During this time of year children will hear tales about elves, dwarves, and magic rings. Stories will be told full of fantasy, fiction, and magic. They will include Santa, Old Father Time, and Baby New Year. Some will be told around a fire, and some will be watched on the big screen.
But what do kids really think about magic? Conventional wisdom has told us that children can't tell the difference between what is real and what is fantasy. However, recently researchers like Jacquleine Wooley of the University of Texas and Paul Harris from Harvard have come to the conclusion the even the youngest children understand magic.
Dr. Wooley did a short experiment with preschoolers asking them if they could imagine a box that was empty and a box that was full of pencils. Then they asked them to imagine the empty box filling with imaginary pencils. The children pretended but acknowledged that if someone really wanted a pencil they would have to find a real box.
Children understand the difference between fiction and fantasy. They recognize that the imaginary friend is not real and that the monster in the closet doesn't exist. Children do however spend more time than we do in imaginary play. That doesn't mean they believe the fantasy world is real, they just prefer to hang out there.
So why do children spend so much time thinking about wild possibilities? Because humans, in general, are good at imagining ways that our world could be different. Philosophers call this "counterfactual thinking".
Scientists work out what would happen if the physical world were different, and novelists work out what would happen if the social and psychological world were different. Scientific hypotheses and literary fictions both consider the consequences of small tweaks to our models of the world; mythologies consider much larger changes. But the fundamental psychology is the same. Young children seem to practice this powerful way of thinking in their everyday pretend play.
Whether you are a scientist, novelist, or a preschooler, in order to be good at this counter-factual reasoning you must be able to tell the difference between imaginary and reality.
As children get older they begin to recognize the fact that real magic is possible. They believe that somehow casual laws could be suspended and that creatures from an imaginary world could come into their real world.
Dr. Harris did an experiment where children imagined a monster in the box instead of pencils. They still said that the monster wasn't real, but when the experimenter left the room, they moved away from the box—just in case. Santa Claus is confusing because he is a fiction who at least seems to leave an observable trail of disappearing cookies and delivered presents.
The thought was that the advancement of science would make us reject this second kind of magic. The kind that bridges the gap between real and imaginary.
However, like preschoolers, scientists, artists and others are united in their embrace of both reality and possibility and their ability to differentiate between them. There is no difference between celebrating the magic of fiction, myth, and science. Counter-factual thinking is a crucial part of science, and science demands and celebrates imagination as much as literature or art.