Why Imaginary Worlds?

Ever since I was young, I have loved inventing new worlds. I have quite vivid memories of sailing into space in a rocket constructed among the clothes in my closet, visiting planets unlike those anyone else had seen. As I grew older and learned to write stories, I wrote about characters with magical powers (always girls, of course) who lived in interesting and varied lands. Somehow, in adolescence, inventing worlds seemed childish, and I stopped. I suppose those years were spent trying to make sense of the world around me—a much more challenging task than inventing new ones, it seemed. I told a few invented stories to my elementary students, but I didn’t get back into full-blown world- inventing mode until faced with two crying preschoolers at bedtime, while their parents were at the hospital awaiting the birth of child #3. In an effort to calm them, I started to tell stories about the two of them flying around in a giant strawberry. In the beginning, they were so young that the places they visited were pretty limited. But as the children (and the family) grew, the stories evolved to include all five children and an enormous imaginary cat named Tiny, all visiting a series of magical islands via the giant strawberry. It was great fun. The young people in the family are teens and beyond now, but we still occasionally enjoy revisiting the stories, almost as much as if they reflected real-world adventures.

Why imaginary worlds? Does any of this matter beyond my happy adventures with one of my favorite families? Dubourg and Baumard (2021) recently wrote an article asking the same question. They explored psychological and cultural foundations that may help explain the power of fiction that creates new worlds, suggesting that literature framed in imaginary worlds taps into our exploratory preferences—the same ones that motivate humans to travel the oceans or explore space. From Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, Star Trek to the Marvel Universe, writers have envisioned new worlds to explore. From an evolutionary perspective, exploration is tied to behavioral flexibility, risk tolerance, and resources, and similar ties may be found in imaginative fiction. The hypotheses are fascinating. And because fiction about imaginary worlds, almost by definition, entails characters modeling exploratory behavior, it is possible that imaginary fiction may have a complicated relationship with our exploratory tendencies—we enjoy imaginary worlds because of our preference to explore, then we may choose more exploration in real life because of the modeling found in fiction. There is much yet to learn.

Certainly, the links between openness to experience and imaginary worlds make sense to me. Both enjoying and creating imaginary worlds requires a willingness to consider other possibilities that is foundational to creative thinking. Root-Bernstein (2014) found that childhood play rooted in imaginary landscapes—even whole imaginary worlds–was common to many highly creative individuals. Having ever-available new spaces for imaginary play can be a wonderful thing.

So, while researchers continue to work to understand how and why imaginary worlds seem so powerful, for now, let’s invent them when and where we can. They don’t have to be complicated. If you are lucky enough to have young people around you and a few moments to play, consider inventing a story about anything you see around you. Where might it have been? Where might it go? Encourage the young people around you to do the same. Inventing imaginary worlds may be the first step to improving this one. And besides, it’s fun!

Dubourg, E., & Baumard, N. (2021). Why imaginary worlds?: The psychological foundations and cultural evolution of fictions with imaginary worlds. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-52. doi:10.1017/S0140525X21000923. https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-03419898/document

Root-Bernstein, M. (2014). Inventing imaginary worlds: From childhood play to adult creativity across the arts and sciences. Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s