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  • Writer's pictureDr Jo Johnson

What makes your face light up?

Have you ever wondered how old your creativity is, how old your imagination is? 

It’s about as old as you are!

One of the crucial tasks of being a baby is to learn to represent symbols in the mind.

You might be (very) familiar with the ear-splitting cry of a very young baby who is hungry and you’re taking a few more moments to feed him.

It’s not too strong to call it absolute desperation, unbearable, even despair!

We might joke and say “It sounds like he thinks he’s going to starve!” - and there’s a lot of truth in that, because in that moment, he really does.

He needs consistent experiences of the bottle or breast showing up, to learn that it will come.  Eventually he can become less preoccupied with whether it will come or not.  (This takes a long time.)

The baby learns to connect the image of the bottle or breast with food coming soon.  And gradually, bit by bit, with enough of those repetitions:

the baby grows the capacity to symbolise.

What do we mean by 'symbolise'?  To have a sense in his mind of the thing that’s not there.  This helps him feel a little more hopeful that, if it’s not there, it can come back.  And in turn, over time, helps him contain and soothe himself a little.  (Learning this process, takes as long as it takes, and can’t be rushed.  Hang in there, parents and caregivers!)

Representing symbols in your mind is an essential psychological building block, forming the foundation of many things we need to do in adulthood. 

We use our symbolic capacities all the time to:

  • imagine things

  • love people

  • have ideas

  • create things

  • plan

  • organise

  • achieve goals

... All pretty important stuff!

Some daily scenarios: You're stuck in a work meeting and it's nearly lunchtime. You start to imagine yourself walking to the shop to buy a sandwich, unwrapping it and biting into it. Under normal circumstances, thinking about food when you’re hungry can bring a positive, reassuring feeling, because you know the food is nearby, real and coming soon.

We can feel okay with being separated from loved ones for a while, because we've learned to hold a symbol of them in our minds. Out of sight isn't out of mind, so it's not threatening to be separated. We can think about them, knowing they’re still around even if not physically present.

Thinking about a happy memory can generate a warm, positive feeling even though you’re not in the place or with that person now - your brain has learned to ‘symbolise’ them.

(When we’re stressed, our capacity to symbolise can reduce a lot.  So cut yourself some slack if you’re feeling under the weather and really missing your dog/partner/anyone you love today.  A photo of them can help bridge the gap!)

Here is a short imaginal exercise that can strengthen your ability to symbolise in a positive way:

Think about a pet, or any animal you love, for a few moments.  If appropriate, you could close your eyes.

Bring an image to mind.

Where is the animal, what’s it doing?

What do you see?  

What can you hear?

What’s his sensory experience, what’s yours?  (e.g. relaxing on a sofa, flying through the air)

What might it be feeling now?  Do you start to feel that too?

Where do you feel it in your body?

Take a few deep breaths to settle in and enjoy that feeling for a few moments.

When you’re ready, open your eyes.

Image by queen12703 via

Did this give you a good feeling?  If you tried this exercise with your pet in mind, perhaps it made your time away from them more bearable, especially if you’re at work!

Let me know how you found it :)

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