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Magic for the Mind: Why are imaginary worlds so appealing?

They are not real but can really feel as though they are.

From our own sofa, we can explore new places, encounter strange creatures and plants, and have great adventures.

I am talking about imaginary worlds: places made from the human imagination, where we encounter an unknown that we can never physically go to.

A Popular Phenomena

Though not a new phenomenon — Homer, the ancient Greek poet, conjured up his hidden Odysseus Islands more than 3,000 years ago — imaginary worlds have really boomed over the past century.

The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Marvel, and Star Wars, to name but a few, and where they are set — such as that famous Galaxy far, far, away — have been huge successes at bookshops and box offices, and both creators and fans have been happy to return to them.

Shows such as The Rings of Power, the most expensive series ever made, and House of the Dragon, a Game of Thrones spinoff, are popular recent releases, whilst recent reports suggest that new Lord of the Rings films are soon coming back on the big screen.

Granted, we’d save energy and time by using Planet Earth, but creating and exploring whole new worlds seems to have a special type of appeal. Though maybe most spectacular through the eyes of children, such worlds are beloved by people of every age, all over the world.

I’m Livia, a regular contributor at Inspire the Mind, and I love to travel to such places, though I am not sure as to why, exactly. Are dragons simply inherently cool, or does something happen in the brain when we encounter imaginary worlds?

Now, new research in cognitive science may be on track to reveal why such worlds are so appealing, and it may have everything to do with our prehistoric ancestors.

Prehistoric Wanderlust

Cognitive scientists Edgar Dubourg and Nicholas Baumard from Paris Sciences et Lettres University have recently proposed that our preoccupation with made-up worlds may stem from how humans once evolved to be natural explorers.

As modern humans evolved, tens of thousands of years ago, we were shaped by the world around us, a place much more dangerous than today.

We were hunter-gatherers who constantly searched for new, wild resources, such as food and shelter, to overcome the ever-present threats of starvation and predators.

To help us get to new places, new resources, and therefore a new day, we developed the dopamine system. Every time we do, or are about to do, activities that support our survival, such as eating, the dopamine system releases a neurochemical inside the brain that makes us feel pleasant sensations, motivating us to do that activity again.

Led by the prospect of new berry reserves, we made our way across savannas and steppes, not for fun adventure, but pure sustenance. Eventually, we became really keen explorers, so much so that we soon spread from Africa to Eurasia and the Americas.

In our comparably much safer modern world, where more people than ever get their resources from the shops, we no longer need to search for them from dawn to dusk.

We do, however, have the same brains that our ancestors once evolved, and therefore the same dopamine system and the same exploratory urges, though today we refer to them more as wanderlust.

The Rewards of the Unknown

Even though there are never any actually useful resources to be found there, Dubourg and Baumard suggest that fantasy worlds appeal to us because they meet that natural, dopamine-fuelled need to explore the unknown.

Research has shown that the dopamine system activates when we encounter new places, even when we go without physical rewards.

The spectacularly unknown and unreal, such as an enchanted forest, or a brand-new planet, are basically small dopamine treasures for the forager self we have within, who always wants us to keep discovering new resources. Middle Earth, to take one example, has its own languages, plants and creatures, and even its own natural laws: the knowledge that the hunter-gatherer brain judges to be useful.

Not everybody enjoys imaginary worlds, of course. We may all have a cognitive preference to explore, but how much we are individually drawn to them appears dependent on certain factors, Dubourg and Baumard say.

They have found that younger people appear to enjoy them more since humans explore most when they know the least about the world, as do those who have more of the Big Five personality trait Openness. According to the Big Five theory, everybody has more or less of five broad personality traits which, apart from openness, includes extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. People who are more open are believed to generally be more imaginative, creative, and adventurous — all attributes that probably help make magical worlds quite attractive.

Dubourg and Baumard also hypothesise that other worlds should be more popular where humans have easy access to resources but nonetheless have that hunter-gatherer urge to explore the wild unknown. Now, however, many people explore the unknown at least partly through books, video games, and films. In another study, Dubourg and Baumard found an interesting correlation between GDP per capita — a measure of economic growth, and the consumption of fiction novels: as China and the United States, for example, become more affluent throughout the 1900s, their populations can afford to — and do — spend more time visiting imaginary worlds.

Magic and Mental Health

Such fantasy places are great for an enjoyable temporary escape — a real asset during the Covid-19 lockdown, for example — but not much evidence suggests they support everyday well-being, according to Edgar Dubourg.

In a new, not yet published study, Dubourg and colleagues tested whether imaginary worlds are linked to mental health but found no correlation.

“Fiction tells us about our psychology,” says Edgar Dubourg, “more than it actually changes our psychology”.

Fantasy worlds may turn out to be practically useful for other reasons, however.

Our love for imaginary places may be a legacy of our ancestors and their world, but that ancient psychology could, in theory, help us save our planet as we need to travel less, Dubourg continues.

“It could be tested whether fictions with imaginary worlds lower the number of recreational trips because more explorative people can actually fulfil their drive to explore through fiction”.

Even so, although we should never forget to explore the real world around us and collect those 10,000 steps regularly, fantasy worlds should be enjoyed for the moments of magic they bring to our minds.


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