April 15, 2024

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Imaginary friends are a sign of a lively, creative mind. But they are leaving us | Daisy Buchanan

4 min read

When I was three, I had a very good friend named Gemma. She was fearless where I was fretful, rebellious where I was conservative and dextrous where I was clumsy. She was also entirely imaginary. With Gemma’s help and support, I almost made it to the top shelf of the bookcase before my parents found me – and “Gemma said it was OK!” did not save me from a telling off. Gemma was also very fond of Discos crisps and Bourbon biscuits, and I became very good at smuggling them into my bedroom for her.

I can’t remember when or how I “met” Gemma, and, perhaps sadder still, I don’t remember the last time I “saw” her. Even though my brain created her, she inspired me to go on adventures I would not have had the confidence to embark upon without her. So it saddened me to see the results of a recent survey showing 72% of nursery workers believed children have fewer imaginary friends than they did five years ago, with 63% believing this to be a result of increased screen time.

It’s thought that 40% of us had imaginary friends during our childhood, and there has been a shift in the way those friendships are perceived. Until the 1990s, imaginary friends were considered to be a psychological red flag, a sign of loneliness or an unwillingness to accept reality. However, the consensus has changed, and imaginary friendships are linked to advanced social skills, strong verbal abilities and, perhaps unsurprisingly, creativity.

In an essay for Aeon, the writer Sophie Elmhirst describes taking part in some research on the subject at the Institute of Education. The researchers found that 81% of those surveyed had “lost” their imaginary friends after they turned 10, but most of these friendships ended organically. Perhaps imaginary friends simply stay with us for as long as we need them, moving on when our lives become too full and fraught for our brains to make space to generate their own entertainment. In 2013 the educational researcher Teresa Belton explored the importance of boredom in childhood, and how it enhances creative skills. The presence of screens in our lives, Belton said, makes it difficult to carve out the mental space we need to daydream and explore our thoughts.

Some novelists have compared their relationships with their characters to a connection with imaginary friends. They may create and invent a personality, but these fictitious people often begin to behave in a way that wasn’t planned, sometimes disrupting the plot of a book entirely. In Aspects of the Novel, EM Forster wrote, “The characters arrive when evoked, but full of the spirit of mutiny … They ‘run away’, they ‘get out of hand’.” My friend the novelist Rosie Blake tells me, “I always wondered about authors who told me that their characters took on a life of their own. I used to think they sounded a bit pretentious, but then I found out it’s true. I’ll find that a minor character suddenly begins to appear where she wasn’t plotted to be, clamouring for more attention and a meatier part in the narrative. I used to try to block her out, but now I let her in and see where she takes me.”

If you’ve enjoyed an imaginary friendship, I’d guess that you did not consciously sit down to create a perfect pal – they probably arrived unbidden, as a manifestation of thoughts and ideas you never knew you had. Our imaginary friends prompt us to explore and honour our curiosity. It is very hard to make the time and the space to do this as an adult. In order to be a good companion to an imaginary friend, you need to be able to make “what if?” into an exciting proposition. When we grow up, we’re too quick to finish the sentence with, “what if it goes wrong?”

We know it’s important for adults to make time to play and yet few of us do so. We might not still need imaginary friends, but maybe we need to be reminded that a little bit of boredom is good for us, and that our brains can conjure up the best ideas when they are left to their own devices. If there are fewer imaginary friends populating the worlds that our children live in, that might lead to a future with fewer artists, writers and problem-solvers, which is a real cause for concern.

We could respond to this news by panicking, restricting screen time and forcing under-10s to embark on creative play programmes. Or we could start by looking at our own lives and making sure that we’re giving ourselves time to get bored, and to stumble upon the thoughts and ideas that excite and ignite us. If we’re open to our own boredom, we’ll be less desperate to optimise and control the schedules of the people we love – and that could lead to greater insight, greater empathy and the discovery of exciting, surprising talent.

As an adult, I think of impetuous, fearless Gemma whenever I have to do something that scares me – usually public speaking, rather than scaling a bookcase. But whenever I exceed my own expectations and meet myself in a place I didn’t think I could quite reach, I can hear my subconscious whispering, “Gemma made me do it”.

Daisy Buchanan is author of The Sisterhood – A Love Letter to the Women Who Shaped Me


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