Sciency Words: Paracosm

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


I love this word. I was a little hesitant, at first, about calling it a scientific term, but it didn’t take much digging for me to learn (to my delight) that it is used in scientific literature. In fact, the word has its origins in science.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, psychologist Robert Silvey was conducting research on the phenomenon of imaginary friends. Ben Vincent, a participant in Silvey’s research, is credited with coining the term paracosm to describe a rather special, rather complex form of imaginary play.

Paracosm combines two Greek words which can be translated as “the world beside,” as in the world that exists besides, or in addition to, the real world. A paracosm is a private fantasy world that is created and maintained over a long period of time within one’s mind.

An important thing to note is that, from the paracosmist’s perspective, this fantasy world does not exist instead or reality. It does not replace reality. Rather, fantasy and reality exist side by side, and the paracosmist lives in both. A paracosmist is not confused about what is real or what is make-believe.

According to the expert sources I’ve looked at, these fantasy worlds are highly detailed. They may be populated by humans, or talking animals, or space aliens and robots, or whatever. They may include their own history, geography, language, social order…. Also, time may not pass at the same rate in the fantasy world as it does in reality. I… I didn’t get that from any expert sources. I guess I could point to Narnia as an example, but instead I’m just going to tell you to trust me on this one: I have personal experience with this accelerated time thing.

Most of the research I’ve found about paracosms focuses on children, with generalized conclusions ranging from “this is a normal and healthy part of childhood” to “this a coping mechanism used by some children to mentally escape from abuse or neglect, or from the loss of loved ones, or from other forms of trauma.”

There’s far less research available on the phenomenon in adults, aside from the suggestion that childhood paracosmic fantasies, or aspects of them, can linger into adulthood and have an ongoing impact on people’s lives. This seems to have been the case for several well-known authors, including Emily Brontë, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

I really do love this word. I love finally having a word to describe something that’s been part of my life for nearly twenty years. Yes, I’ve been maintaining my own paracosmic fantasy world for almost twenty years now, and I have journal entries dating back to 1998 to prove it. And during that time, thanks to the accelerated time thing I mentioned earlier, I’ve “witnessed” nearly a thousand years of fantasy history.

For a writer, that’s plenty of material to draw upon for storytelling. On rare occasions I’ve even allowed elements of my private fantasy world to seep into this blog.

And despite the lack of research on the subject, I suspect my experience of having imaginary friends and an imaginary world stick with me well into adulthood is not all that unusual, at least not for writers, artists, and other creative types.

7 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Paracosm

  1. Hmmm. What do we call when we have multiple fantasy worlds? Polyparacosm? That’s more my case. Although maybe I’m not an example since my fantasy worlds tend to fall into and out of favor, leaving me a long line of discarded ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I guess, if we’re being technical about it, it depends on what it means to maintain the world over a long period of time. But I’m okay with making polyparacosm a word. Or maybe serial paracosmism could be a thing?

      Liked by 1 person

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