Joseph Chilton Pearce on Language Development, Storytelling and Imagination


Editor’s note:  In response to the new study that calls into question the need for closing the language development gap, a better understanding of the process of language development and the purpose of  language from seminal thinker, Joseph Chilton Pearce is presented below.  While the New York Times article featuring this new study calls for more pre-school programs, Joe’s work shows the language capacity is set by 18 months. Would pre-school programs be a waste?  Are there other ways to support families that would allow for the early bonding needed to develop the language capacity?  What about supporting families in early bonding with a family leave act?  The United States is the only developed nation that does not support parents with a Family Leave Act.  What do you think?

Read more about Joseph Chilton Pearce’s work and watch interviews with him over three decades on Touch the Future.



From the seventh month in utero, before a child is born, every word the mother says brings about a muscular response in the infant. A word is just a vibration of sound, and each vibration is called a phoneme. From the very beginning, there is this intimate connection between body, body movement, the brain and the formation of word structures. By the time the child is born in the world, this muscular response is myelinated—locked in as a permanent pattern.

For the first few months, what we call the in‑arms‑period, the eyes have it. Things aren’t auditory half so much as they are visual in those early months. Why? Because we couldn’t develop vision in utero. So the first few months, immediately after their birth, everything is visual to that child. They are looking, looking, looking, absorbing enormous amounts about their visual world. Around 6 to 12 months, they have what Jean Piaget called “object constancy.” He was wrong in his idea of what was happening, but he was right that it does take place. The child’s visual world simply, suddenly stabilizes. This is brought about by myelination of the axons involved in all sorts of other maturation processes.

magical child

Somewhere around the first year of life, the sensory fields of the brain—the auditory and visual fields—stabilize and mature enough so that this total entrainment locked in on the visual process is no longer needed. That’s when we shift into the great limbic structure, and this emotional child appears. Language and walking appear. Let’s look at the growth of language itself, and the relationship between word and thing. I love the work of Blurton Jones, working with Nikolaas Tinbergen, the Nobel laureate, in the cross‑cultural study of the pointing syndrome. When a little child is in his own nest, he thinks anything is safe to interact with; he will just jump right in on it. He wants to taste it, touch it, smell it, feel it and immediately say, “What is that, mama? What is that, Daddy?” The child is asking for a name label for the object.

When you give him a name, the word and the thing build into the brain as a single neural pattern. The brain does not build a neural network of the thing—its taste, touch, smell, feel and quality—and then, in addition, add to this its name as though the name were a separate item. The name builds in as an integral part of the whole “structure of knowledge,” as Piaget calls it. A structure of knowledge is a neural pattern that results from the child’s interaction with an object or an event of his or her physical world. The brain responds to each experience by creating these structures of knowledge. The name and the thing build as a single unit.

We call this “concrete language.” The word doesn’t stand for the thing; the word and the thing are the same to the early child. Ask a 2‑year-old child to say the word hand, and she’ll move her hand when she says it. Because hand means something very tangible, something very concrete. Children at this early age can’t deal with abstractions.

The child is impelled. He is driven, by nature, to interact with the object and build a structure of knowledge about it.

Naming the Object

When you take the child out in the open, away from the nest, all mammalian animals respond the same way. Blurton Jones did cross‑cultural studies of this. Here is the mama and the child. The child spots an object: Let’s say it’s a dirty, nasty, old dog. The child will stop, if he has never seen one before, point toward the object, and silently turn around and stare at the caretaker, whoever it is—grandma, papa, mama—and wait for some kind of a signal from the parent that they perceive this particular object. Getting that signal, the child interacts: to taste it, touch it, smell it, feel it, talk to it, etc., and build what we call a sensory motor structure of knowledge of that object. And, of course, he immediately wants to know the name: “What is that, mama?”

Let’s suppose that it’s a dirty, nasty, awful looking, old mongrel dog. Mama says, “Don’t dare touch that dirty, nasty, old dog.” Her acknowledgment of the dog is all the child needs. This is the model imperative. (The model imperative: The brain has built into its structures an unlimited capacity to learn. Which capacity is activated and developed is dependent on the model environment. A child born to deaf parents, who does not come into contact with spoken language, will not speak, even though the child is capable of speaking. A child born in a French-speaking family will speak French, not Japanese. That is the model imperative.) The child must have some verification that the mother is interacting and perceiving this object. In this case, the child rushes over to interact with the dirty, nasty, old dog. Mama saying “don’t,” hasn’t anything to do with it. The child is impelled. He is driven, by nature, to interact with the object and build a structure of knowledge about it.

Now, the mother’s emotional state of that—her horror, alarm, etc.—builds into the structure of knowledge as an integral part of it. Her name for the object—“dirty, nasty, old dog”—is built into the structure of knowledge. All of that is without any evaluation on the part of the child. If it’s a beautiful flower and the mother smiles and the child rushes over to pull it off its stem, stuff it in his mouth, taste it, touch it, smell it, feel it and so on, then it builds the mother’s emotional state of approval into the structure of knowledge. That, along with the word flower.

One of the most interesting phenomena that Blurton Jones found was what he called the “hallucinatory capacity” of the early child. He found in many hundreds of cases over years, all over the world, that a child would point toward an object that he could see, and that, apparently, the mother couldn’t see. And the child would keep pointing and pointing, silently looking back, trying to get some response, and would not interact, unless he got some kind of response from the mother. But the mother can’t make any response, positive or negative, because she is not perceiving that object.

This is part of the brain’s selectivity. It selects, out of an infinite realm of possibility, those phenomena which are shared by the parent. So that high degree of selectivity by which we know the brain certainly does operate, is partly organized by the model imperative. What we perceive will determine what that child perceives, which does not deny in any way that there is actually something to see.

Now, when that child grows up, and his child wants to interact with a certain category phenomena, that will not be part of that parent’s perceptual system, and he won’t give a response, and so we find that a culture or a tradition will screen from all infinite possibilities, those which then make up that cultural worldview.

Now, when that child grows up, and his child wants to interact with a certain category phenomena, that will not be part of that parent’s perceptual system, and he won’t give a response, and so we find that a culture or a tradition will screen from all infinite possibilities, those which then make up that cultural worldview.

The Word Is the Object

If we look at this phenomena of word and thing as a single unit in the brain—which, as far as we know, is unique to humans—what is its value? This is one of the most profound discoveries, I think, of all evolutionary processes.

If these are built in as the same neural structures, they refer to the same sensory maps of the brain. Word and thing are an integrated unit in the brain system. What does this mean? The child will move her hand when she says the word hand. She will automatically start to sit down if she says the words “sit down” at age two, when children are just learning all this.

Suppose you use the word in absence of the thing, when the thing is not coming in through the sensory system, but the word is? Here is a vibration which is going to resonate with a previously established vibratory set of responses in the brain. It will activate those responses—just the word, just the name itself—and in absence of the thing, what does the brain do? It creates a facsimile of it. It creates the next best substitute we can come up with.

The brain will create an inner sensory image in the absence of an exterior one. Here is where words stimulate not the sensory motor system, and not the emotional cognitive system, but the highest cortical systems of the brain. To do what? To create, out of its own processes, an image. Do you see the profound difference? We are not just processing what the reptilian brain and all the other animal brains can do, but creating an image that doesn’t exist at all, in response to a name of that thing that does exist.

This leads us into play and imagination. As the adult uses all of these words, what starts happening in the child’s mind? It starts responding with internal imagery in every case that it can. And that leads us to storytelling and table talk to the early child.

We had eight children in my family, and nearly always a lot of guests. It was a great big table, always filled with a lot of people, and adult table talk. I loved it. I didn’t understand any of it, but I loved it. I would see all these worlds that would form inside my mind, stimulated by the words and feelings the adults were using. Their descriptions triggered in my mind internal images of what they were talking about.

The Importance of Storytelling

The job is so enormous that children go into total entrainment. All of the energy moves into this creation of inner imagery. They go catatonic. Their bodies stop all movement, their jaws drop down, their eyes get great big and wide, and they are literally not in this world. Their eyes are wide open, but they are not looking at anything outwardly. They are looking at the marvelous world that is forming within.

I have heard people say, “Oh, I can’t think in imagery at all. I have no capacity for internal images.” Believe me, your brain thinks in imagery. One of the most interesting discoveries made recently—and, of course, it’s still hypothetical—is that the capacity of the brain to operate depends entirely on imagery. Imagery is the brain’s operating system. The discovery that even congenitally blind children think in images is kind of interesting. Congenitally blind teenagers can even solve spatial, geometric organizational problems far better than seeing children. Why? Because they have developed such an acutely accurate, internal imagery process.

We find that storytelling challenges the brain to create entirely new routing every time. Every new story means new neural connections must be made between all the fields involved in imagery, creating vast sensory maps in the brain. New fields must be established with each story. The brain has to continually expand its neural connections. Remember, the neural connections are what count—not just the number of neurons, but the number of neural connections. And so, each new story demands what? A completely new re‑routing of the neural patterns themselves. It means the brain has to continually expand and expand its operations—auditory, visual, sensory fields, and all the rest of it—with each story.

Projecting Onto the External World

Kindred TextWhy does the child want to hear the same story, over and over and over? Any time a field establishes longrange connections with other fields, this requires long-range axons. And it’s those that must be myelinated— that is, firmly established—to lock in a pattern and preserve the activities of that particular neural field and its capacities. Once these fields stabilize and those connections become firm, then the child will want to move on to another story. Once the neural fields are stabilized, the child will want to act out the imagery—act out the inner world they have created. This completes the circuitry.

The stimulus has come in, and they have created the internal world…and now they want to take the internal world and project it back out onto their external world. As Lev Vygotsky, the great Russian psychologist, said, “They want to modify the external world by the internal world, and play in a world of their own creation.”

When our little toddler was about 14 months old, we would tell her the three bears story over and over, until I was sick of the three bears. One evening, as we sat at the table, she took a bite of dinner and said, “Oh, it’s too hot, we must go for a walk in the forest.” She had represented her plate of food as a bowl of porridge, and immediately, I was Papa Bear, here was Mama Bear, and she was Baby Bear, and we are going for a walk in the forest. What had she done? She created an internal world, stabilized it, and wanted to take the internal and project it back onto the external world, and change her external world according to the dictates of her own inner construction.

This little tiny child discovered this great secret: that her own internal capacities of creation can modify and make a profound difference in her own external world. And upon this—the capacity to imagine—her future, and the future of our world, depend.

The Swedish Pediatrics Institute came out with a study showing that children with imagination were far less prone to violence than children without imagination. Why? Because the child without imagination is subject to the immediate sensory environment bombarding them, without any alternatives. If his sensory environment is unpleasant, demeaning, insulting or threatening, his survival drive gives him no choice but to immediately lash out against the threatening sensory input, and try to change it. Whereas, the child with imagination will immediately create an alternative inner scenario in which she doesn’t have to undergo all that. She can create an alternative to it. And through that, she can sift through and find an alternative mode of response, a behavior that is not violent and that doesn’t react to the violence with more violence, but reacts with much higher cortical structures. The child without imagination is operating out of purely ancient, reptilian sensory motor response patterns of defense against a hostile world. Whereas the child with imagination is using much higher evolutionary cortical structures, for doing what? Creating an inner world in which this is not the case, but in which something else is taking place. When looking at the massive rise of violence today, don’t forget the collapse of descriptive language and storytelling in early childhood, which has been pushed out by sensory motor visual images on screens.


Learning By Doing

This brings us to imitative play, and why a child’s first few years are totally centered around imagination and play (imagination being the creation of internal images not present to the sensory system, stimulated by symbols and metaphor). This is all they want to do. They passionately want to play or be told stories, and nothing else.

What is imitative play? The little toddler sees mama making cookies, with a great, big mixing bowl. Immediately, monkey see, monkey do—the model imperative —she wants to do the same. But she can’t. It’s too big a bowl, too big a spoon; she can’t manage. So what does she do? She sees the outer model image, and creates her own internal scenario where she is the model, and then looks for some way to project it onto her external world and act this imagery out. She acts out this image she has made of herself in that role. She picks up a little jar top, a little stick, finds some mud or sand, or maybe Play-Doh, throws it in, and talks a blue streak the entire time, because all early child play is verbal. Why?

One object, the jar top, stands for another object, the great big mixing bowl. The little stick stands for the great spoon, where she, the little tiny shrimp, stands for the great big, magnificent mother. Now, the Greek word metapherein gives us our word, metaphor, which means transference, literally the transference of meaning. It refers to one object standing for another object. Metaphoric, symbolic thinking is the ability to use one object to represent something else, and this is the foundation of all higher learning. There is no exception to this. Take a word printed on a piece of paper. From here to eternity, these marks on paper, brought in through the sensory motor system, have no meaning. They are utterly meaningless to this system.

To a person not trained and schooled in them, they will have no meaning. In order to give them meaning, they must be transferred from the sensory motor system, through the emotional cognitive system, up into the higher regions of the brain that grant meaning to those objects. It’s a transference process. Imagery transference is what takes place.

Our ability, later on, to understand notations such as 2 + 2 = 4, etc., depends on metaphoric transference in the brain system—the ability of the brain to take one kind of imagery and turn it into the imagery of pure abstract thought.

Let’s look at the most famous equation in history, E = mc2. It’s pure metaphor, or, if you want to say, symbolic. “E” stands for energy. “=” stands for the quality of equality. “m” stands for the mass of a particle, “c” is a constant for the speed of light, and the superscript 2 means that the speed of light is squared (multiplied by itself). All this is just a series of metaphors, but you can blow up the world with that equation. It has tremendous power as it’s translated from its simple sensory input up into the great regions of the causal mind.

A young person’s ability to move into disciplines where he can handle metaphoric, symbolic thinking is critically dependent on what happens in these early years of life, as the internal imagery mechanisms are developed. But developed by what? Not pictures, not the sensory system, not by television and computers, but by descriptive words. Now you understand why real literacy, which is the development of this capacity for inner imagery, is declining. There is a direct correlation between the use of descriptive language—that is, storytelling in early childhood—and the capacity for abstract thought, math and science being based on languages that are more abstract than concrete language. Got it?

I will use one final example. That’s my little boy, who saw the road roller running down the street, mashing everything flat, making roads with that huge wheel in front. Of course, he didn’t have a road roller, but he wanted a road roller, being the most impressive thing he had ever seen. So he found a little spool of thread in his mother’s sewing cabinet, and he shouted, “A road roller! A road roller!” And for hours, he’s lost to the world: playing, making all the appropriate sounds, speaking all the appropriate words. He has taken his image of the road roller and created his own internal scenario, with himself now in charge. He has projected it onto something he can handle, filling in the gaps with his own internal imagery. As Vygotsky said, he modifies the spool into his internal image of the road roller, and plays in a modified reality. This one capacity is the key to true education, and the actualization of our vast human potential. And this is precisely the capacity that is being retarded by the introduction of visual (sensory-motorbased) media and technology in these critical early years.

Building Neural Structures

imagination_einsteinIf allowed to participate in true imaginative play at this early, formative time, rather than sitting in front of predetermined media and playing with predetermined toys, children will be constantly building new neural structures for creating internal imagery and projecting it on, and therefore transforming, their external world. They will build enormous self‑esteem, and a feeling of power over the external world through their own capacities. In reality, what is taking place is that the highest brain structures are modifying the lower, more basic, sensorymotor information.

So, we find that storytelling in this period, with its emphasis on animals and fairy tales, and all that kind of thing, is critical to the child’s development. This also leads to Howard Gardner’s observation, that play with the parent is critically important. If the parent doesn’t play with the child, and if the siblings don’t play with the new child, then the child will never be able to play. Play is not learned. It’s a basic intelligence, the overarching intelligence upon which the development of all other capacities critically depends.

What is happening in our play-deprived, “every child left behind” culture is the elimination of storytelling, descriptive language and imaginative free play. It’s been replaced by visual, sensory-motor-based television, computers and technology, and so we are not developing this critical capacity. We aren’t getting this internal image structuring going. A child who is not told stories, and not encouraged to pretend, won’t build the capacity for internal imagery. Later on, when we demand that they deal with symbolic, metaphoric structures, such as alphabets and numbers, and formulas in chemistry and physics and so on—forget it. They will not have the neural structures to do that.

When Einstein was asked how to develop the best scientist in the world, he replied, “Tell them stories as little children.” He wasn’t kidding. Imagination is more important than knowledge, but we have tossed this simple wisdom out the door.

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