In a landmark new study into the childhood behavior of creating imaginary parallel worlds, researchers found that just 17 percent of children become involved in these creative activities, and that these worlds are often described with deep complexities, reports MedicalXpress.

Imaginary worlds, also known as paracosms, are related to, but not to be confused with, imaginary friends. In the study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Oregon, paracosms were identified in 16 of the 92 children studied. By contrast, imaginary companions were reported by as many as 51 participants. While most of those who had developed parallel worlds also reported having had imaginary friends, the converse was not necessarily also true.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found that children who experience paracosms exhibit higher levels of creativity. More specifically, though, it found that these children were more apt at open-ended thinking. But this apparently also came at a cost. The most creative kids also struggled with inhibitory control tasks, which is another way of saying that they had trouble focusing their attention.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing; it's just that inhibition and creative thinking appear to be at different ends of a spectrum. Excelling at one requires a cost with the other. At least, that's what this study seems to suggest. All of the children in the study were aged 8-12 years old.

Imaginary journeys aren't always taken alone

"[Paracosms are] a positive thing associated with creativity and storytelling," said lead author Marjorie Taylor, who has been studying children's imaginary friends and paracosms for some 25 years. "These are kids who are coming up with very complex stories that they really enjoy and that many will share with others."

One of the surprises of the study was that it also found that many of these creative children do not develop their imaginary worlds alone. Several of them shared and even developed their worlds together.

"We thought paracosms would a private thing," said Taylor. "Surprisingly, that was not always the case. It can be a very social activity. Often, we found that many kids would be involved together in building the parallel worlds."

To reach their results, researchers asked children in a non-leading way about their imaginary friends and paracosms. To further evaluate the children, the subjects were given five creativity tasks tied to social skills, as well as assessments of their coping strategies and verbal comprehension.

While the parallel worlds described by the children varied widely in content, they all included details about an environment (forests, lakes, caves, etc.), inhabitants of the worlds (bandits, goblins, animals, etc.) and mystical components (one example involved a fountain that sprayed honey).

"This needs more research to better understand how we generate ideas and come up with new things, unlocking creativity," Taylor said. "We can be really impressed by the creativity of children left to their own devices. It is important to give them some time free of a schedule because they will come up with things to do that they really enjoy and will share with others."

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Kids who create imaginary worlds grow up to be better at open-ended thinking
Study finds that only 17 percent of children create deep imaginary worlds but they also exhibit higher levels of creativity.