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From SpongeBob to Santa Claus: exploring the imagination and fact vs fiction

Why is SpongeBob SquarePants fiction but Santa Claus real for some children?

spongebob pixabay

Of course, parents prolong the message of the generous Saint Nick - but why do young children distinguish between the fact and the fiction in some cases but not others?

These, and other ideas about the human imagination, such as creativity, will be explored during the Leeds Beckett University inaugural lecture of Professor Anna Abraham.

She has investigated the lines that define the “reality/fiction distinction”.

“When you are reading a novel, you engage with the idea that you are reading fiction,” said Professor Abraham, who is Director of the Centre for Psychological Research at the university’s School of Social Sciences.

“You are able to distinguish between fiction and the real world. As part of my research, I try to understand how we do that.

“At the moment, it’s a bit of a mystery how we can watch a movie but then instantly come back into the real world. Emotions from the film or novel can linger, but we are able to distinguish fiction from reality.

“The fact that we effortlessly engage in imaginary worlds and experience with little confusion as far as reality testing goes raises the question of how do we know what is actually real?

“Some fictional worlds are seen as more real than others. Children know that SpongeBob is fictional and they are not confused by that.  But there are also intermediate truths. For example, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Because of the way these are presented, they become more real to them.

“A lot of children really believe in Santa Claus.  But even when they stop believing, because it’s been a part of their lives and they have interacted with the idea of Santa being real, they still retain that personal interest. There’s an objective switch which changes how children view fictional characters.”

Another idea Professor Abraham will explore is the notion that you have to be eccentric to be highly creative.

“There’s lots of analysis about what happens intellectually when you read a poem and the effect of the poem on the reader, but there is very little analysis about what happens in the brain as you are creating the poem.

“In my research I’ve looked at how the brain is engaged at the moment of creative ideation.

“I’ve also looked at how specific types of brain injury affect creative performance, and that work raises interesting insights into the link between creativity and mental illness – think Van Gogh and John Nash – which has been a subject of fascination for a long time now.”

Professor Abraham’s inaugural professorial lecture, Discovering the Imaginative Mind, takes place between 6-7pm on Wednesday 25 April at the Rose Bowl, Portland Crescent, Leeds, LS1 3HB. Tickets are free and can be booked by clicking here.

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