Three-year-olds, like scientists and artists, understand the difference between the real world and magic, reports Alison Gopnik in The Wall Street Journal (12/28/13). The twist is that as we grow older we begin to blur the lines between fact and fantasy, and start to put stock in notion "that somehow the causal laws could be suspended or creatures from the imaginary world could be transported to the real one." However, "like the three-year-olds, scientists and artists are united in their embrace of both reality and possibility, and their capacity to discriminate between them."
This finding is based on research via Jacqueline Woolley at the University of Texas and Paul Harris at Harvard that shows "that even the youngest children understand magic in surprisingly sophisticated ways." In one experiment, Dr. Woolley "showed pre-schoolers a box of pencils and an empty box," and asked them "to vividly imagine that the empty box was full of pencils." The children played along, "but they also said that if someone wanted pencils, they should go to the real box rather than the imagined one."
However, "children do spend more time than we do thinking about the world of imagination. They don’t actually confuse the fantasy world with the real one; they just prefer to hang out there." This enables what philosophers term ‘counterfactual‘ thinking, or working "out what would happen if the physical world were different," not unlike the way "novelists work out what would happen if the social and psychological world were different … Counterfactual thinking is an essential part of science, and science requires and rewards imagination as much as literature or art."