Influences on the Development of
the Symbolic Function
Eleanor Galenson, M.D.
Why are some people capable of expressing themselves in complex and richly varied language, others able to use highly sophisticated forms of nonverbal symbolic systems, as in the arts, while still others are confined to "direct action" as their major vehicle of expression? I argue that the roots of both the verbal and nonverbal symbolic systems lie in the infant's earliest experiences of the infant-mother relationship. I believe that the quality of infant play is an important indicator of the quality of the mother-infant relationship, and that the nonverbal symbolic systems we later employ emerge out of some forms of play and are facilitated by the joint use of inanimate objects by mother and infant. I shall present data to show that the predominant affect of the mother-infant relation exerts an overriding influence on the infant's ability to transfer from the nonverbal to the verbal mode, as well as to expand the symbolic range within each of these symbolic spheres—verbal and nonverbal.
In a previous publication (Galenson, 1971), I examined the inherent mental organization or structure of children's play, especially for the light it shed on the nature and genesis of thought, on understanding the development of various aspects of the symbolic function, and as a precursor of the process of sublimation. In this presentation, I continue to explore the relationship of play to the development of thinking. My particular focus here is on symbolization as a basic aspect of the thought process.
Even if language remains the primary mode of human intellectual interaction, other levels of human interaction continue to be mediated throughout life by nonverbal symbolic modes of communication (Langer, 1942). And although the existence of these different modalities in adults has long been accepted, their genetic roots have not been sufficiently explored.
The earliest forms of play during the first six or so months of life probably serve primarily the function of discharge of energy, although the presence of some underlying imagery cannot be definitely ruled out. Animals play, although they do not talk. In them, as in humans, play does not appear to have a deliberate goal for the sake of which it is engaged in, nor is play necessarily social or competitive in nature. The primary trait of play in both humans and animals appears to be some preparation and anticipation of modes of activity characteristic of adult life. While play appears to have some maturational pressure behind it, it also involves responses that arise in the infant or animal in reaction to the environment, and it is therefore likely that there is some biological