Imaginary Friends, Real Lessons

Imaginary Friends, Real Lessons

Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a kid?  

Do you have one now?

A recent article in Aeon magazine reviews some fascinating research on imaginary friends.  It’s qualitative, of course – imaginary friends being notoriously difficult to quantify – but all the more interesting for it.

Some results:


*  81 percent of adults who had imaginary friends lost them by the time they were 10

*  68% of imaginary friends had human form;  15% were animals;  and 7% were creatures with magical powers

*  The majority of imaginary friends played games and offered general comfort; however

o   41% helped their creators overcome loneliness

o   38% helped them escape an unpleasant reality

o   23% provided guidance

*  Children with imaginary friends almost always understood that they were imaginary.  Yet these characters still seem to have a “life” of their own.

*  Adults are fine discussing the imaginary friends they had as a child, but children who have just outgrown their imaginary friends don’t want to talk about them at all.

*  The percentage of adult writers who reported that they had imaginary friends is more than twice that of the average population

*  There appear to be no negative effects correlated with having imaginary friends

But what I find most fascinating is the portrait that emerges of how useful imaginary friends are to children because at a time when they are incapable of exploring the wider world on their own, they can use their imaginative faculties to make valuable discoveries about what it means to be human:  about play, and friendship, about interpersonal relationships, compassion, and responsibility. 

I suspect that this is a process that does not stop when we grow up.  We think of imagination as a creative process – but our imaginative faculties are also learning faculties:  teaching us real and meaningful things about ourselves, our fellow humans, and the world we live in at every stage in life.

This is perhaps a difficult pill to swallow in a time obsessed with quantifiable data:  where “lifehackers” believe that self-knowledge comes through more accurate calorie counts and time management and wearing heart rate monitors;  where neuro-scientists claim that the deepest truths of your humanity should (any day now!) be measurable as electrical impulses firing across your brain in neural cascades.  This … this … is where we go to “learn” things.  This is where truth resides.

Yet these truths, if that’s what they are, have little or nothing to tell us about large swaths of the human experience:  where to find meaning in life, how to deal with grief, what it means to be a good person.  Even if we’re interpreting our raw data correctly, it simply doesn’t add up to a meaningful life.  Another way of understanding the world is needed.

It’s uncontroversial to say that we learn about ourselves through art, through storytelling – clearly the imaginative faculties have a role to play … or at least that we pay lip service too.  But surely this can manifest in other ways.  Maybe the people who have been turning to astrology for human understanding for thousands of years have had a point:  maybe they actually got something out of it because it helped them see the world, and their place in it, in new ways..  Maybe you can, in fact, learn about yourself and the world around you through the engagement of the imaginative faculties.  It’s not a substitute for facts and science – but neither, I’m suggesting, are facts and science a substitute for imagination as a learning experience.

A way of conceptualizing the world that draws upon the imaginative faculties may, in fact, have a great deal of value as a way of understanding the world.

“Man is not God’s greatest creation,” said literary scholar and atheist Camille Paglia.  “God is man’s.”  Much as most children know that their imaginary friends aren’t real, honest doubt and uncertainty have always been central to the religious experience – as they are to all experience.  “Even Richard Dawkins,” wrote Terry Eagleton, “lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’.”

Imaginary friends apparently don’t have to be “real” to help children learn about the world they live in, and the expanse of fiction and religion and even superstition doesn’t have to be reducible to data to offer real insight to adults looking for more than raw data has to offer.

Perhaps we are at our best, and our most human, when our imaginations are no less engaged than our rational minds.  

— Benjamin Wachs

Benjamin Wachs archives his writing at

Read more Benjamin Wachs at The New Existentialists

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