Why We’re Drawn to Imaginary Worlds

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Aug 8, 2018

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Most of us spend an inordinate amount of time on experiences that are not real. We choose to spend our free time watching movies and television, reading novels, and daydreaming, over more pragmatic pursuits, such as building and establishing relationships or learning a new skill or tool. We do this from a very early age. The question is – why?

Evolutionarily speaking, there is no good reason for humans to spend time and energy on their imaginations. Imagination doesn’t promote our survival or the survival of the species. Imaginary pastimes, at first glance, don’t feed us, provide us shelter, or help us in finding mates. And yet, most 3-year-olds love to pretend to ‘play house,’ many 7-year olds have imaginary friends, and adolescents and adults often spend more time reading romance novels than looking for partners.

But imagination might, in fact, contribute to our survival by training us for life, in non-threatening ways that allow us to better perform in the real world, where it matters. Humans enjoy an extended youth (13+ years in most societies), wherein a certain amount of safety and security might be provided by parents and other caregivers. This period is vital in the development of intricate skills crucial for survival and reproduction. During this time, we engage in the exploration of our environment and experiment with a variety of strategies that may be effective in that niche. We observe what adults do and then combine and recombine these behaviours in novel and innovative play techniques that are actual practice of real world skills.  Thus, pretending with monster trucks and dolls helps us in developing interpersonal skills useful later in adulthood.

One of the most essential skills required to enjoy other people’s company as well as imaginary worlds, is theory of mind. Theory of mind refers to our ability to assign mental states to other people (including fictional ones), and explain their actions and behavior in terms of their beliefs, desires, thoughts, and feelings, rather than in terms of our own. We can, for example, understand, that Peter Parker wants to be an Avenger without him declaring it as his intent outright.

Theory of mind develops formally around the age of four, however, children younger than that can understand the meaning of, and can discern pretence from reality; for example, when an adult playfully “throws away” their nose, kids may cry, but around the age of one, they start understanding that their nose isn’t really gone. Similarly, when “playing elephant,” they do understand they are not sitting on actual elephants — otherwise, they would be terrified. Instead, through theory of mind, the building block of imagination, they find it fun.

Theory of mind is also why we have emotional responses to fictional characters and events. These emotions are very real, even though the experiences are not. Watching a person die in real life would be more disturbing than reading about Dobby dying; however, many fans of Harry Potter surely cried when it happened. Which means, for humans, imagination and imaginary pastimes are a form of reality – ‘reality lite’ – a safe way to experience events that might require too much energy, pose a threat to us, are taboo or simply inaccessible in real life. For example, we punch pillows when we are angry, because actually punching a real person is wrong, and we may choose to watch a coming-of-age story, because the chances of us going from Homeless to Harvard are negligible.

Which helps explain the full range of our engagement with fiction. Humans are social animals, and fiction is one way we make sense about the world around us. Stories can be thought of as a form of gossip; they convey social information about love, sex, family, betrayal, status, power, and tragedy. We find the Netflix’s The Crown exciting because it essentially gives us gossip about one of the most powerful women in the world, and its plotline involves all of the aforementioned themes.

When we dissect the decisions of Cersei or Arya in Game of Thrones; when we obsess over the fate of Ross and Rachel, or the identity of the mother in How I Met Your Mother, we are satiating our social curiosity – these stories are, after all, a dramatic rendering of our humdrum lives. Our lives are not nearly as interesting as those of fictional characters. Most of us would never be in a love triangle, let alone one involving vampires and werewolves. We do not find ourselves constantly fighting to death to entertain audiences on reality television, as seen in The Hunger Games, while simultaneously being in love with our best friend and our co-contestant.

This satisfied social curiosity leaves us with real-world information about ourselves, others and the world around us. We comprehend imaginary situations through our own perspective, the perspective of the character, and the perspective of an outside observer, sometimes all at once, by invoking theory of mind. This information helps us navigate real life and real people. Just like how children, by acting out real-life scenarios while they pretend play, learn real skills, reading novels may prepare us to deal with adult social situations. Similarly, reading coming-of-age stories might render young adults prepared to sail through high school and college relationships.

The universal popularity of these shows also makes our social lives easier by also giving us the opportunity to bond – and put the social information we’ve gleaned from them into practice as we interact with others around the fictional activity. In fact, it’s almost as if we choose to watch F.R.I.E.N.D.S. because it makes real life, with real friends, that much better. Which means F.R.I.E.N.D.S. may be as important as friends to our survival after all.

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Written By Arathy Puthillam

Arathy Puthillam is a Research Assistant at the Department of Psychology, Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit research organisation based in Mumbai, India.

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