• August 29, 2015

The Pleasures of Imagination

The Pleasures of Imagination 1

Wayne Miller, Magnum Photos

How do Americans spend their leisure time? The answer might surprise you. The most common voluntary activity is not eating, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs. It is not socializing with friends, participating in sports, or relaxing with the family. While people sometimes describe sex as their most pleasurable act, time-management studies find that the average American adult devotes just four minutes per day to sex.

Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. While citizens of other countries might watch less television, studies in England and the rest of Europe find a similar obsession with the unreal.

This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days. Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities—eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children. Instead, 2-year-olds pretend to be lions, graduate students stay up all night playing video games, young parents hide from their offspring to read novels, and many men spend more time viewing Internet pornography than interacting with real women. One psychologist gets the puzzle exactly right when she states on her Web site: "I am interested in when and why individuals might choose to watch the television show Friends rather than spending time with actual friends."

One solution to this puzzle is that the pleasures of the imagination exist because they hijack mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure. We enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don't distinguish them from real ones. This is a powerful idea, one that I think is basically—though not entirely—right. (Certain phenomena, including horror movies and masochistic daydreams, require a different type of explanation.)

The capacity for imaginative pleasure is universal, and it emerges early in development. All normal children, everywhere, enjoy playing and pretending. There are cultural differences in the type and frequency of play. A child in New York might pretend to be an airplane; a hunter-gatherer child will not. In the 1950s, American children played Cowboys and Indians; not so much anymore. In some cultures, play is encouraged; in others, children have to sneak off to do it. But it is always there. Failure to play and pretend is a sign of a neurological problem, one of the early symptoms of autism.

Developmental psychologists have long been interested in children's appreciation of the distinction between pretense and reality. We know that children who have reached their fourth birthday tend to have a relatively sophisticated understanding, because when we ask them straight out about what is real and what is pretend, they tend to get it right. What about younger children? Two-year-olds pretend to be animals and airplanes, and they can understand when other people do the same thing. A child sees her father roaring and prowling like a lion, and might run away, but she doesn't act as though she thinks her father is actually a lion. If she believed that, she would be terrified. The pleasure children get from such activities would be impossible to explain if they didn't have a reasonably sophisticated understanding that the pretend is not real.

It is an open question how early this understanding emerges, and there is some intriguing experimental work exploring this. My own hunch is that even babies have some limited grasp of pretense, and you can see this from casual interaction. A useful way to spend time with a 1-year-old is to put your face up close and wait for the baby to grab at your glasses or nose or hair. Once there is contact, pull your head back and roar in mock rage. The first time you get a bit of surprise, maybe concern, a dash of fear, but then you put your head back and wait for the baby to try again. She will, and then you give the pretend-startled response. Many babies come to find this hilarious. (If the baby is an eye-poker, you can wrestle over keys instead.) For this to work, though, the baby has to know that you are not even a little bit angry; the baby must know that you are pretending.

Why do we get pleasure from the imagination? Isn't it odd that toddlers enjoy pretense, and that children and adults are moved by stories, that we have feelings about characters and events that we know do not exist? As the title of a classic philosophy article put it, how can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina?

The emotions triggered by fiction are very real. When Charles Dickens wrote about the death of Little Nell in the 1840s, people wept—and I'm sure that the death of characters in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series led to similar tears. (After her final book was published, Rowling appeared in interviews and told about the letters she got, not all of them from children, begging her to spare the lives of beloved characters such as Hagrid, Hermione, Ron, and, of course, Harry Potter himself.) A friend of mine told me that he can't remember hating anyone the way he hated one of the characters in the movie Trainspotting, and there are many people who can't bear to experience certain fictions because the emotions are too intense. I have my own difficulty with movies in which the suffering of the characters is too real, and many find it difficult to watch comedies that rely too heavily on embarrassment; the vicarious reaction to this is too unpleasant.

These emotional responses are typically muted compared with the real thing. Watching a movie in which someone is eaten by a shark is less intense than watching someone really being eaten by a shark. But at every level—physiological, neurological, psychological—the emotions are real, not pretend.

Does this suggest that people believe, at some level, that the events are real? Do we sometimes think that fictional characters actually exist and fictional events actually occur? Of course, people get fooled, as when parents tell their children about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, or when an adult mistakes a story for a documentary, or vice versa. But the idea here is more interesting than that—it is that even once we consciously know something is fictional, there is a part of us that believes it's real.

There is something to this: It can be devilishly hard to pull apart fiction from reality. There are several studies showing that reading a fact in a story—and knowing that it is fiction—increases the likelihood that you believe the fact to be true. And this makes sense, because stories are mostly true. If you were to read a novel that takes place in London toward the end of the 1980s, you would learn a lot about how people in that time and place talked to one another, what they ate, how they swore, and so on, because any decent storyteller has to include these truths as a backdrop for the story. The average person's knowledge of law firms, emergency rooms, police departments, prisons, submarines, and mob hits is not rooted in real experience or nonfictional reports. It is based on stories. Someone who watched cop shows on television would absorb many truths about contemporary police work ("You have the right to remain silent . . ."), and a viewer of a realistic movie such as Zodiac would learn more. Indeed, many people seek out certain types of fiction (historical novels, for example) because they want a painless way of learning about reality.

We go too far sometimes. Fantasy can be confounded with reality. For example, the publication of The Da Vinci Code led to a booming tourism industry in Scotland, by people accepting the novel's claims about the location of the Holy Grail. Then there is the special problem of confusing actors with the characters they play. Leonard Nimoy, an actor born in Boston to Yiddish-speaking Russian immigrants, was frequently confused with his best-known role, Mr. Spock, from the planet Vulcan. This was sufficiently frustrating that he published a book called I Am Not Spock (and then, 20 years later, published I Am Spock). Or consider the actor Robert Young, star of one of the first medical programs, Marcus Welby, M.D., who reported getting thousands of letters asking for medical advice. He later exploited this confusion by appearing in his doctor persona (wearing a white lab coat) on television commercials for aspirin and decaffeinated coffee. There is, then, an occasional blurring between fact and reality.

In the end, though, those brought to tears by Anna Karenina are perfectly aware that she is a character in a novel; those people who wailed when J.K. Rowling killed off Dobby the House Elf knew full well that he doesn't exist. And even young children appreciate the distinction between reality and fiction; when you ask them, "Is such-and-so real or make-believe?," they get it right.

Why, then, are we so moved by stories?

David Hume tells the story of a man who is hung out of a high tower in a cage of iron. He knows himself to be perfectly secure, but, still, he "cannot forebear trembling." Montaigne gives a similar example, saying that if you put a sage on the edge of a precipice, "he must shudder like a child." My colleague, the philosopher Tamar Gendler, describes the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass walkway that extends 70 feet from the canyon's rim. It is supposedly a thrilling experience. So thrilling

that some people drive several miles over a dirt road to get there and then discover that they are too afraid to step onto the walkway. In all of these cases, people know they are perfectly safe, but they are nonetheless frightened.

In an important pair of papers, Gend-ler introduces a novel term to describe the mental state that underlies these reactions: She calls it "alief." Beliefs are attitudes that we hold in response to how things are. Aliefs are more primitive. They are responses to how things seem. In the above example, people have beliefs that tell them they are safe, but they have aliefs that tell them they are in danger. Or consider the findings of Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, that people often refuse to drink soup from a brand-new bedpan, eat fudge shaped like feces, or put an empty gun to their head and pull the trigger. Gendler notes that the belief here is: The bedpan is clean, the fudge is fudge, the gun is empty. But the alief is stupid, screaming, "Filthy object! Dangerous object! Stay away!"

The point of alief is to capture the fact that our minds are partially indifferent to the contrast between events that we believe to be real versus those that seem to be real, or that are imagined to be real. This extends naturally to the pleasures of the imagination. Those who get pleasure voyeuristically watching real people have sex will enjoy watching actors having sex in a movie. Those who like observing clever people interact in the real world will get the same pleasure observing actors pretend to be such people on television. Imagination is Reality Lite—a useful substitute when the real pleasure is inaccessible, too risky, or too much work.

Often we experience ourselves as the agent, the main character, of an imaginary event. To use a term favored by psychologists who work in this area, we get transported. This is how daydreams and fantasies typically work; you imagine winning the prize, not watching yourself winning the prize. Certain video games work this way as well: They establish the illusion of running around shooting aliens, or doing tricks on a skateboard, through visual stimulation that fools a part of you into thinking—or alieving—that you, yourself, are moving through space.

For stories, though, you have access to information that the character lacks. The philosopher Noël Carroll gives the example of the opening scene in Jaws. You can't be merely taking the teenager's perspective as she swims in the dark, because she is cheerful, and you are terrified. You know things that she doesn't. You hear the famous, ominous music; she doesn't. You know that she is in a movie in which sharks eat people; she thinks that she is living a normal life.

This is how empathy works in real life. You would feel the same way seeing someone happily swim while a shark approaches her. In both fiction and reality, then, you simultaneously make sense of the situation from both the character's perspective and from your own.

Samuel Johnson, writing about Shakespeare, said: "The delight of tragedy proceeds from our consciousness of fiction; if we thought murders and treasons real, they would please no more." Johnson was a brilliant writer, but plainly he had never heard of O.J. Simpson. If he had, he'd realize that we get plenty of pleasure from real tragedy. Indeed, Shakespeare's tragedies depict precisely the sorts of events that we most enjoy witnessing in the real world—complex and tense social interactions revolving around sex, love, family, wealth, and status.

I have argued that our emotions are partially insensitive to the contrast between real versus imaginary, but it is not as if we don't care—real events are typically more moving than their fictional counterparts. This is in part because real events can affect us in the real world, and in part because we tend to ruminate about the implications of real-world acts. When the movie is finished or the show is canceled, the characters are over and done with. It would be odd to worry about how Hamlet's friends are coping with his death because these friends don't exist; to think about them would involve creating a novel fiction. But every real event has a past and a future, and this can move us. It is easy enough to think about the families of those people whom O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering.

But there are also certain compelling features of the imagination. Just as artificial sweeteners can be sweeter than sugar, unreal events can be more moving than real ones. There are three reasons for this.

First, fictional people tend to be wittier and more clever than friends and family, and their adventures are usually much more interesting. I have contact with the lives of people around me, but this is a small slice of humanity, and perhaps not the most interesting slice. My real world doesn't include an emotionally wounded cop tracking down a serial killer, a hooker with a heart of gold, or a wisecracking vampire. As best I know, none of my friends has killed his father and married his mother. But I can meet all of those people in imaginary worlds.

Second, life just creeps along, with long spans where nothing much happens. The O.J. Simpson trial lasted months, and much of it was deadly dull. Stories solve this problem—as the critic Clive James once put it, "Fiction is life with the dull bits left out." This is one reason why Friends is more interesting than your friends.

Finally, the technologies of the imagination provide stimulation of a sort that is impossible to get in the real world. A novel can span birth to death and can show you how the person behaves in situations that you could never otherwise observe. In reality you can never truly know what a person is thinking; in a story, the writer can tell you.

So while reality has its special allure, the imaginative techniques of books, plays, movies, and television have their own power. The good thing is that we do not have to choose. We can get the best of both worlds by taking an event that people know is real and using the techniques of the imagination to transform it into an experience that is more interesting and powerful than the normal perception of reality could ever be. The best example of this is an art form that has been invented in my lifetime, one that is addictively powerful, as shown by the success of shows such as The Real World, Survivor, The Amazing Race, and Fear Factor. What could be better than reality television?

Paul Bloom is a professor of psychology at Yale University. He is author of the forthcoming book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like (W.W. Norton & Company), from which this essay is adapted.


1. annie1931 - June 01, 2010 at 09:44 am

And sometimes the Real World is just too much to bear.

2. vroomfondle - June 01, 2010 at 09:50 am

Interesting article.

"In the above example, people have beliefs that tell them they are safe, but they have aliefs that tell them they are in danger"

I'm not sure it's useful to invent new abstract nouns to the theory, degrees of belief are sufficient :

"people know they are perfectly safe"

I don't think so, that suggests that planes have never crashed or bridges have never collapsed, it makes perfect sense to assess the levels of danger yourself before walking on a glass bridge.

Towards the end it occured to me that we use imagination in reverse also. Real life situations like global warming and wars about which we can do very little on a day-to-day basis are tucked-away like a chapter in a book that we've just read, to be remembered later for the next installment. More immediate dilemnas like paying bills or dealing with a dying relative can also be consigned to a part of the brain as a coping mechanism. Perhaps this could go towards explaining the thin line between real and imagined experiences as explored in this essay?

3. pjreece - June 01, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Wonderful subject..."why we need fiction". I've been examining this phenomenon on my blog over the past six months. Briefly, I believe that we are drawn into the vicarious experience of the protagonist's suffering, defeat, and subsequent expanded worldview. This is so extremely compelling simply because it corresponds to the evolution of our consciousness. We are vicariously evolving through every story's climax. And I agree...reality television often has much to offer in this department. I oughta know...I was creative director of a reality show. Now I write novels.

Here are two short blog entries that might shed light on my comments:



4. grupenhoff - June 01, 2010 at 01:37 pm

Perhaps it's possible that people don't avoid the difficulties of real life by escaping into fantasy; rather, they escape the boredom of real life for the more meaningful, deeper life of the imagination.

5. anonscribe - June 01, 2010 at 02:03 pm

Nice article, if obviously problematic.

I don't enjoy reading about detectives as a "replacement" for doing detective work or meeting a detective. I enjoy reading about detectives precisely because of the narrative form involved. The genre, not the corrollary experience, is what I covet. This is evidenced by the fact that we often mold our experiences to fit narratives we prefer. For instance, when we become so attached to certain narratives in pornography that we act out those narratives in our "real" sex lives (as though pornography isn't apart of our real sex life). Often what we desire isn't the real in our fantasies but our fantasies in the real.

Stories serve an educating function. Hence, we often develop expectations, which may or may not be met, by the narratives we prefer. Would "Paris" be "Paris" without having consumed narratives of Paris? Can "Paris" itself (the "real space" you can reference with a postal code or in a treaty) be said to belong to the real or "imaginary" half of the binary set up by the article?

These binaries, while not entirely useless, get us into problems if we take them too seriously.

6. helenbetya - June 01, 2010 at 04:28 pm

isn't it all about MIRROR NEURONS?

mirror neurons!!

in other words, the way that playing video games can elicit neurophysiological responses like those of actually doing the played activity ... the way that watching someone fall in love onscreen can elicit a shadow of falling-in-love chemistry within ... EMPATHY.

these shadows of the real, in fact, themselves mirroring the workings of fiction. //

and i do think humans crave terrible (horror-movie-like) experiences, in a perverse way. perhaps for the thrill of feeling so alive. perhaps for the perspective it gives on one's own life. how reading about sad things can actually make one happier, and vice versa.

7. bjohnd - June 02, 2010 at 05:42 pm

Thanks to Prof. Bloom for a though provoking article. It is interesting to speculate what will become of us when the experience of movies and video games becomes so realistic that the achievement disbelief becomes increasingly difficult. Many viewers reported overwhelming sadness after seeing the movie Avatar, attributing those feelings to the immersive 3D experience. There is a computer game engine in development called "project offset" that is expected to do for video games what Avatar's technology has done for animation.

If that is the future of fiction, then the very distinction between fantasy and reality is in jeopardy in the audience's mind, and in need of some serious reiteration. Consider the recent trial in Korea:


8. mrmars - June 03, 2010 at 09:12 am

Anyone who doubts the power of make-believe need only attend church on Sunday, read a history of the Crusades, or reflect on the impact of suicide bombers in today's society. Not only does make-believe come naturally to our species we've institutionalized it, and take great pains to indoctrinate our children in our "flavor" of choice at an early age. So our religions become both a source of solace and strength in times of trial and a great millstone around our necks that often prevents us from clearly understanding our condition and fully seeking and applying rational solutions to problems that would otherwise be obvious; a paradox of the first order.

9. npronpro - June 03, 2010 at 11:16 am

Wonderful essay. I'm surprised by the quibbles expressed above - but they again I shouldn't - this is an academic website.

10. westtexas - June 03, 2010 at 12:07 pm

A narrative constellates the confusion of daily life. Formlessness is no pleasure.

11. tripp3 - June 03, 2010 at 05:31 pm

Thanks for a good read.
It occurred to me just a few paragraphs in that perhaps it is in this operation of moving back and forth between imagination and reality that helps us learn ability to learn what is real.

12. erislf - June 03, 2010 at 06:14 pm

"So while reality has its special allure, the imaginative techniques of books, plays, movies, and television have their own power. The good thing is that we do not have to choose. We can get the best of both worlds by taking an event that people know is real and using the techniques of the imagination to transform it into an experience that is more interesting and powerful than the normal perception of reality could ever be."

My critique has to do with the assertion that we can, in fact, 'know [what] is real.' Like one of the previous responders, I too have problems with this distinction between 'reality' and 'unreality' (fiction, imagination, belief, etc.) Further, I wonder how, exactly, we might be able to parse this "normal perception of reality" iterated above--after all, the descriptive 'normal' already mediates the 'reality' of which the author writes, in effect offering it up to mediation before it has had the chance to 'be in itself' at all. (I suppose I might want to know if 'reality' here means that which is self-revealing or that which requires some sort of intelligent intervention--at times I felt that the author confuses reality with rationality and imagination with emotion or affect, which might lead to an entirely different set of critiques/conversations.)
We might, in any case, decide or be persuaded that "this is what has happened" through the techniques of mediation, but mediation is itself a powerful work of imagination that can never be equated with 'raw experience' (and I will leave this in quotes, because I'm not so sure there is such a thing.) How, for example, do any of us come to understand something like 9/11--can this 'event' ever really be accessed, ever become self-apparent? If so, by what pretenses do we parse the 'real' of this event? Through what mechanisms of negation are we able to arrive at what is purely imaginitive or mediated? I am highly doubtful that this is a project that any of us could do or would want to do, though I invite anyone interested to try...I would also invite the author of this piece to begin a conversation with cultural studies, which seems apt to offer some useful critique to his schema.

13. futureprof7337 - June 03, 2010 at 09:48 pm

I enjoy #8 @mrmars and #10 @westtexas remarks, and do very much agree with them. Much of life is chaos and ambiguity, and maybe great arts give us order.

Also I'm a big fan of the imaginative arts.

14. maa0162 - June 05, 2010 at 12:50 am


If religion is a "millstone around our necks that often prevents us from clearly understanding our condition and fully seeking and applying rational solutions to problems that would otherwise be obvious," then does that mean you are religious too?

If not, then when are those of you who have figured out these simple questions of the "obvious" going to overcome that problem and show the rest of us how simple life is supposed to be?

Surely, if the problem of life is a matter of those who exist in the "obvious" against those who exist with the "millstone," then your work towards the end of solving that problem should be as simple as you propose it to be!

15. mverde - June 05, 2010 at 02:01 am

Professor Bloom asks, "Why do we get pleasure from the imagination?" Perhaps all pleasure, like all fear, is imagined. If an experience, any experience, was not imagined, perhaps we would not experience it at all. Perhaps it is not possible to know what is until we imagine it to be so; or what's true until we have created it. The pleasure of imagining may simply be the feeling the brain has when it is doing the only thing it ever does--create and recreate worlds. What professor Bloom characterizes as adaptive activities ("eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children") are all as much imaginative productions as they are "real-world" acts. All of this to say that there is a dichotomy implicit in Professor's Bloom article, a contrast between real things and imagined things, that reveals how we typically imagine things, not how things really are in some pre-, non-, or trans-imagined state of affairs. There is no real world that is not real in an imaginatively constructed way. That the brain experiences pleasure in doing what creates it, is good news indeed.

16. malcolmbellamy - June 05, 2010 at 12:25 pm

This was certainly a powerful essay. It made me think about the role of imagination in all our lives and the fact that creativity and imagination in schoolwork is central to student growth. It reflects a need in all of us to experience things at one step removed from reality and it allows us to develop the skills to "invent the future" and develop ideas that do not exist but can do so.
In respect to the ability of literature to effect our emotions deeply.. maybe it is a way that we can keep in touch with them. I also believe that emotion plays a very significant part in our development. We may listen to a piece of music in a dispassionate way and express our appreciation of the use of harmonic scales or we may just be moved to tears or some other powerful emotion by listening to it and allowing it to reach down into us and put us in connection with the power of emotion which creates drive and allows us to move forward (and sometimes very backward... think for example of the deep emotions of hatred and bigotry).
As I have said in a recent blog entry about creativity we neglect the elements of creativity and emotion in our children's education at our peril.
Thank you Professor Bloom for a thought provoking essay.

17. dotty - June 06, 2010 at 11:22 am

A thought provoking article, thank you.
I think there can be a distinction between listening to stories by reading or watching movies, and creating your own stories by daydreaming etc.
I also wanted to add that there is no mention of the need to escape reality by creating an imaginary world, which I know from experience, but am not an expert in any way. If your real life is intolerable, or relationships are intolerable, the imagination becomes somehow necessary.

18. aldebaran - June 06, 2010 at 04:30 pm

Thinkers as diverse as Coleridge and Bachelard would cringe at the sloppy thinking and terminology displayed in this article: Imagination, fantasy, reverie, daydreaming--these are NOT mere synonyms, as the author would have us believe.

Further, Professor Bloom would do well to study the 18th-Century theorists of the Sublime in England and Europe. Their analyses of vicarious experience, imagination, emotion, and especially of "pleasurable fear", offer a sophistication, despite their age, that he would be wise to emulate in his work.

19. sarah_goodwin - June 07, 2010 at 02:48 pm

See Keats's letters, and his poem "The Eve of St. Agnes." Dream, "reality" and poem are all alluring worlds.

20. rosmerta - June 08, 2010 at 02:19 pm

A very thought-provoking article. I'm reminded of Terry Pratchett's concept of "narrativium" and his theories about the importance of Story to human beings: http://wiki.lspace.org/wiki/Narrativium

Regarding the way even babies can tell false from true, I've long been struck by how easy it is to amuse a baby by pretending to cry about something. I would really like to know how they can tell I'm pretending! Real tears concern or frighten babies, but fake cries make them giggle ... how? why?

21. nickpapandreou - June 14, 2010 at 08:41 am

Plato's main attack on tragedy (theater) was that theater replicates real emotions and that this is coarse and vain manipulation of emotions... he would have wrung his hands in despair over a reader crying upon Anna Karenina's death. Thus Bloom's argument has been made before -- about 2000 years back.... But of course this article is enriched with other arguments as well.... and yields some other thoughts. Plato also attacked writing as something that will weaken our memory skills. Until then most of history had been oral. Havelock Ellis, a creative classicist, wrote a lovely essay called "The Muse Learns to Write" wherein he describes how ancient tragedy sprung from the friction caused from going from the oral world to the written one. Metaphors and similes born in an oral culture took on new traction when put into theatrical dialogue and this explains the Freudian-laden power of ancient Greek tragedy.... Not the same, but on a smaller scale, perhaps one can argue optimistically that we are presently living a new shift, that from books to the digital world, and being on the cusp of such a change may generate the appropriate sparks, may cause ome sort of imaginative friction and a few new imaginative fires to glow and yield us yet another "classic" work of art.

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