How Imaginary Friends Work

Imaginary Friends Over Time
Sesame Street's Snuffleupagus is perhaps one of the best known 'imaginary friends.' Until the show's 17th season in 1985, Big Bird was the only character who could see Snuffy. NBC/Contributor/Getty Images

Historically, imaginary friends have gotten something of a bad rap. Before the 1990s, the majority of psychologists considered imaginary friends as signs of significant trouble. "They thought these children were weird," Dr. Marjorie Taylor, Ph.D. and head of the Imagination Research Lab at the University of Oregon told the Globe and Mail. "Maybe smart, but socially troubled or shy or whatever. And all that is completely wrong."

Further investigation provided more insight into the true nature of imaginative kids, and the results were often far different from experts' initial assumptions. "Researchers were studying cognitive and social development in children and discovered that over 50 percent of children had an imaginary friend and that actually they were mostly social, empathetic, bright kids," Ziegler says. "It began even more research that started to debunk the thoughts that this was a psychiatric illness but rather a fairly normative part of child development."

As research has progressed, it's become clear that popular culture representation of imaginary friendships that convey unstable kids and adults escaping through fantasy (see: "Donnie Darko,""Drop Dead Fred,""Fight Club," etc.) are just Hollywood creations based on outdated science. Children who create imaginary companions really like pretend play, fantasy and they're also very social [source: Groskin].