why I believe in unicorns

It’s possible that we can derive more pleasure from what we imagine than from what we experience. This novel idea, or this idea about novels, is explored by Yale professor Paul Bloom in his new book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.

In a chapter reprinted last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he says fiction is difficult to separate completely from reality because the pleasure we experience in both is essentially the same. Perhaps a little less intense, but the emotions it trigger are just as real.

When I growl and chase my granddaughter, she never thinks I’m a real lion. But she enjoys imagining that I am, safe in the understanding that I am not. All kids pretend.

All adults do too, actually. We walk away from a conversation wishing we had said something else, and pretending that we had—imagining how much different or better the situation might have been. Novelist are just better at imagining conversations than we are. And even though we know their stories are not real, part of us manages to believe that they are.

We learn stuff too. As Bloom points out, our knowledge of emergency rooms, prisons and submarines is more likely rooted in movies and TV shows than in actual experience. I know slightly more about particle physics because I read Madeleine l’engle’s Many Waterson the porch with Katie this summer. And I imagined a world before the flood, too.

I admit our capacity for imagination can be excessive. I was in a church prayer meeting one time when a woman requested prayer for a hospitalized character in a soap opera. But the truth is we have a fairly sophisticated sense of what’s real and what’s not.

Bloom claims that even a baby knows we’re not really a lion or whatever we pretend to be. The first time we roar they might pull away from us. By the third time, they know it’s a game. OK. Maybe not. I pretended to pull my finger off one time and made a 3-year-old cry.

Imagination, he says, is “reality-lite—a useful substitute, when the real pleasure is inaccessible, too risky or too much work.” But through it, I believe, we work out our understanding of what matters. At least that’s what we did as kids when we played cowboys and Indians, or whatever politically incorrect framework at the time helped us think about the good guys and the bad guys.

Yes, fiction can move faster and be more interesting than real life. Sometimes that’s a problem. Not every problem can be solved in 30 minutes, like in a sitcom. And unicorns, or course, aren’t real unless you believe in them.

But Jesus himself told stories, parables that help us visualize and understand things that really matter. Many spiritual realities are understood by “things not seen,” although they are real enough.

This is not a theological defense of imagination, of course; just the recognition that it is a created reality, one so widespread as to be a reflection of God’s image in us.

By faith we understand
that the worlds were framed by the Word of God. Some days, and in some ways, we make worlds of our own. We can’t help ourselves. There is pleasure in this, and there is danger too. We can imagine good and we can imagine evil.

But we can not not imagine.

And we can learn from people who do it better than we do.

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