeed you could argue that the very notion of what counts as a basic emotion also vary from culture to culture.

As it happened, the research that I did identified universals rather than cross-cultural differences. To give you a case in point: I was interested in when children start to realize that you can choose not to express your emotions, you can conceal them from other people, so in that sense your emotions can be private. We wondered whether the timetable for that appreciation might be different, for example, in Japan, which the anthropological literature suggests is more emphatic about the need to monitor certain emotional displays. Although there were some differences, the ultimate developmental milestone was rather similar. Three- to four-year olds have a good deal of difficulty in making the distinction between emotions that you express to the outside world and the experience that you might be having inside you. By six years of age, that distinction is pretty well articulated. It’s true in Japan, it’s true in the U.K. and in North America as well. So that’s an example of a surprising universal.

Q: Looking to the future, what are your research plans?

A: I’m interested in the fact that there are lots of things that children can’t experience firsthand. For example, they can’t experience the history of their country or of their family. They have to be told about it. They can’t experience the history of their species, and if they are going to learn about biology and evolution they have to be told about it. They can’t really, unless they are extraordinary, draw any conclusions about, let’s say, the shape of the earth. They have to learn by testimony that it’s round as opposed to flat. And then there are all sorts of things which are too small to observe, be they vitamins or germs. Yet children have conversations about these entities a lot. And then of course there are metaphysical references; people talk to young children about life after death or God. My feeling is that a lot of developmental psychology is predicated on the assumption that children learn things by getting stuck into concrete, tangible materials, making observations, and drawing conclusions. This is the sort of message you get if you read Piaget’s work: the stubborn autodidact model. But it’s not just Piaget; it’s people like Montessori or Rousseau. There is a strong tradition that says that children learn best if you leave them to their own devices and let them play.

Up to a point, when we think of young children in preschool environments, we think that this is an important part of their learning. And no doubt it is. But I want to say that human beings and young children clearly have the opportunity to learn all sorts of other things and they can only learn those from other people. So part of what I’d like to do in the next few years is to study more carefully how it is that children can learn from what I call testimony, that is, listening to people tell them things about events, episodes, entities that they can’t observe for themselves. I like working with preschool children but this is the kind of topic that might oblige me to work with older children because one of the questions it raises is the following: to the extent that children are given all sorts of information about the world, they have to start discriminating amoung their informants. They have to start thinking about who is telling them the truth, who is offereing rhetoric or propaganda. How do children start to realize that some people are more objective and some people are more evangelical than others? How do they come to make judgments about who is a reliable teacher or informant? Given that we tend to think of young children as figuring things out for themselves, I don’t think we have yet asked questions about the many things that they can’t figure out for themselves.