Thymophor in dreams, poetry, art and memory: Emotion translated into imagery as a basic element of human creativity

Thymophor as a Basic Element of our Creative Process in the Mind and in the Brain

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Thymophor as a Basic Element of our Creative Process in the Mind and in the Brain

We have discussed thymophor as it appears in the central image of the dream and in the “big short poem”, and in other arts as well. We have seen how thymophor supplies the emotional sense of metaphor, and we have suggested at a role for thymophor in organizing autobiographical memory.

Thymophor can be approached in a number of other ways as well, which I explore elsewhere (Hartmann, to be published), and will only mention briefly here. For instance, thymophor may be important in understanding the process of translation: it is accepted that, although literal or logical meaning can be readily translated, poetry is extremely hard to translate successfully from one language to another. Indeed the prosody of poetry, the sound of the language (melopoieia), is very difficult to translate. However the thymophor -- the emotionally driven central imagery--lies behind the language and usually survives translation into another language quite well.

Thymophor also plays a role in our myths and the archetypal figures that inhabit the myths. Almost always, these figures involve a powerful emotional state clothed ( imaged) in flesh.

We have discussed thymophor especially as a part of artistic creation, but I believe it plays a role in other types of creativity as well. For instance, scientific creativity is often described as a coming together or merging of different lines of thought—referred to, for instance, as “bisociation” by Koestler (1964). Imagery is most often part of the creative process (Einstein, 1945), But the emotion is usually left out in these descriptions. I believe that the emotional element is crucial, though it is difficult to give this emotion a simple name. I suggest a combination of several emotions: first, the “awe-wonder-mystery” (discussed above) that the scientist feels while looking at a problem in nature. Then, there is the “powerful push” or “desperate need” to find a solution or connection. And finally, a “wow” feeling--perhaps another instance of “awe-wonder-mystery”--when a solution is found. Emotion does play an important role, though the imagery does not picture or translate the emotion here as straightforwardly as in artistic creation.

Finally, the thymophor, which we have found so prominently in many types of human functioning, clearly must have an underlying brain biology. The details are not certain at present, but we can obtain some rough hints from studies of REM sleep, the brain state most associated with dreaming, and also from studies of the brain’s “default network”.

(fig 2 about here)

First of all, thymophor generally occurs during the kind of mental activity which we situate towards the right end of the continuum of mental functioning (Figure 2) which we have discussed in detail elsewhere (Hartmann, 2007, 2010b, 2011). This continuum of mental functioning is also a continuum of brain (chiefly cerebral cortical) functioning. Thymophor seems to occur chiefly in states of artistic reverie, daydreaming and dreaming. And there is a great deal of overlap between these states. Dreaming is not “totally different” from the rest, as we sometimes seem to believe.

Studies of activation patterns during REM sleep can give us a hint, since we have seen thymophor so prominently in dreaming(Braun et al, 1997;Maquet et al, 1996; Maquet et al, 2004; Nofzinger et al, 1997; Sutton et al, 1996; Jakobson et al, 2012). I believe that the decreased activation of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and increased activation of ventromedial portions of the frontal cortex certainly play a role in the biology of thymophor.

The very definition of thymophor—emotion—translated into imagery—suggests roughly what may be going on in the brain. Imagery implies widespread cortical activation. The powerful role of emotion implies subcortical input from the amygdala and related regions.

More specifically, since thymophor occurs not only in dreaming, but also in “artistic reverie”, or daydreaming, the underlying biology must be related to the brain biology underlying these states, which has been called the brain’s default network (Buckner, 2008). We note that there’s considerable overlap between the brain biology of this default network and the brain biology of REM sleep. Thus, thymophor occurs at times of activation of ventromedial PFC and activation of the various medial temporal and parietal regions involved in the default network.

But all this is only the background within which thymophor occurs. The PET and fMRI techniques, establishing regions of activation, as above, have excellent spatial resolution, but they have poor temporal resolution. They cannot show spread of activation. The temporal element in thymophor is very important, since thymophor can occur in very short time intervals within the dream and in creative reverie. A rapid spread of activation and simultaneous or near-simultaneous activation of cortical and subcortical regions is most likely involved, However, exploring these temporal aspects will have to wait for studies using magnetoencephalography (MEG) and similar techniques.


Much is still unknown. But I hope I have convinced the reader that this strange beast we have called thymophor –-the translation of emotion into imagery – actually does exist, and that thymophor is an important element in human creativity including dreams and art, and that it may play a role in memory as well. It is at least worth exploring further.


Figure 1. Scoring dreams for the Central Image


Definition: A Central Image (contextualizing image) is a striking, arresting, or compelling image — not simply a story — but an image, which stands out by virtue of being especially powerful, vivid, bizarre, or detailed.

List of Emotions

  1. fear, terror 11. power, mastery supremacy

  2. helplessness, vulnerability, being trapped, being immobilized 12. awe, wonder, mystery

  3. anxiety, vigilance 13. happiness, joy, excitement

  4. despair, hopelessness (giving up)

  5. anger, frustration

  6. disturbing — cognitive dissonance, disorientation, weirdness

  7. guilt 14. hope

8. grief, loss, sadness, abandonment, disappointment 15. peace, restfulness

16. longing

9. shame, inadequacy 17. relief, safety

10. disgust, repulsion 18. love (relationship)

If there is a second contextualizing image in a dream, score on a separate line.



1. CI?


2. What is it?

3. Intensity

(rate 0 – 3)

4. What emotion?

5. Second emotion?

Figure 2 A Continuum of Mental Functioning

Although we often consider dreaming to be “totally different” from the other states, research shows that there is actually considerable overlap.


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1 This is reminiscent of what we saw in dreams. The dreamer may for various reasons want to emphasize that the dream repeats the actual scene, for instance the traumatic scene. “ Just the way it was.” However, on examination, we find there’s always something added. And the addition is guided by the dreamer’s emotion(Hartmann 2010a).

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