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Prof. Wigger Back from Asia—Shares Progress on Imaginary Friend Project

by Ashley Schaffner | Aug 16, 2013

Wigger’s “serious research into a playful subject” furthered during visit to Nepal

Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Professor J. Bradley Wigger has returned from a research trip to Pokhara, Nepal where he spent seven weeks studying children’s relationships with imaginary beings. This phase of research was part of his Templeton- and Oxford-funded project, “Theory of Mind and Invisible Beings in Childhood.” 

Could children with active imaginations benefit, long-term, from relating to invisible beings like imaginary friends, angels, spirits, fairies, etc.? Is there a link between a child’s ability to relate to and ‘interact’ with imaginary friends and their ability to relate to an invisible God? These are some of the questions Wigger is investigating.  Thus far, his findings suggest that children who do have imaginary friends, children who can ‘go there’ within their own imaginations, may be better for it as adults. 

“There may be something about a well-developed imagination that helps people negotiate life and relationships better,” he said. “There are important implications not only for child development, but for religious education as well.” 

During his time in Nepal, Wigger interviewed more than 100 children on their experiences with imaginary friends. Wigger began each interview with simple questions about the child’s real-life friends, then advanced to questions like, “Some people have friends who no one else can see… do you have any friends like that?” 

The next step in the interview process was to conduct a simple cognitive “theory of mind” test, wherein the children’s mental states (their beliefs, knowledge, intents, desires, etc.) were examined. For example, Wigger showed a child that a matchbox actually contained small pebbles, not matches, and then asked, “If I showed this box to (your best friend/ an invisible friend/ angels/ God or a god) what would they think is in the box when first seeing it?” According to Wigger, most young children will say “rocks.” “The developmental question is, ‘at what age does a child realize that others would be fooled by the box?’” he continued. “The religious question is whether or not they think God/ a god would be fooled, too. Or, can children understand that some beings could be omniscient?” 

Nepal is the third country Wigger has visited as part of his Imaginary Friends project. He spent last summer in a rural Kenyan village where he, alongside his son, David, and David’s wife Amy Wadsworth interviewed more than 100 school children via a translator. 

From Kenya, Wigger traveled to Malawi where he stayed with Louisville Seminary alums Fletcher (MAR ‘09) and Sarah Padoko (MAMFT ’11). For three weeks, he and the Padoko’s interviewed 200 additional school children. His findings in Kenya and Malawi suggest that roughly 20 to 25 percent of those children have imaginary friends. 

The Imaginary Friends project has been ongoing for four years. Wigger’s research on this subject is scheduled to conclude at the end of 2013. He hopes to publish the findings of the project both in research journals and eventually in a book on the subject. For more on Wigger’s Invisible Friends project, see his website.

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