Imagination zone: We reach inside for recreation

Q. Can you imagine how most of us spend most of our leisure time? – B. Kelly

A. No, it's not eating, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, socializing with family or friends, or participating in sports, says psychologist Paul Bloom in How Pleasure Works. Rather, we retreat to the imagination, to worlds created by others– as with books, movies, video games, and TV (over four hours per day on average)– or to worlds we ourselves create in daydreams and fantasies. Two-year-olds pretend to be lions, graduate students stay up all night playing video games, young parents hide from their offspring to read novels, and millions tune into reality-TV shows.

As one psychologist puts it on her website, "I am interested in why individuals might choose to watch television shows like Friends rather than spend time with actual friends."

Perhaps we enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don't distinguish them from real ones. From youth, we are all great pretenders, tellers of stories and lovers of others' stories. The actor Leonard Nimoy was so often confused by the public with his fictional TV character that out of frustration he wrote a book called I Am Not Spock (then 20 years later published I Am Spock).

After her final Harry Potter book, J.K. Rowling received letters from adults as well as kids, begging her to spare the lives of beloved characters like Hagrid, Hermione, and of course Harry himself.

“Imagination is reality lite,” sums up Bloom, "a useful substitute when the real pleasure is inaccessible, too risky, or too much work."

Q. How does carrying a long, heavy bar help a tightrope walker maintain balance, even outdoors in a moderately gusty wind?—K. Wallenda

A. In 1981, Steven McPeak walked a wire strung peak to peak at the Zugspitze, between Austria and Germany, at times a full kilometer (3,280 feet) above the ground, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. Balance is maintained by keeping the center of mass generally over the rope. When the performer leans too far in one direction, the body must bend back the other way for correction. A heavy bar helps, since by shoving it right or left the combined center of mass of the performer and the bar stays over the rope. This motion must be executed quickly before the performer leans too far, but a light bar with its smaller mass would have to be shifted too far to be practical.

Earlier in 1974, Philippe Petit walked a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, 400 meters (1,312 feet) above street level, having shot the wire across the towers with a bow and arrow. After at least seven passages, he was arrested by the police for criminal trespassing.

"Presumably, they could think of no other reason to stop him,” Walker writes, “because lawmakers had not foreseen the possibility of criminal wire walking."
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