Imaginal Cells

Imaginal Cells

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Have you heard of imaginal cells? Although they are associated with insect life-cycles – for me, they are a great metaphor for the way the world is undergoing transformation at the moment.

Imaginal cells are the ones that create the incredible process of metamorphosis that occurs when a caterpillar changes into a butterfly. These cells hold all the potential for the future, but initially they act separately, before combining as one to create something incredible that is a great improvement on their previous existence.

The process of this change is amazing. Within the chrysalis, the structure of the caterpillar dissolves into a soupy organic mush. Hitherto dormant cells – “imaginal cells” – from the caterpillar start to develop the new structure of a butterfly, even though there is no similarity whatsoever between the two creatures.

Initially, each of the imaginal cells operates as a single-cell organism – entirely independent of one another. The immune system of the caterpillar even identifies them as threats and attacks them. Regardless, the imaginal cells continue; they multiply, and they connect with one another, forming clusters.

They start to resonate with the same frequency and communicate in the same language, passing information backwards and forwards until there is a tipping point – when they stop acting as individual, separate cells and instead, become a multiple-celled organism: a butterfly.

If we take this as an analogy for society today, it presents an exciting proposition. When systems are breaking down, you can either collapse and die or rise to the challenge of creating something better – and achieve the next stage of evolution. Leaders are the imaginal cells within their community or organisation. As ideas spread and like minds connect, the possibilities grow exponentially to transform systems, policies and processes to meet the greatest challenges in our world today.

Thought leaders – and others – can imagine a greater future and work together to make visions a reality.

We are living in an era of increasing interconnectivity. Thanks to the internet, across the globe and across different specialisms and areas of interest, people can instantly communicate with one another like never before. Ideas, news, problems and solutions can travel fast and far – within seconds.

We have the capacity to take advantage of the ‘collective consciousness’ – acting in groups as a community with shared ideas, values and circumstances, instead of individually. With focus on a single intent – whether to create environmentally friendly energy, cure cancer or reduce hunger – people working together have the power to radically transform the human race and the world we live in. This heralds massive evolutionary change for us.

What if we harnessed this power? What if we worked like imaginal cells – thinking differently from the old ways, working together with others who share our values and principles – to create something wonderful in the world?

Our speedy communication networks and efficient technology means that we have the power to take collective action to identify solutions to both personal and global problems.

This excites me. This is what drives me to look for imaginal cells in my own community – with the aim of connecting and empowering them to accelerate and multiply. To network, to share and work together – to produce transformational results for the future.

Just as it takes the total disintegration of the caterpillar’s structure in order to create a butterfly – it may take the complete breakdown of present systems before a better future occurs.

But I am convinced that each of us, working together to make the world a better place will produce something incredible on the other side.

Let’s fly!


A hat tip to Rebekah Shaman for the initial inspiration behind this post.

Join me on an adventure into the unknown in April 2016. Find out more here.

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  1. Love this post Marc!

  2. Judy Hayman says

    Love it

  3. Better to work as far as possible within the existing system than to destroy it hastily.
    Evolution not revolution.

    • Were evolution delivers the best outcome I would agree. The trouble is that we are living in an era where we can step change improve many of the things that we do in the world. If you look at Healthcare, Education, Food, Energy etc huge changes are already possible but the current systems are unlikely to be able to gain access to that innovation because of the way they are structured. The horse and cart could not be evolved into the car. It required a revolution in thinking that could not be delivered by a horse and cart company. The same applies to many things now.

  4. From Wikipedia I learn that the imaginal DISCS are present in the larva but convert into adult structures when the time is ripe.

  5. Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

  6. Love love love it. Feeling very inspired to nurture my imaginal cells and share this post with all of my friends, colleagues, family, students. I’d love to write a children’s book about imaginable cells actually…

    • David Zaloudek says

      Hi Sarah, a children’s book about imaginal cells is a great idea! If this idea is your excitement you should follow it. Peace and blessings.

  7. This post is misleading. The process by which insects pupate is well known, multi-faceted and complex, and you are leaving out a lot of the genetic information about the sequencing of proteins within the chrysilis. Using it as an example of validation for your model of society is fundamentally flawed on many levels.

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  9. I’m inspired by the social analogy with cultural creatives being the imaginal cells in society. But even more so, I imagine these cells inside me. They are the cells that are awake and in communication with the cosmos and they are active and growing when I am present and loving. But my “immune system” fights them constantly. It throws addictions at my imaginal cells, it throws negative emotions at my imaginal cells. My immune system sees my imaginal cells as a threat – and they are! If the imaginal cells become my new organism, the ego that thinks it is me, will be destroyed. I’m just beginning to see the richness of this way of thinking and living.

  10. I am not an expert in insect metamorphosis, but I read one article about imaginal cells before stumbling across yours.
    Just some initial thoughts your idea sparked in me. I am not sure whether the analogy is ‘flawed’, as one commentator thought. Certainly it deserves more development. Sometimes brilliant ideas come intuitively. There is a leap of logic. If you feel the need to further explain them, justify them, or develop them into something credible and powerful, then you can trust your original “imaginal” intuition and fill in the logical pieces. Might not be possible, but also it might be. Maybe this could be done in a collaboration between a scientist and an artist. That would be fun.
    Maybe the person or people who could do this–show exactly how the metaphor of metamorphosis applies to society—could be your ‘thought leader.’ I think your idea is fascinating, even though it may still be in the early stages.
    The caterpillar IS the butterfly; would he want to destroy it? Maybe annihilate is the wrong word. Maybe the caterpillar is just using his resources differently to create an environment the butterfly can grow in. If you believe in higher powers could it be the caterpillar’s process was already pre-destined, planned, all the necessary pieces and cues put in place by a ‘higher power’ who had the end result in mind to ensure the butterfly would not be destroyed and so created the caterpillar accordingly. Maybe the higher power is just nature or genetics if you don’t want to think in terms of God. If Nature is orchestrating caterpillars, what is the higher power guiding America? The Constitution?
    America is still a child of a country. Maybe some of the painful process it undergoes is necessary for growth?
    Maybe things the way they are shouldn’t be dismantled or destroyed until they are fully understood and there’s a roadmap for the future in place. The trick is combining this level of understanding and vision with a powerful voice that inspires but doesn’t control. That’s where great leaders come in.
    Is there danger with the internet in being able to communicate so rapidly that people expect results instantly rather than taking the time to let the caterpillar do what it is designed to do and already knows how to do? TOO fast is dangerous. That was my sorta roundabout way of saying I agree with Elli about working within the system.

    • Mandy Brown says

      I’m trying to relate this to a story of my recovery from domestic violence. The single cells are different things I found I can do now, that have come together in various parts of my storytelling. Painting, songwriting, stand up Comedy, to produce an interesting Motivational Storytelling…..

  11. Imaginal Cell 33 says

    Humans need to remove all the ” I WANTS ” from their lives and fully focus on the ” I NEEDS ”

    To do this they must abandon their imagined order of money.

  12. Amy Eberhardt says

    This is very timely! (March, 2020)

  13. This pandemic in spring of 2020 is a great opportunity to see the collapse of various systems that we have all taken for granted. It is very helpful to have an image of the imaginal cells gathering to form a butterfly out of the fear and chaos of the breakdown. Thanks for sharing this article!

  14. Ummmm, hello! I think you are right, this is happening! Are we currently dissolving “into a soupy organic mush”? New structures will be formed. Communities are coming together. The human race can become the butterfly! 🙂

    • USA, the greatest power and country is today facing what the rest of the world is experiencing; almost on our knees, we are acknowledging that old systems have failed. The refugee crisis, hunger, poverisation, climate change, ravaging wars, racism, power in a vacuum of leadership, deep state, post-colonialism, industrially brought disasters, soil depletion and the list goes on. The planet needed change whilst waiting for the butterfly to come out. The butterfly can only come out if all the single cells join efforts together.

  15. I love the metaphorical aspect of this article and it’s application to society. I hope something more beautiful can rise up out of this pandemic and the divisiveness of our country.

    I find this to be a useful metaphor for us as individuals as well. When I am stirred up internally – feeling a lack of belonging, feeling unproductive, or feeling inadequate or scattered, the image of imaginal cells, full of potential and searching for one another to transport me to my next meaningful steps in life – is a comfort. Thank you for combining these words and ideas.

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