Research in the United Kingdom suggests that children can draw help (such as improved performance on cognitive tasks including planning and puzzles) from imaginary friends:
Young children's habit of talking to imaginary friends can spur the development of an inner dialogue that they can use to talk themselves through challenging tasks now and later as adults, a study in the November issue of the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology suggests.
Children often talk out loud while playing until about age 7, when their outbursts and mutterings become quieter and more internalized, research has shown. This private speech, or verbalized thought, has been shown to improve children's performance on cognitive tasks, such as planning and solving puzzles.
A recent study found children with imaginary friends used significantly more private speech than children without imaginary companions. Conversing with adults helps children develop private speech, the researchers said, and conversing with imaginary beings may serve a similar role.
For the study, 148 children, about 5 years old, and their mothers participated in a pretend visit to an ice-cream parlor at a U.K. university lab with toys and props. After the visit, the mother sat in a corner reading while the child played on the floor with toys, recorded by two video cameras. Unintelligible mutterings and whisperings were categorized as private speech. In separate interviews, children were asked if they had an imaginary companion, the friend's name and gender, and other details.
Nearly half of the children, 46%, reported having imaginary companions and just over two-thirds of the friends were invisible, the study found. Half of the mothers were aware of the companions. Children with imaginary companions made twice as many private-speech utterances during the free-play session than children without imaginary friends. No association was found between imaginary companions and the children's gender. (Ann Lukits, "For Hurdles, Even a Pretend Friend Will Help," Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2013 accessed at http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303376904579135603062785122)
I found that research provocative in two ways.
First, if God is imaginary, as atheists typically argue, does that mean prayer is useless?
Self-talk is powerful, not only for children but also for adults, e.g., top athletes, politicians, and many other people use self-talk to shape and to improve performance. Elsewhere in Ethical Musings postings, I've suggested that prayer – even in the absence of God – may be a channel through which people, linked sub-atomically to one another, are able to assist others in non-quantifiable ways.
Second, is God an adult version of an imaginary friend? Alternatively, do children create imaginary friends because of a non-cognitive, non-conscious predisposition conducive to human awareness of non-material aspects of reality? If the latter explanation is correct, then the research in the UK suggests, rather than undercuts, God's existence and activity in the world.
Furthermore, the research is also consistent with the idea that the imagination – human creativity – is one of the primary aspects of the human spirit and a point of interaction between God and humans.