How Imaginary Friends Work


Many children grow up surrounded and comforted by the love of an imaginary friend. Flashpop/Getty Images
Many children grow up surrounded and comforted by the love of an imaginary friend. Flashpop/Getty Images

Sometime after Ryan Pepin's fourth birthday, a new friend appeared in his life. "Robin was taller and stronger than my dad, could lift a refrigerator, put it on his back, and run faster than my dad while carrying the fridge," the now 35-year-old Forestville, California resident recalls. "My dad was my hero when I was a little kid, so it was fun and surprising to my parents that my friend could do all things better. Apparently, most of my conversations about Robin included riding bikes and how he had the coolest green bike."

A slightly anxious child, Pepin grew up in a large family surrounded by numerous cousins, uncles, aunts and two brothers. His mom ran a daycare, so other children were a constant presence. "I think Robin likely helped me feel special and unique and boosted my confidence," Pepin says. "He seemed to be an expression of everything I thought was cool at the time and could do anything that I wanted to be able to do."

But by the time Pepin was 5, his friend and mentor had disappeared. His memories of their time together remain entirely positive. "I remember Robin being a real and awesome presence in my life," he says. "My parents confirmed that I seemed to actually have conversations with Robin and talked about my experiences as being real." But they weren't. Robin the refrigerator-carrying biker was — surprise? — a figment of Pepin's imagination.