The Pleasures of Imagination 1

How do Americans spend their leisure time? The answer might surprise you. The most common voluntary activity is not eating, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs. It is not socializing with friends, participating in sports, or relaxing with the family. While people sometimes describe sex as their most pleasurable act, time-management studies find that the average American adult devotes just four minutes per day to sex.

Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. While citizens of other countries might watch less television, studies in England and the rest of Europe find a similar obsession with the unreal.

This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days. Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities—eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children. Instead, 2-year-olds pretend to be lions, graduate students stay up all night playing video games, young parents hide from their offspring to read novels, and many men spend more time viewing Internet pornography than interacting with real women. One psychologist gets the puzzle exactly right when she states on her Web site: “I am interested in when and why individuals might choose to watch the television show Friends rather than spending time with actual friends.”

One solution to this puzzle is that the pleasures of the imagination exist because they hijack mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure. We enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don’t distinguish them from real ones. This is a powerful idea, one that I think is basically—though not entirely—right. (Certain phenomena, including horror movies and masochistic daydreams, require a different type of explanation.)