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Too Old for Santa Claus?

How age affects imagination
Caitlin Kirkwood

Take a moment and remember the childhood magic of Santa Claus—the jolly, portly, white-bearded, red-jacketed, cookies-and-milk-loving, omniscient father of Christmas with the uncanny talent for weeding out the naughty from the nice and making lists to boot. On Christmas Eve, he travels around the globe, propelled by his fleet of flying reindeer, delivering gifts to the world’s children as they peacefully slumber.

Within the imaginations of millions of children, Old St. Nicholas is alive.  Imagination is what makes it all possible.

Believing in Santa Claus and other forms of imaginative or magical thinking can be powerful, especially early on in life. These creative lines of thought are critical for child cognitive development and aid in creating a basic understanding of reality.

Researchers at the University of Texas were interested in what factors influence a child’s fantasy beliefs—beliefs about mystical characters that adults know to be fictional, like ghosts and monsters. Since no one sees the Tooth Fairy in action, understanding what factors influence fantastical beliefs sans direct observation may also shed light on how children learn about the more abstract facts of life, like the existence of germs or the Milky Way.

To examine the role of age on children’s imaginative beliefs, researchers cooked up the concept of the Candy Witch, a benevolent, smiling woman with rosy cheeks that visits children’s homes on the night of Halloween to exchange the evening’s candy haul for a brand new toy. The creation of the novel Candy Witch character allowed researchers to circumvent several biases from books, parents, and peers that could be associated with a common fantastical entity like Santa Claus. To really sell the children on the idea of the Candy Witch, they were told stories and shown pictures of a Candy Witch doll. Some parents were even instructed to call the Candy Witch, schedule a home visit on Halloween, and provide their child with a new toy.

Researchers found that older preschoolers, ages 4 to 5, who were visited by the Candy Witch held stronger beliefs that she existed than younger children or children who had not been visited.  These results may suggest that there is a threshold of cognitive maturity that must be reached in order to believe in a fantastical being when only circumstantial evidence—observing the missing candy and the receipt of a new toy the day after Halloween—is available.

But at some point children collect enough evidence for themselves and stop believing in the magic of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. In the act of growing up something fundamentally changes and it begs the question: In adulthood, what happens to imagination?

Typically you won’t find the average adult sprawled out across the floor pretending a pile of plastic dinosaurs are politicians passionately conducting a session of Congress or that T-Rex is a cosmonaut exploring the uncharted terrain of an extraterrestrial couch planet. But even without toy dinosaur adventures, imagination is still an important part of adult life. From grandiose inventions like an iPhone or the 3D bioprinter, to the more mundane tasks of planning out the week ahead, adults use imagination in a variety of ways. There is even evidence that suggests age impacts imagination and that individuals who can easily recollect past life events are better at imaginatively thinking about the future.

Researchers at Harvard University investigated the age-related link between the ability to recall detailed memories and imagination. Both younger adults (18-35 years old) and older adults (65-88 years old) were shown colored photographs depicting people participating in a variety of activities like lounging on the beach or enjoying a picnic in a park. They were then either asked to describe either a remembered personal situation from the past or an imagined future event related to the contents of the scene they were observing.

Older adults had greater difficulty describing imagined future events because they also had more difficulty extracting details from their memories about past life events. Retrieving information from memories appears to be an essential component for describing imagined future scenarios.

Although growing up and getting older sounds like a bummer with imaginative thinking going down the tubes once memory starts to go, but there is a silver lining: Adults are too old for Krampus, Santa Claus’s evil alter-ego, to be shimmying down the chimney this Christmas Eve. Now with that kernel of knowledge in hand, imagine some sweet holiday dreams.


photo by premier-photo.com