Curiosity, fantasy and imagination: Uniquely human, and absolutely necessary.

It’s hard to believe, but (for those of you who are counting), this is my 100th column for The Delaware Wave! Though you’d be hard pressed to find a nicer bunch of folks than the Wave staff, I’m equally gratified by the number of emails and calls I receive from you, the readers. Many of the calls start with something like, ‘You don’t have to call me back, but’.’ I must admit that calling everybody back, added to the demands of my practice, would be just about impossible. But I wish I could return all those calls just to say ‘Thanks’ for taking the time to comment on the latest topic. The same applies to your emails.

Not all the comments are positive, either. And that’s a good thing. As a psychotherapist, my aim is to challenge people to think—whether it’s in the quiet of my office or in the public forum of the newspaper. There’s no rule that says everybody has to agree with me. (I wouldn’t be doing my job if they did.) In fact, many of your reactions, both negative and positive, often end up inspiring new column topics. So, as the late Dean Martin used to say, ‘Keep those cards and letters coming in!’

The subjects that seem to generate the most questions are those that deal directly with issues such as relationships, dysfunctional behavior, family interactions and the like. People are always curious to know more about these things.

Dr. Richard Taflinger, of the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at Washington State University, writes, ‘Curiosity is one of the most important aspects of life. It is through curiosity, a desire to find out something, that life promotes itself, keeps itself alive, reproduces itself, and gathers resources more effectively. A lack of curiosity can lead to a lack of life’.’

He’s right. We humans (and many other species alike) are curious about everything. Though curiosity began as a basic tool for everyday survival, many of the comforts we enjoy today—not to mention the conditions under which we live—are the direct result of the inquisitive nature of entrepreneurs, innovators and inventors such as Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, Benjamin Franklin, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Martha Stewart, Steve Case, Henry Ford’the list goes on and on.

Many different species exhibit curiosity, driven primarily by the need to eat—and to avoid being eaten. Our curiosity, however, when combined with our capacity for thinking in abstract terms, gives rise to the uniquely human qualities of fantasy and imagination. Abstract thinking can also allow fantasy and imagination to ‘leak’ into the realm of reality. As we interpret data from our eyes, ears and other senses, our perception of that data can be altered, or distorted, by our thoughts and fantasies. A prime example is the comment, ‘He only hears what he wants to hear.’ Taken to its ultimate conclusion, this conflict between reality and feelings can lead to psychosis, where a person loses the ability to distinguish between what is imagined and what is real.

Because it’s not restricted by external events, our imagination can bring us enjoyment and pleasure. But that very lack of outside limitations can also cause us pain and unhappiness. People whose curiosity and imaginations are particularly vivid can suffer from imagined threats and dangers besetting their families, friends or themselves. Psychosomatic illnesses can be manifestations of imaginary perils. One interesting psychiatric syndrome arising from fantasy-gone-wild is called folie à deux. Though rare, this condition involves a psychosis or a paranoid belief being transmitted from one person to another. Also referred to as ‘shared psychotic disorder,’ it can affect families and larger groups of people such as cults or in cases of mass hysteria.

So the possibilities arising from the wonders of our curious, imagining minds are practically limitless. They can range from simple, pleasurable daydreams about things that will probably never happen, all the way to full-blown psychotic disorders. They can also generate inspiration for new inventions, business ideas and discoveries that can advance the human state. Curiosity, imagination and fantasy, tempered with reality and trust in the objectivity of our senses, can be powerful tools for making our time on earth as productive—and enjoyable—as it can be.

Dr. Taflinger says that curiosity is ”a search for an immediate answer to an immediate need. For humans, [it’s] a constant search for answers.’ In spite of the psychological pitfalls that may lurk in the shadowy outskirts of reality, the positive benefits of applying our inquisitive imaginations and ideas to our everyday lives far outweigh the negatives.

So, as my little space in The Wave turns 100 weeks old, I encourage you to keep calling and emailing if something you read here arouses your curiosity. Not only is it a healthy exercise in thinking, but it also helps me come up with new and (hopefully) interesting column topics in my weekly endeavor to prove that Life is, indeed, a Beach.