Saturday, 23 April 2016

On the fear of imagination.

I read a blog post recently by renowned author, Janny Wurts, that had a number of interesting points to make about imagination and the reaction of society in general to the creativity on display in fantasy writing and art.

One point that resonated with me is that the dismissal and distaste often evidenced when fantasy writing (or art, or pursuits like Dungeons & Dragons) are mentioned can often shade into suspicion and even naked aggression.

Fantasy has become more mainstream of late but it's been a long haul. My main thrust here however concerns the fear of imagination. There's something about descriptions like 'an abundance of imagination' or 'an over-active imagination', that moves often moves us into territory where the person being described is perceived as some sort of threat.

One reaction I've encountered is 'how do you think up things like that?' with a clear subtext that anyone who can do so should be viewed with a certain degree of suspicion. 'That' must clearly be on their mind a lot ... perhaps they want to do 'that' ... are they dangerous? Are they unstable?

Before we dismiss this in turn, consider that as a species we have an evolutionary fear and mistrust of sickness. It's a good survival policy to move away from it. We have an evolutionary fear of behaviour that falls outside the normal boundaries. It's not a good survival strategy to stand beside the unstable, psychotic, or deranged.

Imagination in great excess is a form of sickness & instability. There are mental health issues that are essentially cases of run-away imagination. And so, like a rash or a temperature, an imagination that is particularly vivid or wide-ranging might be (mis?)perceived as a danger sign, something to be moved away from or discouraged.

Investigation (i.e Google) has led me to discover a classification known as Fantasy Prone Personality, sometimes characterized in part by a failure to distinguish the products of imagination from reality.

Clearly there can be times when someone unable to tell the difference between real and imagined could be hazardous!

Further digging (another 60 seconds on Google) revealed a questionnaire from a paper published in Elsvier's journal of Personality and Individual Differences, 2001.

The score is totaled from 25 yes/no questions and the questionnaire is designed to give a measure correlating to the degree of Fantasy Prone Personality the respondent has.

The average score is about 9, and 95% of respondents' scores lie between 1 and 17.

I got an 8, though this was on the basis of being generous towards 'yes' and saying yes to "I sometimes feel that" type questions when 'sometimes' was 'twice'.

Have a go and record your result on this poll. It would be interesting to see how fantasy readers' scores compare to the wider sample in the paper.

Here are the scores of 332 people tested by the researchers:

& our results after 157 answers, with some author scores marked on (click for detail)

The average in our data is 10.9. My back of the envelope calculation indicates this to be a statistically significant difference. Though the authors look to be clustered around the average. Perhaps a degree of control is require to come up with a consistent, well-paced story!

This article in the Huffington Post also has interesting things to say in this area.

[Obviously this exercise is for fun and not a submission for a journal paper, so if you're an earnest type clutching your newly minted Ph.D and a bucket of indignation ... tuck the former away somewhere appropriate and put your head in the bucket.]


  1. I found the fact there are childhood specific questions interesting. I'd bet those are mostly yes for most people. I'm all sorts of curious about the trends this could show. I wonder how unusual it would be to have all no for the childhood questions and still a higher than average score?

  2. Recorded my results. Seems like I'm close to the top side of the score spectrum but hopefully I'm not perceived as a threat in any way, lols *casts uneasy glance about the interwebs*

  3. 6 points. That two point difference is why you are the exalted writer and I myself just a humble reader.

  4. Hegesias of Cyrene23 April 2016 at 06:46

    3 - I have issues. But I love to read what comes from other people's imaginations.

  5. 7 points for me, though I was probably being generous with those points. I've been reading fantasy for nearly 20 years now and it made up a big part of my teenage years

  6. I'd imagine crime writers get 'how do you think up things like that?' as well - but hey, it's all icky genre to literary snobs!

  7. My suspicion is that imagination and sanity are unrelated. I am imaginative, and I spend a lot of time daydreaming. Even while working a mundane job (like driving a forklift...someone please kill me) I spend most of that time lost in thoughts unrelated to that reality. In any given day I spend more time imagining things than being anchored in reality. And yet I know and understand the difference.

    I am the only sentient being in existence and the whole lot of you are merely fragments of my imagination.

  8. I scored 15, however this score was influenced by the fact that I was worried about the number of yes's I was recorded and started telling myself 'no, you don't really do that do you?'

    1. Had the same problem. I did genuinely have some of these feelings when I was younger, but I don't now.

  9. reality, that boring bit between fantasies

  10. I'm a 15. If I would've answered when I was younger, it would've been higher. A lot of my 'yes' answers had to do with my childhood, but some of the intensity of day-dreaming bled over into adulthood.

  11. 8 points. I feel like I'm in good company.

  12. Mark,
    I am a huge fan of your Broken Empire Trilogy and I was fascinated by this post. Although I would not say that I have Fantasy Prone Personality, I do have a vivid imagination. I have by now realized that if I were to share that I am a great fan of fantasy novels some people instantly take a step back and re-evaluate their opinion of me. I have also come to the conclusion that people would be very taken aback by the things I imagine and although I wouldn't consider myself unstable, psychotic, or deranged, I do find myself creating what you described others as calling "that" and I now know that it is better to not share everything that goes through my head lest I be perceived as a threat.
    Keep up your work please!

  13. Interesting article, and I have found that people will often look or act differently toward me after I reveal that I play an RPG with some friends (Cypher System). I find the experience fascinating and exciting, especially from an imaginative and creative stand point. As to the quiz, I scored a 10 (again, agreeing with your sentiment about the variance of "sometimes"). I've been working on a book idea, and I appreciate your insight and especially your writing style. As I read your article from June 1st, I find myself being a lucky impostor of a number of my favorite fantasy writers, you being included in that slim number.

  14. I scored 16 points. I've garnered comments about the "that." And it is true, people often look at me funny if I tell them I write fantasy, or that I've played RPGs. I can't even imagine what it would be like to have no imagination (or less of it)! How dreary…