Wednesday 18 March 2009

Imaginary Worlds

Play occurs in mammals generally. It occurs when lion cubs rough and tumble, when dolphins gambol in the waves. Only in humans does it also express itself in symbolic form. As Judy Dunn shows in her (2004) book, Children's friendships, in human children it occurs between friends. Here, from the book's opening page, is a scene at a nursery school: a room in which there is a table, some dressing up clothes, some toys, and two four-year-old boys, friends who have been together at this school for a year. They begin investigating the dressing-up clothes, and a story begins, or is it a game?
First they are pirates sailing on a search for treasure, then their ship is wrecked, and they are attacked by sharks; they reach the safety of an island, and build a house (under the table). What to eat and how to cook it are problems that are ingeniously solved. Their elaborate adventure, their quickly solved disputes (are they being attacked by sharks or by crocodiles?), their extended conversations about what happens next—all are captured by our video camera in the corner of the room.
Dunn points out the children’s “absorption in the shared narrative.” She points out how the “pirate adventure depends on both children,” how what is seen “is the beginning of intimacy,” how what goes on is “emotionally exciting and absorbing for both children.”

One might also remark that scenes like this are the beginning of absorption in fiction. The imagination does not die in childhood. It is transformed, and it turns into conversation, into sports, into the arts. It involves sharing and simulation. Wayne Booth (1988) has proposed that the best way to think of our relationship to books, to their authors, and to their characters, is in the way we think of our friends. So reading fiction is an extension of friendship and, just as we are careful how we choose our friends, so we should be careful to choose what we read. In her book, Judy Dunn shows us the beginnings of friendships, and the connection with Booth's book suggests how the shared worlds of intimate play become the bases of fiction, and also of the sense of intimacy that we can achieve in fiction. Dunn's book also illuminates some of the bases of the relation between theory of mind and fiction, a central topic of our research (click here). So, says Dunn (p. 65):
... children who were early 'stars' at mind reading and understanding feelings were particularly likely to develop friendships in which they shared exciting and elaborate pretend play, and long, connected conversations ... Once a friendship begins to develop, the opportunities for the children involved to learn about what [the] other person feels and thinks increases markedly. It is through their creation of joint imaginary worlds, their extended conversations and their management of problems and disagreements that these opportunities arise.
(I have put micro-reviews of Judy Dunn's book and Wayne Booth's book in our Books on the Psychology of Fiction, which you can reach by clicking here.)

Judy Dunn (2004). Children's friendships: The beginnings of intimacy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wayne C. Booth (1988). The company we keep: An ethics of fiction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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