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Magical Thinking, in Moderation December 24, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Literature.
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Remember when children’s books weren’t allowed to contain anything imaginary? At least according to recommendations of child psychologists. We’re talking about the 1970s and well into the Eighties. No fairy tales allowed, no tooth fairy, no Santa, and above all no imaginary friends, because one wouldn’t want children to grow up with a bunch of illusions that life could never measure up to, would one? So instead they wrote children’s books about parents divorcing, Fluffy the dog dying, and other realistic in-your-face topics, to train kids for more in-your-face adult hardship. Oh joy! That wasn’t much fun, was it? And I suspect that magical thinking just never went away, it just went underground—and resurfaced in graphic novels. So for a while we’ve been used to Superheroes being part of the Collective Unconscious of kids. But now we even hear from psychologists that it is downright healthy for kids to not only be exposed to fantastic tales, but even to make up stories themselves. Imaginary friends are to be encouraged and welcomed into the family! Apparently, children’s cognitive powers thrive by being exposed to, and learning to be comfortable within an imaginary universe.

Psychologists like Jacqueline Woolley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, are studying the process of “magical thinking,” or children’s fantasy lives, and how kids learn to distinguish between what is real and what isn’t.

The hope is that understanding how children’s cognition typically develops will also help scientists better understand developmental delays and conditions such as autism. For instance, there is evidence that imagination and role play appears to have a key role in helping children take someone else’s perspective, says Dr. Harris. Kids with autism, on the other hand, don’t engage in much pretend play, leading some to suggest that the lack of such activity contributes to their social deficits, according to Dr. Harris.

…It is important but not necessary for parents to encourage fantasy play in their children, says Dr. Woolley. If the child already has an imaginary friend, for instance, parents should follow their children’s lead and offer encouragement if they are comfortable doing so, she says. Similarly, with Santa, if a child seems excited by the idea, parents can encourage it. But if parents choose not to introduce or encourage the belief in fictitious characters, they should look for other ways to encourage their children’s imaginations, such as by playing dress-up or reading fiction.

For a narrative ethicist like myself this is of course fun stuff: psychologists advocating magical story-telling as an enhancement of social skills! That’s what narrative ethicists call a moral thought experiment. All over the world, raconteurs of children’s stories have always engaged in such mind experiments, but it is encouraging to see such an activity being promoted by psychologists. However…there’s got to be more to the study than that. Exactly how, and when does the child learn the difference between what’s real and what isn’t? Where is the built-in reality check? How far is the encouragement supposed to go? And is there an upper age limit? Are we supposed to engage in magical thinking into adulthood? (Which of course brings up the whole question of religion, and numerous anthropological studies.) This could be the flip side of the austere no-fairy-tales attitude: an indiscriminate acceptance of fantasies and magic, and I’m already beginning to yearn for stories like “When Mom and Dad Split Up.” Storytelling as a cognitive/ethical device has to include a measure of moderation, and a clear understanding that fantasy only “works” when contrasted to reality. And the studies referred to  surely must include just such an understanding—it’s just not apparent from the article.

Be that as it may, there is another aspect that fascinates me: the similarity to the old discussion between Plato (who discouraged an interest in fiction) and Aristotle (who encouraged it). Arguments that were presented 24 centuries ago are still valid today: Plato’s concern that exposure to emotional fiction (in the theater) can make the audience forget the all-important self-control provided by rationality, contrasted with Aristotle’s enthusiasm for the moral and psychological cleansing provided by a good, emotional drama. But both Plato and Aristotle lived in a world where moderation (Maeden Agan) was a moral and aesthetic ideal. So if we go down the Aristotelian path and encourage an immersion in dramatic fiction we should remember that he never meant for it to replace our sense of reality, but to enhance it. Some imagination is good, and even necessary in order to understand other minds, and other possibilities. Too much of it is not a good thing!

So, getting back to the imaginary friends: since this is Christmas Eve, is our imaginary friend Santa a plus or a minus in the cognitive development of a child? You decide. I never had a problem with Santa, not even when I realized (around the age of 5) that he was my granddad. And I was very careful not to let on that I had figured him out, because he was so jolly, and I didn’t want to ruin his Christmas…