A paracosm [par-uh-kozm] is a detailed imaginary world, or fantasy world, involving humans and/or animals, or perhaps even fantasy or alien creations. Commonly having its own geography, history, and language, it is an experience that is often developed during childhood and continues over a long period of time: months or even years. The concept was first described by a researcher for the BBC, Robert Silvey, with later research by British psychiatrist Stephen A. MacKeith, and British psychologist David Cohen. The term was coined by Ben Vincent, a participant in Silvey’s 1976 study and a self-professed ‘paracosmist.’
Psychiatrists Delmont Morrison and Shirley Morrison mention paracosms and ‘paracosmic fantasy’ in their book ‘Memories of Loss and Dreams of Perfection,’ in the context of people who have suffered the death of a loved one or some other tragedy in childhood. For such people, paracosms function as a way of processing and understanding their early loss. They cite ‘Peter Pan’ creator James M. Barrie, authors Isak Dinesen and Emily Brontë as examples of people who created paracosms after the deaths of family members. Literary historian Joetta Harty connects paracosm play with imperialism in her writings on the Brontes, English essayists Thomas De Quincey and Hartley Coleridge. Psychologists Dorothy and Jerome Singer reference paracosms in their studies on childhood imagination.
Marjorie Taylor is another child development psychologist who explores paracosms as part of a study on imaginary friends. In Adam Gopnik’s essay, ‘Bumping Into Mr. Ravioli,’ he consults his sister, a child psychologist, about his three-year-old daughter’s imaginary friend. He is introduced to Taylor’s ideas and told that children invent paracosms as a way of orienting themselves in reality. Paracosms are also mentioned in articles about types of childhood creativity and problem-solving. Some scholars believe paracosm play indicates high intelligence. A Michigan State University study revealed that many MacArthur Fellows Program recipients had paracosms as children. Paracosm play is recognized as one of the indicators of a high level of creativity, which educators now realize is as important as intelligence.
Examples of paracosms include: Middle Earth, the highly-detailed fantasy world created by J.R.R. Tolkien, as expressed in his novels ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit,’ as well as a sizable body of writings published posthumously containing fictional histories, languages and other reference material. Tolkien, an avid xenolinguist (student of alien languages), had been inventing languages since his teen years, only later imagining the people who spoke them or their environment. Likewise, ‘Gondal,’ ‘Angria,’ and ‘Gaaldine,’ are the fantasy kingdoms created and written about in childhood by Emily, Anne, and Charlotte Brontë, and their brother Branwell, and maintained well into adulthood. Also, as children, novelist C. S. Lewis and his brother Warren together created a paracosm called ‘Boxen’ which was in turn a combination of their respective private paracosms ‘Animal-Land’ and ‘India.’ Lewis later drew upon Animal-Land to create the fantasy land Narnia.