Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Importance of Imaginary Friends

Fascinating article by Shirley Wang in today's Wall Street Journal: "The Power of Magical Thinking; Research Shows the Importance of Make-Believe in Kids' Development."

She quotes Paul Harris, a professor of developmental psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: "The imagination is absolutely vital for contemplating reality, not just those things we take to be mere fantasy." ["Mere"?]

And Marjorie Taylor, psychology professor at the University of Oregon and author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them: "This is a strength of children, their ability to pretend. They can fix the problem with their imagination." [A strength of children only?]

Everyday now it seems findings from the cognitive neurosciences further elevate the primary importance of imagination, of fantasy and make-believe, for human development and well-being.

We're also learning that the brain is far more plastic than we understood it to be. Most impressive to me so far is last week's announcement by Carnegie-Mellon's Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging that, for the first time, we have evidence of the brain rewiring itself, creating new white matter...in this case as a result of intensive work on reading skills by 8- to 10-year-olds.

Deep processes affecting complex and complexly mutable structures...something wondrous breathes down our synapses...forces at work that dance within our minds, dancers creating the very stage we dance on...

Two books published this year suggest the nature of those forces, and their crucial importance in our human uplift: Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction, and Dennis Dutton's The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution.

Imaginary friends...or at least imaginary beings...horses and bulls gallop and thunder on the walls of Lascaux...a trickster turtle talks on the shores of Africa...a great bird calls out in the original Australian dreamtime...

1 comment:

Kurt Corriher said...

Your parenthetical comment ["Mere?--referring to "fantasy"] reminds me of the phrase "mere truth" that occurs, casually, almost accidentally it seems, in Yann Martel's "Life of Pi," a book I highly recommend if you haven't already looked into it. Yes, rewiring the pathways of the brain is a fascinating new discovery, one that offers exciting possibilities in many areas of medicine--but also in the life of man more generally. Could those of us genetically (or so recent research has indicated) inclined to pessimism throw off nature's burden and wake up one morning with a rosy outlook? And how long would so fundamental a transformation require, assuming it is possible? As for the significance of fantasy...well...who would want to live only in the real black and white? Thanks for an interesting post, Daniel.