Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, One Piece, Pokémon, Avatar, Zelda or Final Fantasy. These fictions have in common to take place in an imaginary world, which differs from our real world. Whether they come from films, series, novels or video games, imaginary worlds are nowadays a central characteristic for a fiction to become a cultural success. How can this be explained? What are the psychological foundations underlying our attraction to these fictions? The article "Why Imaginary World?" published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences proposes to answer this question through an interdisciplinary evolutionary approach.
Interview with Edgar Dubourg, doctoral student in cognitive science at the Institut Jean-Nicod and first author of the publication.
Le succès récent des mondes imaginaires
Imaginary worlds are defined by Edgar Dubourg and Nicolas Baumard with two main criteria: the relative importance given to the imaginary world as opposed to the plot and the characters, and the spatial or geographical dimension of the world.
“This definition makes it possible to realize something intriguing: imaginary worlds are extremely recent. Of course, as we explain in the article, many imaginary worlds are created as early as antiquity, and then from the Middle Ages to the modern era, but they are often rather useless, poor in detail, or too remote to consider. In Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BCE), the mythical island of Ogygia on which Odysseus is held prisoner is a kind of imaginary world. The island is not important in itself. It is only determinant for the plot, which is based on the journey. In the Taketori monogatari, a Japanese novel from the 10th century AD (one of the first Japanese narratives in prose), Kaguya-hime is a selenite (an inhabitant of the moon). But even though the moon is considered here as an imaginary world (because the creator, at the time of writing this work, had no information about the moon and thus invents an imaginary world), her environment is never really described.”
Edgar Dubourg recalls that one of the first fictions granting an important role to the imaginary world is Dante’s Divine Comedy. It puts forward the geography of the world, its structure and its specific characteristics beyond the elements that simply serve the plot. “In fact, during the 15th century, an architect by the name of Antionio Maneti created a map based on this text. This first imaginary map launched a very original debate for the time: from 1450 to 1600, Italian intellectuals debated it while trying to improve it from the original writings, which is one of the first signs, in the history of literary reception, of a pronounced interest in an imaginary world in itself.”
In the history of imaginary worlds, J. J. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth marks a crucial step. “He pushes the degree of coherence and completeness of the world very far, inventing, among other things, a geography, a history, species, alphabets and languages, in a totally imaginary world. He is surely the first to reverse this hierarchy of importance between the plot and the world in fiction. Through the behavior of his readers, who always ask for more maps and details, the doctoral student explains that we observe for the first time that the type of information that interests the consumers of fiction are features related to the imaginary world specifically."
“Exploring fantasy worlds for the same reasons we explore environments in real life”
How do we explain the fact that imaginary worlds appear so late in literary history, in various cultures? And how do we explain that from the moment they emerge, they so quickly become extremely popular all around the world?
The hypothesis supported by the article is that the human appeal for imaginary worlds in fiction is based on exploratory preferences, which are biological preferences. “The human species, like all mobile animals, have evolved cognitive mechanisms, or preferences, to deal with an evolutionary dilemma, that of choosing between exploring or exploiting. All mobile living species must continually make this choice, for example, to search for resources. Should I exploit the environment I already know, or should I seek resources in an environment that I do not yet know and that I must therefore explore?” The article thus brings together and crosses results from several cognitive science disciplines in an interdisciplinary theoretical approach. “This dilemma has been studied in a wide variety of disciplines, in neuroscience, behavioral ecology, evolutionary biology, and experimental psychology, and we summarize in our article the work that characterizes and explains these exploratory preferences.”
Edgar Dubourg explains that these preferences are also plastic, more or less evoked according to the environment, in an adaptive way. "For example, in a resource-poor, unstable, and dangerous environment, going out to explore is risky, and therefore costly: if the individual does not find what they are looking for, they will have no resources to survive; instead, they should devote time and energy to exploiting resources. Conversely, in a richer and less dangerous environment, individuals can afford to explore, as resources will not run out even if exploration ‘does not pay off’.”
The authors thus explain a cultural preference for imaginary worlds with an evolved biological preference. “We want to explore imaginary worlds in fiction under the same circumstances, and for the same reasons, as we explore environments in real life”. The novelty of this approach is to try to explain this cultural preference as much in its universality as in its variability: if cultural preferences are based on cognitive preferences that are activated more or less according to certain variables, it should be possible to predict and explain them thanks to this reasoning.
Predicting cultural preferences with cognitive preferences
From their hypothesis, the authors derive a whole series of fine-grained, non-trivial predictions about the characteristics of consumers of fiction with imaginary worlds. “For example, we predict that more exploratory individuals will be more attracted to fiction with imaginary worlds (we tested and verified this prediction with a large database). We also predict that some individuals, especially those in richer and more stable environments, will find imaginary worlds more interesting, because their exploratory preferences will be more intensified.” Another example is the young audience of fictions with imaginary worlds. “Research in developmental psychology and evolutionary biology shows that juvenile individuals are more exploratory, i.e., more motivated to explore, and sometimes even better at tasks that require exploration, than adults. This can be explained at the ultimate level. In humans, the evolutionary cost of exploration, such as the risk of resource scarcity, is offset by parental investment, i.e., the resources and protection provided by parents. Thus, from an evolutionary perspective, i.e., at the ultimate level of explanation, it is more beneficial for a child to explore his or her environment. If imaginary worlds exploit these exploratory preferences, fiction with imaginary worlds should appeal more to children, who naturally have heightened exploratory preferences. To my knowledge, our cognitive and evolutionary hypothesis is the only one that explains why young people are fonder of fantasy worlds than adults.”
The paper also explores predictions about the evolution of imaginary worlds: “If our interest in imaginary worlds is explained by our exploratory preferences, then in the future, fiction producers should make imaginary worlds more ‘explorable’ to ensure the success of their works. This hypothesis fits into the broader Sperberian theoretical framework of cultural attraction, which posits that stimuli that are already interesting and captivating to our cognition will be selected and made even more interesting by those who produce cultural items. Thus, it is predicted that fiction will increasingly embed narrative technologies that allow the inclusion of more information about imaginary worlds, such as maps, glossaries, textbooks, or encyclopedias.”
Edgar Dubourg specifies that the predictions of this theoretical article will have to be tested in the future in order for the hypothesis of the paper to be assessed: through experimental or computational studies to test and then replicate the results of each of the predictions generated by the main hypothesis, controlling for different variables and also testing alternative hypotheses. In this way, the authors point to the results of cultural, literary, and sociological studies which already confirm or refute these predictions to pave the way for future analyses. “For example, Anne Besson describes an exciting process, which has been growing since Umberto Eco’s work, of an “encyclopedization” of fictional knowledge: consumers want rich and ordered information about imaginary worlds, which is why they spend so much time and energy tracking and listing them in online encyclopedias that resemble Wikipedia, called ‘Fandoms’. For example, the Star Wars Fandom contains 167,792 pages to date, describing elements of the imaginary world. All of these observations and analyses point to a cultural evolution toward increasingly ‘explorable’ worlds.
More generally, the article also opens up prospects for further study of attractive elements in fiction. “This research could lead to a better understanding of the psychological underpinnings of our attraction to fiction, at a time when, worldwide, we are all spending more and more time and money on the production and consumption of fiction, across all media.”
A research project fueled by a passion for imaginary worlds
When asked what his favorite imaginary world is, Edgar Dubourg mentions J.-K. Rowling's Wizarding World. “I consider myself lucky to have grown up with this major literary work. It is a world that continues to be expanded and deepened by its creator, which is no longer the case with Tolkien’s Arda, for example. Finally, I find fascinating J.-K. Rowling’s innovative idea of hiding imaginary locations within a faithful representation of the real world. The real world is present throughout the Harry Potter cycle, but it is augmented by magical places, hidden from the eyes of mere humans (Muggles). That’s what makes you want to explore them. "
The PhD student adds that he has also recently been fascinated by a new imaginary world, that of the manga Attack of the Titans. In this fiction, the characters are enclosed in the narrow circular walls to be protected from the threat of the Titans. Only the Exploration Battalions, made up of the best recruits, venture outside the walls to accumulate knowledge about the outside world, which the characters have come to forget after years of confinement. “They speak of great expanses of sand (deserts) and vast amounts of salt water (oceans) with stars in their eyes. This reverses the logic of the imaginary world: for these characters, in this fiction, our real world is their imaginary world, which they must explore...”
Dubourg, E., & Baumard, N. (2021). Why Imaginary Worlds?: The psychological foundations and cultural evolution of fictions with imaginary worlds. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-52. doi:10.1017/S0140525X21000923
Edgar Dubourg holds a Bachelor's degree from Sciences Po Paris and a Master's degree in literature theory (ENS-Sorbonne-EHESS). "Following this Master's degree, and after having taken some fascinating courses from the Cogmaster of the ENS during my training, I wanted to go into cognitive science. I discovered the PhD Program of the Départment d'Études Cognitives, and I was selected in 2020. Since then, as part of this program, I have been taking Cogmaster courses and pursuing my research." A thesis student at the Institut Jean Nicod under the direction of Nicolas Baumard, he is now focusing on the appeal of imaginary worlds in fiction via an interdisciplinary evolutionary approach to the psychological foundations of fiction.