Imaginary Friends Change You and the World

Frida Kahlo’s life continues to capture our imaginations and inspire us. Her life had all the trials and pain as any of our lives, yet she shared herself and her challenges with us through her paintings. Her first trial came when she was 6 and contracted polio. She had to spend 9 months in her bedroom and she spent that time with her imaginary friend. In her diary about that friend, she wrote that she “followed all her movements and while she danced, I told her my secret problems.”

by Lynn S. Schwebach

The process of nurturing creativity does not require spending exorbitant sums on costly schools or programs, art lessons or trips to ashrams in India or elsewhere.

Psychology experts now know that one of the most fundamental ways to foster creativity is having an imaginary friend. Imaginary friends are born when we let children create their own worlds and play for hours within them.

Many still consider imaginary friends as weird or rare. Not true. Imaginary friends are common—and important. Depending on the study, psychologists state that 63% to 65% of randomly chosen 3- to 5- year olds have such pals.

Psychologist Alison Gropnik makes the case for imagination and imaginary friends in her book, “The Philosophical Baby.” She states: “Children know how people work, which lets them imagine new ways that people, including themselves, might think or act. These abilities lead children to create imaginary friends—and lead grown-ups to create plays and novels.”

She goes on to say that by imagining how we can be different and how our world could be different, we become different people.

Developmental psychologists now know that children’s brains create causal theories of the world. In other words, they develop a cognitive map of what makes something  work or what causes something to happen. “When mommy opens the refrigerator, I will get food.” “The leg came off of the doll because the dog ate it.” “We get sick and can’t go out with mommy and daddy.” Making these kind of causal connections gives kids knowledge about how their bodies and their world works.

Attributing the ability to form causal maps has only recently been discovered. Freud and Piaget, for instance, held that children didn’t have the capacity for this kind of thinking. But, if you’ve ever had a 3-year-old, consider how many times a day that child asks “why?” They are inherently caught up in causation, according to Gropnik.

Many people treat knowledge and imagination as if they were distinct, but Gropnik said, because of these causal maps we know that knowledge and imagination are intertwined. She said that knowledge fuels imagination. “It’s because we know something about how events are connected in the world that we can imagine altering those connections and create new ones.”

Causal maps show up in pretend play, and not surprisingly in pretend play with imaginary friends.

“These psychological kinds of knowledge and imagination—knowing about how people work and imagining what they might do—also underpin adult fiction, the work of writers and poets, actors and directors. So understanding children’s pretend play can help up understand why fiction is important to adults, too.”

For this reason, Gropnik advocates for a prolonged period of play. Children are often whisked off to sports activities or after-school classes rather than given time to let their imaginations soar. And because many adults were raised within families entrenched in the Protestant Work Ethic, adults often feel guilty when taking time to read a book, or see a movie or a play—rather than work.

Researchers also cite the advantages of reading fiction. Reading a book that challenges and delights us, that we absorb and talk about with friends and family, opens up new worlds, new possibilities and new ways of empathizing.

In the Time article, “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer,” Annie Murphy Paul discusses the work of psychologists Raymond Mar of Canada’s York University, and Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto. She cites their studies on reading fiction and empathy. It appears that adults who read fiction are better at empathy. And Mar found similar results in 2010 when studying young children. Those who had more stories read to them had a sharper “theory of mind.”  Theory of mind occurs between ages 2 and 4 and is the developmental stage where children understand that people have different beliefs from their own and will behave or take actions based on those beliefs.

So let your children play. Let them take their imaginary friends on vacations and to grandma’s house. Give them the gift of unstructured time. Give yourself time to play. Read a book. Write a book. Pretend you’re a character in a book. You might change the world.

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