If you grew up to the cartoons of the late 90s and early 00s, chances are you’ve come across Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends created by Craig McCracken. The light-hearted humour of the show made it an instant classic, remembered fondly by all. However, a deeper look into the world of Foster’s Home brings up a few questions, particularly about the titular “imaginary friends”. These imaginary friends come in all shapes and sizes, with a huge variety of personalities and, most notably, actually exist in the real world, rather than just being a figment of some child’s imagination as the name suggests. At first glance, the premise of Foster’s Home is just a far fetched story created solely on how entertaining it was. On further inspection, we can see that it was so much more. We believe that McCracken used this show as a way to predict the evolution of human life itself.
Until now, the majority of evolutionary changes seen in humans have been physical, and they came about due to an immediate need to mitigate life threatening factors in the environment at the time. However, over the more recent past, the average human life has become so much safer than a million years ago. If this continues, at the same pace, it’s clear that eventually, physical circumstances like predators or bacterial diseases will pose an insignificant threat to our life and mental illnesses will be the primary danger to the species. As a result, the evolutionary children of the Homo sapien will start developing psychological adaptations to combat these issues and will be very different from us in that respect even if the physical features don’t show it. Now, how would these new traits even look?
The basic assumption is that, similar to how we have white blood cells to protect against diseases and adrenaline to help us react to external threats, due to these new traits, our brains would develop new techniques to protect against mental illnesses like depression. McCracken approached a subset of this idea to explore in his show as to how these traits would work in children. Imaginary friends can be seen as the manifestation of these adaptations to combat of the biggest psychological challenges that a child can face – loneliness. When a child is lonely, his/her brain’s natural response to the issue is to address it by creating a friend. The personality of this imaginary friend is subconsciously decided by the child’s brain to be one that has the best chance to eliminate the loneliness. However, the childish mindset that the friend has, doesn’t change with time like how people change. This could explain why so many imaginary friends are abandoned after the child “outgrows” them. Their physical appearance is generally governed consciously by the child, or in other words, they look just like how the child imagines it.
It’s important to note that not everyone can create an imaginary friend. Similar to all the safety measures that our body currently has to protect us, this phenomenon is only observed when there is a need for it. Children with a good social circle having a sense of belonging in the circles they interact with, would tend to have difficulties while trying to bring their imagination to reality. This is supported by the fact that the society in the show has a provision to adopt imaginary friends for such children. The physical matter required for the body of this friend comes from the child itself. Cells all over the human body are constantly getting replaced and part of these new mental adaptations is that while the person sleeps, the brain is able to manipulate all the cells that are replaced, and instead of just shedding them, uses them to produce the matter required to create a body for the imaginary friend. Since handling millions of cells to form such a complex entity is so difficult, this process doesn’t happen at any time but rather while the person is sleeping when more brain power can be allocated to it.
Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends not only serves as a prediction for how children will live in the years to come but also gave life to the children of today, and it’s that balance between the two that makes it such a wonderful show.