As a child, Kat Sandler loved to go to the park and play on the swings with her friend, a unicorn named Unicorn.
“The unicorn was white. It was a boy. It was always a full-grown horse. And it really liked to swing,” recalls Sandler, a 29-year-old Toronto-based playwright. “That’s when I would talk to him the most – when we were swinging. We would have these great conversations.”
In a previous generation, Sandler’s imaginary friend might have been cause for concern in her parents’ eyes. Instead, her mother and father happily indulged it. As it turns out, they are a part of a shift in thinking.
The way researchers used to view imaginary friends has undergone a nearly complete reversal since the early 1990s. Until then, the consensus among child psychologists was that children with imaginary friends were troubled introverts who, the more they indulged their fantasies, were more likely to need professional help.
But, thanks to the pioneering work of developmental psychologist Marjorie Taylor and others who have followed in her footsteps, researchers now say, with a few exceptions, that the earlier view could not be more wrong.
As a result of this work, a new profile of children with imaginary companions has emerged: They are more socially skilled, they perform better on tests of verbal skills and, perhaps not surprisingly, they are more creative than children who do not have imaginary friends. What’s more, these benefits do not end in childhood.
Take all the most creative people you know, says Jonathan Plucker, a creativity researcher at the University of Connecticut who is researching how people, especially students, communicate their creativity to others. It doesn’t matter if they are artists or engineers or entrepreneurs. Now look for common denominators among them. What you are most likely to find if you do some digging is that they had an imaginary friend in childhood.
“It pops up almost whenever it’s asked. Creative people say, ‘Oh yeah, that was me,’” Plucker says.
Today, they can say it with pride, not fear of stigma.
It was not that long ago that parents were sent a much different message: “A little imagination is a good thing,” Dr. Benjamin Spock said. But if a child still had an imaginary friend at the age of four, he said, “a child psychiatrist, child psychologist or other mental-health counsellor should be able to find out what they are lacking.”
In 1962, Jean Piaget, a Swiss pioneer of developmental psychology, dismissed the idea that imaginary friends were signs of creativity. To him, they were a sign the child was failing. “The child has no imagination, and what we ascribe to him as such is no more than a lack of coherence,” he wrote.
Most psychologists shared this narrow view.
“They thought these children were weird,” says Taylor, head of the Imagination Research Lab at the University of Oregon. “Maybe smart, but socially troubled or shy or whatever. And all that is completely wrong.”
In was not until the 1990s that a new view emerged: that children with imaginary friends were actually exploring a form of play with a high degree of creativity.
In a study published in the Creativity Research Journal in 2005, researchers found that children who had imaginary companions were more creative than their imaginary-friendless peers.
And in 2010, Evan Kidd, a researcher at Australian National University, and colleagues found that adults who had imaginary friends as children scored higher on creativity tests than those who did not.
While it is difficult to precisely quantify creativity – researchers employed a widely used test in which people say whether or not dozens of adjectives accurately describe them – the result was clear, Kidd says: “They’re reliably, consistently higher.”
What’s more, Kidd and colleagues also found that adults who had an imaginary companion in childhood scored higher on “absorption” tests: “They’re more likely to lose themselves in things like novels, and have a more imaginative life as adults,” he explains.
So why this link between imaginary friends and later creativity?
“I think it all comes back to play. Having an imaginary companion is really just a form of what developmental psychologists would call social dramatic play,” Kidd says.
Children with imaginary friends often adopt different roles with them and play out many different scenarios. That helps to explain having better social skills and the openness to new ideas that is essential to creativity, both when you’re a kid and in adulthood.
Sandra Russ, a clinical psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who researches play and creativity, points out that pretend play starts around the age of two and a half, becomes more complex, and then fades around ages nine or 10 – following the same arc as the typical lifespan of imaginary friends.
It could be that children with imaginary companions are learning how to work their creativity muscles harder than others, Kidd says.
Much of the research on children with imaginary friends has focused on verbal and social skills. After all, so much of having an imaginary friend is talking through issues, with imaginary friends frequently offering a different perspective than the child’s.
“It’s a good way of processing what’s going on around them,” says Karen Majors, a child psychologist at University College London’s Institute of Education.
Still, researchers agree that more studies are needed to better understand the phenomenon. And they note that the picture isn’t entirely rosy. At least two studies conducted in the 1990s found that sexually abused children who develop dissociative disorders are highly likely to have imaginary friends.
Although they were once thought to be rare, separate studies by Taylor and researchers in Britain have estimated that between 46 and 65 per cent of school-age children have imaginary companions.
Girls are more likely than boys to have imaginary friends at the age of three and four, but by school age, the imbalance vanishes.
The peak age for having an imaginary friend is from ages three to five, Taylor says. And while imaginary companions usually taper off around the age of nine, in rare cases, they are friends for life. (Agatha Christie had imaginary friends into her 70s. She said she often preferred them to her characters because they weren’t as old.)
And that commonly held belief that girls create girl friends and boys imagine boy friends? It simply isn’t true. Often, the friends aren’t even human.
“There’s no typical one,” Taylor says. “It’s unbelievable what they come up with.”
Some of her favourites, from among her case studies, are Nutsy and Nutsy, two brightly coloured invisible birds that are about two feet tall, live in the tree outside the child’s bedroom window and like to argue; Elfie Welfie, a person small enough to fit in your hand, who has tie-dyed hair and works as a veterinarian; Fake Rachel, an invisible version of the child’s real friend who can play with the child when Rachel isn’t around; and Baintor, a small boy who is snow-white all over and lives in the overhead light.
“The list is endless,” Taylor says.
Today, with such a high premium placed on creativity, it should not be all that surprising that the imaginary-friend landscape has seen such a dramatic shift. “We’re getting much more interested in childhood imagination,” Majors says.
That interest has helped transform a once-stigmatized aspect of childhood into something that is increasingly celebrated. So much so, Taylor says, “now people worry if their child does not have an imaginary friend.”
Parents: Find your own friends
Parents can (and should, according to the research) support a child’s imaginary friend, but they should be aware that meddling can have unforeseen consequences.
“Kids love to share their imaginary friends,” says Marjorie Taylor, the world’s foremost expert on imaginary friends. And nurturing parents can encourage their child by playing along, whether it’s setting a place for the friend at the dinner table or making room for it in the car on a drive.
But remember whose friend it is.
“Sometimes parents get so involved that they’re almost taking over the imaginary friend,” Taylor says.
And there have been case studies in which parents’ over-involvement proved disastrous.
In one, a parent used a remote control to close the family’s garage door, then told the child that the imaginary friend had done it. That didn’t compute with the confused child. The imaginary friend disappeared.
Another example: When Debbie Nolan was about to enter school, her grandparents decided that it was time for her imaginary friend, a boy named Jimmy, to disappear.
“I had a winter coat. It was this blue winter coat we were getting rid of because it didn’t fit me any more. My grandfather said, ‘We’re going to put Jimmy in the coat and then we’re going to give the coat away,’” Nolan says.
She pleaded, to no avail.
“I was thinking, ‘Just because you can’t see him doesn’t mean he’s not real,’” she recalls.
They took the coat away. Jimmy never came back. “I was devastated,” Nolan says.