Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in Sep-Oct 2012

Field of dreams

They come in paracosms.

I came across a word the other day that put our dreams into perspective.

Paracosm. It’s like a macrocosm or a microcosm – except it doesn’t really exist. Because it’s a reference for all the imaginary friends some of us made (up) during childhood.

Or, more specifically, it is the phenomenon of a detailed imaginary world that children create that has its own language, geography, history and culture, and is populated with fantasy or alien creations. More often than not, “it is an experience that is developed during childhood and continues over a long period of time, months or even years.”[1]

While one in 30 children invent paracosms in the playgrounds of their minds, most adults will not be caught dead admitting to having had imaginary friends or worlds. The concept first surfaced in 1976 with Robert Silvey, a researcher for the BBC, with later research carried out by British psychiatrist Stephen A. MacKeith and British psychologist David Cohen, both of whom were interested in childhood creativity and problem solving.[2] They believed that paracosms or worldplay, is a sign of high intelligence.

In her chapter in the International Handbook on Giftedness, Michelle Root-Bernstein describes how paracosms among children indicate high levels of intelligence and creativity in later life which “supplement objective measures of intellectual giftedness... as well as subjective measures of superior technical talent.”[3] That’s just a la-di-da way to describe a budding genius. And if this is not enough, Marjorie Taylor, another child development psychologist, explores paracosms as part of her study on imaginary companions and the children who befriend them.[4]

Their research points to the many advantages of paracosmic activity experienced best by children aged nine to 10 – a period in mid-childhood that cannot be undervalued as it is still not clear whether these parts of the brain will develop as fully later on in life.

“Creative potential in childhood,” explains Root-Bernstein, “of a kind that bears fruit in maturity,” reveals itself best in the invention of imaginary worlds which may serve as a “learning laboratory” for adult achievement. The most creative kids, the kids who turn out to be artists or poets or writers and make up the mass of the creative classes, have the most paracosmic activity. Moreover, recent studies of gifted adults provides equally strong links between worldplay and mature creative accomplishment in the sciences and social sciences.[3]

In Courage-2-Create, ranked among the Top 10 blogs for writers, professional blogger and writer, Olinn Morales, admits that writers “are probably the only few people (maybe the only people) who continue to develop their paracosms long after childhood.” He says, “We constantly develop new paracosms, one after the other, each as detailed and unique as the next.”[5] Just read writers like Lewis Carroll or JK Rowling to see the magical worlds they create. But, he illuminates, even non-writers get carried away in paracosms of their making. For example, he explains, a guy will go out on a first date, and suddenly he will imagine everything from marriage rites to funeral rites and all other rites of passage with a perfect stranger before he’s even ordered the guacamole.

The same goes for ordinary people across much of ordinary life who imagine a world, a paracosm, and then work hard every day to make the ‘real’ world they live in live up to the ‘ideal’ one they created. This parallel universe of desires, wrapped around compelling stories, may also result in seeing the world as not meeting our expectations – often leaving a widening gap which is fuelled, ironically, by the promise of even more dreams.

The world of advertising is no different. It is, if I may exaggerate, nothing but paracosms. If we are not dealing with idealised destinations (Marlboro Country, Bird’s Eye Country), then we are dealing with idealised emotions (prettier, stronger, smarter) that have been contextualised across idealised locations (perfect home, perfect island, perfect business) through idealised characters or animations (happy family, the man from Del Monte, Tony the tiger) where idealised results and benefits (cleaner, sharper, sexier) create a body of desire (or markets) in our pregnant minds.

As somebody once said, the universe is not made up of molecules, but of stories. And, as you have probably already guessed, thanks to paracosms, people everywhere are measuring their lives with experiences that have yet to be lived.

  1. Paracosm wiki/Paracosm

  2. David Cohen and Stephen MacKeith, The Development of Imagination: The Private Worlds of Childhood (Concepts in Developmental Psychology). Routledge, 1992

  3. Root-Bernstein, Michelle, Imaginary Worldplay as an Indicator of Creative Giftedness in the International Handbook on Giftedness, ed. by Larissa Shavinina. Springer, 2009

  4. Taylor, Marjorie, Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. Oxford University Press, 2001.

  5. 2010/07/25/paracosm/

Faraz Maqsood Hamidi is CE and Creative Director, The D’Hamidi Partnership.