Fantasy Prone Personality

Fantasy prone personality (FPP) is a disposition or personality trait in which a person experiences a lifelong extensive and deep involvement in fantasy. This disposition is an attempt, at least in part, to better describe the popular term ‘overactive imagination,’ or ‘living in a dream world.’

An individual with this trait (termed a fantasizer) may have difficulty differentiating between fantasy and reality and may experience hallucinations, as well as self-suggested psychosomatic symptoms. Three closely related psychological constructs are daydreaming, psychological absorption (in which a person becomes absorbed in their mental imagery), and eidetic memory (photographic memory).

American psychologists Sheryl C. Wilson and Theodore X. Barber first identified FPP in about 1981, said to apply to about 4% of the population. Besides identifying this fascinating trait, Wilson and Barber reported a number of childhood antecedents that likely caused the foundation for fantasy proneness in later life, such as ‘a parent, grandparent, teacher, or friend who encouraged the reading of fairy tales, reinforced the child’s … fantasies, and treated the child’s dolls and stuffed animals in ways that encouraged the child to believe that they were alive.’ They suggested that this trait was almost synonymous with those who responded dramatically to hypnotic induction, that is, ‘high hypnotizables.’ The first systematic studies were conducted by psychologists Judith Rhue and Steven Jay Lynn. Later research in the 1990s by Deirdre Barrett at Harvard confirmed most of these characteristics of fantasy prone people, but she also identified another set of highly hypnotizable subjects who had had traumatic childhoods and who identified fantasy time mainly by ‘spacing out.’

A fantasy prone person is reported to spend a large portion of his or her time fantasizing, and have vividly intense fantasies, paranormal experiences, and/or intense religious experiences. The fantasies may include dissociation (detachment) and sexual fantasies. People with FPP are reported to spend over half of their time awake fantasizing or daydreaming and will often confuse or mix their fantasies with their real memories. They also report out-of-body experiences. A ‘paracosm’ is an extremely detailed and structured fantasy world often created by extreme or compulsive fantasizers.

Common characteristics of a FFP are: excellent hypnotic subject; having imaginary friends as child; fantasizing often as child; having an actual fantasy identity; experiencing imagined sensations as real; having vivid sensory perceptions; reliving past experiences; claiming psychic powers; having out-of-body experiences; receiving information from higher powers, spirits, intelligences; believe they have powers for spiritual healing or faith healing; encountering apparitions; hypnogogic hallucinations (waking dreams); claiming to have been abducted by aliens; and receiving sexual satisfaction without any stimulation.

Fantasizers have had a large exposure to fantasy during early childhood. This over-exposure to childhood fantasy has at least three important causes: (1) Parents or carers who provided a very structured and imaginative mental and/or play environment. (2) Exposure to physical and/or sexual abuse, such that fantasizing provides a coping or escape mechanism from the abuse. (3) Exposure to severe loneliness and isolation, such that fantasizing provides a coping or escape mechanism from the boredom.

People with fantasy prone personality are more likely to have had parents, or closely related family members that have made their inanimate toys as children seem real. They also encourage the child who believes they have imaginary companions, reads fairy tales all through childhood and re-enacts the things they have read. Children who at a young age were involved in creative fantasy activities like piano, ballet, and drawing are more likely to obtain a fantasy prone personality. Acting is also a way for children to identify as different people and characters which can make the child prone to fantasy-like dreams as they grow up. The person grows up thinking they have experienced certain things and can visualize a certain occurrence from the training obtained in play. One subject in Barrett’s study said her parents’ formula response to her requests for expensive toys was, ‘You could take this (household object) and with a little imagination, it would look just like (that $200-whatever-Susie-just-got).’ And she reported, ‘this worked for me — although Susie couldn’t quite always see it.’ Fantasy prone people generally functioned well in their adult life.

Regarding psychoanalytic interpretations, Sigmund Freud has stated that ‘unsatisfied wishes are the driving power behind fantasies, every separate fantasy contains the fulfillment of a wish, and unproves an unsatisfactory reality.’ This shows loneliness and dissatisfaction in life can result in people creating a fantasy world of happiness in order to fill the void. Young children who once were treated with abuse and had a parent leave created a world of fantasies to escape from reality.

Absorption is a disposition or personality trait in which a person becomes absorbed in his/her mental imagery, particularly fantasy. This trait thus correlates highly with fantasy prone personality. The original research on absorption was by American psychologist Auke Tellegen. Roche reports that fantasy proneness and absorption are highly correlated. Fantasizers become absorbed within their vivid and realistic mental imagery.

Dissociation is a psychological process involving alterations in personal identity or sense of self. These alterations can include: a sense that self or the world is unreal (derealization and depersonalization); a loss of memory (amnesia); forgetting one’s identity or assuming a new self (fugue); and fragmentation of identity or self into separate streams of consciousness (dissociative identity disorder, formerly termed multiple personality disorder). Several studies have reported that dissociation and fantasy proneness are highly correlated. This suggests the possibility that the dissociated selves are merely fantasies, for example, being a coping response to trauma. However, a lengthy review of the evidence concludes that there is strong empirical support for the hypothesis that dissociation is caused primarily by exposure to trauma, and that fantasy is of secondary importance.

A surprisingly high number of fantasizers – 60% of the women asked in the Wilson-Barber study – reported that they have had a false pregnancy (pseudocyesis) at least once. They believed that they were pregnant, and they had many of the symptoms. In addition to amenorrhea (stoppage of menstruation), they typically experienced at least four of the following: breast changes, abdominal enlargement, morning sickness, cravings, and ‘fetal’ movements. Two of the subjects went for abortions, following which they were told that no fetus had been found. All of the other false pregnancies terminated quickly when negative results were received from pregnancy tests.

A recent study reports on 90 excessive, compulsive or maladaptive fantasizers who engaged in extensive periods of highly-structured immersive imaginative experiences. They often reported distress stemming from three factors: difficulty in controlling their fantasies that seemed overwhelming; concern that the fantasies interfered in their personal relationships; and intense shame and exhaustive efforts to keep this ‘abnormal’ behaviour hidden from others.

In an appendix to Barbara Stoney’s biography, psychologist Peter McKellar describes British children’s writer Enid Blyton’s vivid imagination and eidetic memory. She transcribed her prolific stories (over 600 titles) from visions that paraded before her eyes. A story emerged automatically in her mind’s eye, without conscious planning, almost as if she had a private cinema screen. Her ‘under-mind’ seemed able to receive directions such as ‘the story must be 40,000 words long,’ and sure enough, the book ended almost to the word.

The famous novels and short stories of Dickens are filled with ghost stories, in some of which they are the central feature, e.g., ‘A Christmas Carol.’ In a famous drawing, Dickens is seen sitting in his study, and fantasies are seen parading before his eyes, as in the manner of Enid Blyton. His childhood was traumatic, and his nanny regaled him with horror stories, which stimulated his imagination. He also apparently suffered from manic-depression (bipolar disorder).

Emily Brontë, one of three literary sisters, wrote the powerfully imaginative novel ‘Wuthering Heights.’ She fantasized frequently as a child, created a detailed fantasy world or identity (paracosm), experienced imagined sensations as real, and had vivid sensory perceptions.

Nikola Tesla, the famous inventor had very strong visual fantasies. This ability caused him much ‘mental anguish’ during his childhood; for example, he had difficulty in differentiating between a visualized apple and a real apple. As he got older, however, he learned to discriminate more clearly between his visualizations and reality and used his ability to great advantage in visually constructing his inventions such as the alternating current generator, the induction coil, fluorescent lighting, and neon bulbs.

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