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How Imaginary Are Imaginary Friends?

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Did you have an imaginary friend? I didn’t. No matter how hard I tried to invent one there was just no substance and half the time I forgot what or who I had invented!

I can remember as a young child sitting back and observing my brother (who is a freelance artist and professional storyteller) and sister (who is a hairdresser) pretend play with their toys and I wouldn’t say that I felt sad, but more desperate to be able to join in and lose myself in pretend play as they could. My partner, who is a creative writer, finds it amusing when I try to create a character name (I use the technique of looking around my room and picking two objects that I can see), and I am equally dumbfounded when I read his brilliant novels and short stories that take me to fictitious worlds.

Please don’t mistake me informing you of my lack of creativity as an invite for sympathy. It isn’t. I honestly find my deficiency hilarious and this realisation has fed into my need and want to research.

I was fortunate enough while at university to study this topic. I had an assignment title that required providing research to see if there was a link between having an imaginary friend in childhood and whether this determined creativity as an adult.

An imaginary friend (or imaginary companion) has been collectively defined by researchers as an invisible but named individual whose presence exists over a period of time and includes its own personality and history.

Once the imaginary friend has been identified through meeting the above criteria, the next thing to study is the role of the imaginary friend. The function of the imaginary friend has been a subject that researchers have not been able to precisely place, but have instead produced numerous theories. These include the idea that the imaginary friend is a coping method for stress, a companion to help overcome weaknesses that the child feels they have, a loving mentor in times of loneliness, and a playmate.

My personal favourite theory is the idea that an imaginary friend is a ‘narcissistic guardian’. This is where a child will bypass desired impulses of bad behaviour by letting their imaginary friend act them out instead – I just love how devious this theory is. 

I did research on this and found that adults who reported having a high level of creativity, did have an imaginary friend when they were a child. Please bear in mind that the data for this research was taken from psychology students at my university in 2014, and that levels of creativity were measured through self-report measures. Regardless of the data collection, the results I obtained did, and still do, agree with the wider research currently available.

This results strike to be a little too vague in that I was restricted in only being able to research creativity and imaginary friends and did not have the artistic licence to further delve into the topic. So, to get around this, I propose about the possibilities of future research to include the species of the child’s imaginary friend. Reasons for this being that research has shown that the age and gender of the child’s imaginary friend tend to reflect that of the child.

But what about those children whose imaginary friend is a complete fantastical creature, like a dragon or a troll? As the definition of an imaginary friend suggests – the companion has a personality and a history.

Therefore, would it be fair to state that a child that has a human as an imaginary friend does not have to create such in-depth traits when compared to a child that has an invented creature with a personality and history?

Also, does this creature carry the same traits as a human imaginary friend (being a playmate, a comforter and coping method)? And, does the depth of the creatures’ invention predict a higher level of creativity when the child is an adult? Does it determine their career choice? Their education? Indeed, there are so many questions.

I can’t help but want to ask past and present individuals with brilliant minds, like Van Gough, J.R.R. Tolkien or Stephen Hawking whether, as children, they had imaginary friends and if they did, where they human? These are extreme examples, but I do feel that this would give a possible glimpse into the young mind of a creative genius. Which could then aid supporting future minds alike.

But from what I can see, there is very little research on whether having a fantastical or mythical creature as an imaginary friend leads to a higher level of creativity, which I can understand as this is quite a niche area for research. It is also possible that that there is no correlation, but the fact that I cannot find any research to support or reject this claim heightens the need for it to exist.

I do realise that the research could be longitudinal, which is time consuming as it follows the same participants over a prolonged period of time (in this case, development from a child to an adult) or self-report from past experiences, which lowers validity and reliability – but still, I find it fascinating, and if I had the time and funds to so do. This is something that I would definitely pursue.

Megan Robinson is an undergraduate student in Criminological and Forensic Psychology and, after graduating, plans to study a Masters in Applied Clinical Psychology. 

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