Apr 03 2007

The Fantasy Prone Personality

I lead a rich fantasy life. I love science fiction and fantasy books and movies (current favorite show: Battlestar Galactica – really, if you like SciFi and have not seen it, check it out). I have even written fantasy role-playing supplements. I have always been able to withdraw “inside my head” and just weave a compelling fantasy to pass the time. My favorite sciences have always been paleontology and astronomy – I think because through both I was able to mentally transport myself to a completely alien and exotic time and place. And yet, despite all this, I have also made it a lifelong endeavor to make the line between fantasy and reality razor sharp and crystal clear. The same is not true, apparently, for all members of my own species.

In 1981 Wilson and Barber first identified what they called a fantasy-prone personality (FPP) type (this work actually extended from Josephine Hilgard’s observations of people who were very susceptible to hypnosis). These are people who not only lead a rich fantasy life but seem to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. They identify 14 characteristics of fantasy proneness: (1) being an excellent hypnotic subject, (2) having imaginary playmates as a child, (3) fantasizing frequently as a child, (4) adopting a fantasy identity, (5) experiencing imagined sensations as real, (6) having vivid sensory perceptions, (7) reliving past experiences, (8) claiming psychic powers, (9) having out-of-body or floating experiences, (10) receiving poems, messages, etc., from spirits, higher intelligences, and the like, (11) being involved in “healing,” (12) encountering apparitions, (13) experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations (waking dreams), and (14) seeing classical hypnagogic imagery (such as spirits or monsters from outer space).

Like any “diagnosis” in psychology, fantasy proneness is somewhat arbitrary. Most people probably have some of the above traits (I have 3; I have never been hypnotized so I don’t know what my susceptibility is, so potentially I may have 4 traits at most). Wilson and Barber considered having 6 or more traits worthy of the designation of fantasy-prone. As an aside, I think these types of designations are legitimate. It is the false-continuum logical fallacy to argue that because there is a continuum from one end of a spectrum to the other that no meaningful distinctions can be made. It just needs to be recognized that there is a fuzzy and gray boundary between two extremes – but these extremes can be meaningfully distinguished and probably do relate to some underlying reality. I do think it’s meaningful to call Kareem Abdul Jabar tall and the artist formerly known as Prince short – even though there is no sharp line between the two. To extend this analogy, dwarfism is not just the lower end of the height spectrum, it represents a subgroup that has a specific genetic mutation (and in fact there are multiple types of dwarfism).

The real measure of such designations is not so much how they are defined but if the definitions can be validated, and by validated that means is there internal consistency and does the definition predict anything or consistently correlate with other measures. In other words – is the notion of fantasy-prone personality a useful tool in understanding human psychology and behavior? I think the preliminary answer is yes, and research is moving rapidly in that direction (more on this below).

What, then, is fantasy proneness as defined by the 14 characteristics above really reflecting? Is it a learned psychological trait or the product of genetically determined hard-wiring (the old nature vs. nurture debate)? Well, like all such questions, I think it is a complex mixture of both. I also think it is a heterogeneous group – meaning that we are not describing one discrete clinical entity but rather an ultimate behavioral result of many possible pathways. Some of these pathways are more psychological and others are more neurological.

For example, evidence shows that some FPP individuals were abused as children (statistically much more than non-FPP) and it is therefore suspected that these children retreated into a fantasy world in order to escape a very unpleasant environment (a strategy that seems to work quite well in terms of happiness and stability). There is also a higher reporting of loneliness among FPP people – which can have two explanations. Either they retreated into a fantasy world to cope with their loneliness, or they manufactured their loneliness because they prefer their fantasy life to interacting with others.

There may also be others who are neurologically predisposed to fantasy – because they have a very high degree of creativity (yes, there is a correlation between FPP and high creativity, but there is no difference in creativity between medium and low fantasy prone individuals – suggesting that it is a subtype and not just one end of a spectrum of variation). Or fantasies may be particularly compelling because they have low or impaired hardwiring for reality testing.

As the psychological and neurological aspects of the FPP type are further explored I think it is likely that subtypes will emerge, based upon the various pathways I listed above. In fact, my reading of Wilson and Barber’s 14 traits is that they tend to fall into two categories: 1- heightened fantasizing and creativity; 2 – impaired reality testing and heightened auto-sensation. I think these reflect truly different subtypes – although this is speculation on my part, I am not aware of any published evidence for this.

It is the second type – those who seem to have difficulty distinguishing their fantasies from reality, or who experience their fantasies so intensely and realistically that they are difficult to separate from their experiences based in external reality – who make so much trouble for skeptics (although recognizing this phenomenon has been a boon to skeptical explanations of alleged paranormal events).

This gets back to the validation of the FPP type. Research has now shown that a significant number of people who believe they have been abducted by aliens have a FPP type. The same is true of those who have had vivid interactions with ghosts, spirits, angels, or fairies, or who have had near death experiences. FPP people seem to be paranormal experience factories – and are likely responsible for most of the stories going around that sound very vivid and compelling.

We are learning from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research that when subjects are asked to view and image, and then asked to remember or imagine the image, the same part of their brain becomes activated (not similar – the same). I acknowledge that the resolution of fMRI, although quite good, is not good enough to rule out subtle differences in these two events. But the bottom line is that the same or very similar pattern of neurons fire when we listen to a piece of music – when sound exists outside ourselves in physical reality and we are experiencing it, and when we simply imagine the music, or play it in our heads where there is no external reality. The question is, then, how do we know the difference?

Our brains must have hard-wiring that enables it to distinguish between a sensory experience and a vivid memory. For every part of the body, including the brain, that has a specific function there should be a disorder that results from that part malfunctioning (and possibly also hypo or hyperfunctioning, depending on what it does). So it stands to reason that some people would have hypervivid memories, perhaps so vivid they overwhelm hardwiring whose purpose is to distinguish the memories from sensory experiences. Alternatively, there should be some people who have underfunctioning or malfunctioning reality testing –so they have an impaired ability to separate the real from the imagined.

This all also sounds suspiciously like another recognized neuro-psychiatric disorder – schizophrenia. Schizophrenics have impaired reality testing and hallucinations. The logical step is to see if there is any overlap between FPP types and schizophrenia, and in fact there is. Those who score highly on tests for FPP (in addition to the 14 point scale above, there is also the Inventory of Childhood Memories and Imagining (ICMI), which is more detailed and seems to be the test of choice in the published literature), also score highly on the MMPI (a personality inventory) for risk of schizophrenia. This is an interesting correlation that deserves further exploration.

Now I don’t think that FPP people are schizophrenics – the two conditions have very different “flavors” and some important differences in symptoms. However, it is probable that the same region of the brain may be malfunctioning in both – those parts necessary for reality testing and separating the internal and external worlds.

In summary, the totality of the research indicates that there is this broad clinical entity known as the fantasy-prone personality type, which is likely comprised of various psychological and neurological conditions that result in heightened fantasizing and/or an impaired ability to distinguish internal fantasy from external reality. Research indicates that this subset of humanity is disproportionately responsible for a large number of reported paranormal experiences, including ghosts, angels, aliens, abductions, out of body experiences, near death experiences, reincarnation, and others. Fortunately the science in this area is serious and rigorous and progressing quite nicely, aided by the latest tools in neuroscience, such as fMRI scanning. I suspect that in the future the knowledge we gain from such studies will go a long way toward demystifying much of what passes for paranormal and spiritual phenomena.

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