How to Build a Hybrid: The Structure of Imagination

Yeshayahu Shen, David Gil

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How do we conjure up novel and unfamiliar entities in our imagination? Thomas Ward and others have suggested that we do so by deriving such entities from ordinary familiar ones. Hybrids, however, pose a challenge to this view since they are not derived from any one single familiar entity. Nevertheless, we argue here that the construction of hybrid entities is indeed governed by principles forming part of our structured imagination. These principles refer to a set of five abstract schemas, defined in terms of properties such as parts, symmetry, and spatial orientation. These schemas, alongside the absence of a schema, together constitute a schematological hierarchy: humanoid (e.g., man) > canoid (e.g., dog) > carroid (e.g., car) > culteroid (e.g., knife) > arboid (e.g., tree) > other (e.g., sponge). When forming This article is the product of years of collaboration by its two authors, which would not have been possible without the generous support of Bernard Comrie and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. We would also like to thank Michalle Gal and the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan, Israel, for facilitating the hybrid production experiment resulting in the Shenkar College corpus. Some of the material in this article was presented at the Workshop on Visual Hybrids, Shenkar College, Ramat Gan, April 15, 2015; the Tel Aviv Conference on Culture and Cognition, Tel Aviv University, November 27, 2018; and in a course on hybrids that we cotaught at Tel Aviv University in the second semester of 2020–21. We are grateful to participants at those events for helpful comments and suggestions. Work by Yeshayahu Shen was supported by grant no. 1530/16 of the Israel Science Foundation administered by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. a hybrid out of two or more entities, or parents, the overall shape of the hybrid is selected in accordance with the following three principles: (1) coherence: presence of a schema is preferred to absence of a schema; (2) accessibility: a schema corresponding to that of one of the parents is preferred to some other schema; and (3) height: a schema higher on the schematological hierarchy is preferred to a schema lower on the schematological hierarchy. To test these principles empirically, we conducted a large-scale experiment, in which art and design students were given pairs of words denoting familiar objects and asked to draw images of hybrid entities formed from these word pairs. The resulting corpus of 356 hybrids was found to provide strong empirical support for the above three principles. In doing so, it showed how human creativity is not unbound, but rather subject to substantive cognitive constraints, constituting our structured imagination.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)513-543
Number of pages31
JournalPoetics Today
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2023


FundersFunder number
Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities
Israel Science Foundation


    • conceptual combinations
    • hybrids
    • imaginary creatures
    • schematological hierarchy
    • structured imagination


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