New research published in the journal Child Development shows that around 17 percent of children ages 8 to 12 create incredibly complex imaginary worlds, known as paracosms. The findings reveal the phenomenon is far more common than previously believed.

The creation of such paracosms, as the imaginary worlds were first labeled in a 1976 study, is nothing to worry about, said the project’s lead author Dr. Marjorie Taylor, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon.

“It’s a positive thing associated with creativity and storytelling, and it’s not particularly rare,” said Taylor, who has been studying children’s imaginary friends and paracosms for about 25 years. “These are kids who are coming up with very complex stories that they really enjoy and that many will share with others.”

Early studies on paracosms primarily focused on adult memories of their childhoods. In the 1992 book “The Development of Imagination: The Private Worlds of Childhood,” authors David Cohen and Stephen MacKeith identified 57 imaginary worlds but considered them to be rare.

Over time, Taylor began to question this theory as she compiled growing evidence on the prevalence of children who devise imaginary friends and parallel worlds. Imaginary friends, Taylor said, emerge in young children, while paracosms come later.

Her new research shows a strong association between the creation of imaginary friends and the development of paracosms, although this link doesn’t always translate to the imaginary friends being part of later imaginary worlds.

In both studies, participating children — drawn from mostly educated and middle to upper socioeconomic status, primarily Euro-American, in a college town — were questioned in a non-leading way about their creations of an imaginary friend and paracosms. If their descriptions reached a particular level, the children were encouraged to discuss and provide more details about these parallel worlds they had created.

In the first study of 37 boys and 40 girls, the children completed five creativity tasks tied to social skills, as well as evaluations of their coping strategies and verbal comprehension. Sixteen boys and 20 girls reported having imaginary companions such as invisible friends or personified objects.

A total of 44 children said they thought about an imaginary place and provided descriptions. Of those, researchers identified fully developed paracosms in the details of six boys and seven girls. Neither verbal comprehension nor gender were found to be related to children who reported having imaginary friends and paracosms.

While these parallel worlds varied widely in content, they all included details about an environment (forests, lakes, caves, etc.), the inhabitants (bandits, goblins, animals, etc.) and mystical components, such as a fountain that sprayed honey.

In the second study, the researchers sought to replicate the first but wanted to dig deeper. They included a measure of working memory as well as a social creativity component that avoided the role of fantasy.

In this case, paracosms were identified in 16 of the 92 children, 12 girls and four boys. Imaginary companions were reported by 51 children. Most of those who had developed parallel worlds also reported having had imaginary friends.

Children who had developed clear paracosms showed no differences from other children in verbal comprehension or working memory, but they had more difficulty with the inhibitory control tasks, suggesting a link between creativity and lower inhibition.

Children with paracosms were able to produce more creative endings to their stories than those who did not report paracosms.

“We thought paracosms would [be] a private thing,” Taylor said. “Surprisingly, that was not always the case. It can be a very social activity. Often, we found that many kids would be involved together in building the parallel worlds.”

It may be, she speculated, that the most creative children are the ones who are able to shift between focusing their attention and a more open-ended mode of thinking.

“This needs more research to better understand how we generate ideas and come up with new things, unlocking creativity,” Taylor said. “We can be really impressed by the creativity of children left to their own devices. It is important to give them some time free of a schedule because they will come up with things to do that they really enjoy and will share with others.”

Source: University of Oregon