Brad Wigger on his book, Invisible Companions

Interview with Laura Murry

Laura Murry: Please explain the main focus and argument of your book, Invisible Companions: Encounters with Imaginary Friends, Gods, Ancestors, and Angels.

Brad Wigger: The main focus of the book is the phenomenon of children’s invisible companions and how they reflect a deeply social cognition in children. Sometimes these figures are playful, as with imaginary friends who color or dance or go to the playground with a child. Some are more serious—they study or read or keep a child safe walking home. Some are relatives who died but show up to help a child feel better when sad. Still others cross clearly into religious territory. One child said his invisible friend is the Holy Spirit, another named God, another, an angel. In these cases, the children were explicit that the friends were “real, not imaginary.”

I often use the language of, invisible friends or IFs, in the book, to include all these various forms. But I still use “imaginary” when the children themselves are clear about their “pretend friends” or “imagination friends.” Still, whether IFs are playful and imaginary or serious or come from religious sensibilities, the relationships themselves are real and often powerful for, and meaningful to, the children.

The book documents these relationships and tries to illustrate the qualities of them. In contrast to many stereotypes about children’s thinking, they reveal a highly sophisticated childhood mind full of flexibility (facilitating learning), wildness (facilitating creativity), and even logic (facilitating engagement with the world). Most of all these relationships point to a child’s ability to share a social world. What begins with eye tracking in a baby develops into pointing and language, and the ability to share intentions and purposes with others.

In this way the book is part of a newer stream in child development studies over the last 25 years, represented by figures such as Alison Gopnik, Marjorie Taylor, and Paul Harris.  Their work has begun dismantling a developmental paradigm initiated in Freud’s understanding of children but boosted and institutionalized in Piaget. That view saw children’s minds as fundamentally driven by the ID, which is irrational, egocentric, and unable to differentiate fantasy from reality until middle childhood. The task of parents and teachers is to help children become reality-focused, social, and logical. In such a paradigm the imagination is a problem to be overcome. But in the newer wave of research, the imagination is actually a vehicle for problem-solving, for understanding and cooperating with others, and for learning about the (non-fantasy) world.    

Laura Murry: You primarily used long-form interviews and theory of mind tests to generate data for your book. Please explain your methods, highlighting what questions this approach best helped you answer. One specific query I had was whether the theory of mind tests helped you show that IFs were “in-betweens,” and thus in turn, helped to suggest “a connection between a child’s relationship with an imaginary friend and a human’s relationship to religious invisible beings” (6).

Brad Wigger: Yes, interviews and ToM tests were my primary forms of research. These reflect two directions: 1) descriptive, and 2) cognitive scientific. Descriptively, I wanted to hear children’s (and parents’) stories about IFs. What are they like? Do children know imaginary friends are different from “real/visible” friends? What do children do with them? How long do they hang around? What do parents think about them? No one interview answered all the questions, but collectively, a picture began to emerge.

The interviews were generally short (we interviewed children as young as two) and open. But we always tried to establish whether a child actually had an IF. Sometimes the children walked in with a picture they’d drawn and started talking about their friends immediately. For others, we eased into the subject: “Some children have friends nobody else can see, do you have any friends like that?”

Once we confirmed the child had an IF, we conducted ToM tasks with them. I was playing off the work of Justin Barret who found that even young children could differentiate between a human or animal mind and God’s mind. Children don’t seem to just project a human mind onto God, but they can accommodate the special features of God’s mind—that God might know things people don’t. I’m a theologian by training so had been particularly interested in these findings. I wanted to replicate the study but with a twist: How would children treat the minds of IFs? In short I found that IFs were statistically more likely to know things, according to the children, than a dog or human, but less likely to know than God. IFs were “in-between.” The only other finding similar to this was a study by Nicola Knight in the Yucatan who found that children treated the arux, elf-like forest spirits, in a similar way (in-between God and animals).

When I presented these findings from the US at an international conference focused upon the cognitive science of religion, participants immediately made connections to all kinds of religious “in-betweens”: angels, spirits, jinn, ancestors, or even Santa Claus. The findings led to the opportunity to interview kids in multiple countries (Kenya, Nepal, Dominican Republic, and Malawi) from various religious backgrounds. Though I generally describe these in the book, I have published these findings in peer-reviewed empirical journals.

But I wanted a book, as a book, to tell a story (or multiple stories) about children and IFs. Not only did I hope stories would make the work more engaging, I believed a narrative approach actually reflects and respects the subject matter: more often than not IFs were characters in the stories children told me, full of plots and settings.

Not sure this answers your specific query or not—but generally religions around the world understand the cosmos as populated with all kinds of invisible figures and encourage relationships with them. Several are “in-between” a high God and humans. The ToM findings potentially demonstrate how easily even children can differentiate kinds of minds. While the IFs demonstrate how easily (at least some) children can cultivate relationships with the invisible. I can try again if this wasn’t quite helpful.

Laura Murry: I loved the question, which you returned a few times throughout the book, what if they’re real? In this context, “they” are invisible friends. To your mind, what’s at stake in this question? Can we answer it? For example, my research is in animal studies and Mayanthi Fernando recently pointed out that animal studies scholars are generally better at thinking with more-than-human animals rather than spirits, jinns, ghosts, and so on. She seems to suggest that it’s a legacy and limitation of modernist/secular regimes of thought. Is this true here? Or are the implications different?

Brad Wigger: That’s great to connect the issues you point to in the Fernando essay [which I didn’t know] and her analysis of the limits of secular frame (or immanent frame) via the work of Charles Taylor. He does a brilliant job of detailing the development and limitations of the modernist, secular, disenchanted, “subtraction story”: take away the irrationalities and superstition of religion, animism, and anything “more,” and we will finally become grown up and enlightened. It’s essentially the same argument Freud made, both about young children and humanity in general—children and early humans are dominated by fantasy and irrationality blinding them to reality. Taylor shows the ways in which this story has become so much the assumption in modern thought—the unquestioned water we swim in—that it’s becomes a closed circle, a syllogism: of course the gods aren’t real because there isn’t anything else.  

The connection to my research is that because Freud’s analysis of childhood was deeply flawed, as mentioned, this opens the door to the possibility that his analysis (as representative of the immanent frame) of religion is flawed as well. Because children are less formed in this frame, and more “porous” (Taylor) to a sense of more, perhaps they are more open to the “presences” that Auden says “we are lived by” and “pretend to understand.”

Though I work and teach in a religious context, I too feel the cross-pressures of secular thought and a sense of transcendence, a tension that can only be lived with if we take both science and religion seriously, as I do. But both good religion and good science work hard to stay open and resist a closed system.   

I first wrote out my “what if they’re real” question in Nepal in the hills of the Himalayas surrounded by Hindu temples and Buddhas and shrines to gods and goddesses in every direction—anything but a secular frame. The context helped raise the question and perhaps the possibility that my own sense of reality is too small. The fact that we have no way to definitively answer the question suggests that living in this tension is our best hope of staying open.

Laura Murry: On this note, I was also most interested in cases where imaginary friends took on more-than-human forms either by being animals or by being many things, by being “protean” or “shape shifters” as you put it, as in the case of Jeff/Jeffette. What is the significance of this finding? Does it change our understandings of the human mind, childhood development, and social imagination? 

Brad Wigger: Yes, I think the shape-shifting friends were some of the most fascinating. My first experience with an IF was through my daughter and her imaginary friend, Crystal. As far as I knew Crystal was more or less the same throughout the time she was around. So when I heard about friends who took on different genders or species, I was surprised. For example, a three-year-old girl’s IF was Lucy. And Lucy was sometimes a “mom” but could also be a rabbit, lion, tiger, mouse, or a zebra. But whatever form, it was always Lucy.

This led me into thinking about the paradoxical relationship between continuity and difference, essence and change.  The human mind has to hold together both. Essences give us stability, the sense of an enduring identity for example, either of other people, things, or even ourselves (but also leads to essentialism, stereotypes, reductionisms of many kinds). 

But these shape-shifters also led me to the role of proteanism in studies of animal behavior—the role of unpredictability in the survival of a species. Rabbits run erratically, as do most species who are prey. Fish and ducks will scatter, lizards fake convulsions, etc. Unpredictability and strange behavior make these more difficult to catch. In humans, proteanism shows up in sports, or arts, our dreams at night yielding surprising moves, novel creations, or scientific breakthroughs. I speculate in the book that the wild side of the imagination and especially childhood imaginative play enhance mental flexibility, or cognitive plasticity, crucial to learning and dealing with an everchanging world of physical and social environments. Children are better able to face the unexpected, improvise, problem solve, and learn. Again, this is a reversal of the emphasis upon becoming “reality focused” in earlier developmental paradigms. 

Laura Murry: You theorize imagination as a “phenomenon [that] points to something fundamental about human knowing, its originality in the creaturely world, our original knowing” (179). That is, you highlight the role of imagination in the human evolutionary process. At the same time, you ask questions about the relationship of imaginary friends and religious beings. Yet you reject the idea that religious beings are–to put crudely–imaginary friends writ large. Please explain your thinking on this subject. 

Brad Wigger: I think there are two parts to your question. First, I do a quick summary of the role of the imagination in the unique aspects of human knowing. I wrote a whole other book called, “Original Knowing,” charting this out in more detail. I follow the case made by primatologist, Michael Tomasello, who has persuasively argued that joint attention and joint goals in humans—the deeply social nature of human knowing—are fundamental to the difference between, say, fishing for termites in a mound and building a rocket ship, writing a novel, or creating a financial system. The capacity to coordinate my goals or purposes with yours, and vice versa, I’m suggesting, is an act of the imagination, a social imagination.

Second, concerning the relationship between imaginary friends and religious beings, certainly many cognitive scientists feel that IFs of any sort are “nothing but” a by-product of our hyper-social minds that are so ready to attribute mind everywhere that we attribute minds to trees and mountains (as in animism) or to the invisible source of the cosmos (a creator god) and figures in-between (angels and ancestors). This is an updated version of Freud’s critique of religion as fueled by psychological processes.

And they could be right. This is part of the tension of living in the modern, immanent frame with a sense that there could be “more,” some suspicion that the world as we know it is not the whole picture. That “more” is neither provable nor disprovable. I’m just not willing to reduce the gods to a psychological process any more than I would reduce the sky out my window to nothing but a human projection. In the book I explore the dilemma through the question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

In the end, I think what imaginary friends and religious beings have in common is the cognitive capacity for meaningful relationships with invisible beings (if not invisible worlds). In the book I playfully turn the question around: Perhaps we are God’s imaginary friends, born of a desire for relationship, and that’s what makes us real.

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