Human beings and a few other mammals have the kind of brain that results in a mind that can imagine things that are not present and times that never were. In other words, we can ask, "What if...?" We can each reinvent the past and imagine many futures with that simple, enormous question. We can perform acts of transformation within our minds. This ability has made possible religion, ritual, drama and play. By an act of mind we give life to stuffed animals and imaginary friends. With our marvelous minds we can imagine being Other, in OtherWheres and OtherWhens.
Kids learn to temporarily transform into Others when they play. Sometimes they become Moms, or Dads, sometimes Bears or Mouse, sometimes Monster, and often Hero. Taking on roles like this, pretending we have changed our shape and our essence, is one of the main ways we develop a sense of self.
We put on masks and costumes, we learn to play roles, sometimes for fun and sometimes to survive, we learn to disguise and camouflage.
This kind of play often extends throughout our lives, although as we get older we tend to hide it. Daydreaming often involves transformations.
In many ways, human beings enjoy transforming. Children become countless other beings during play--now a bird, now a monster, now a super hero, Adults and kids both dream (and daydream) that they are quite different characters with lives quite different from their own. Whether we are watching a movie, a TV drama, a stage play, or reading a book, we identify with the imaginary characters and virtually become them, sometimes so strongly that we are surprised to return to our actual selves.
Our imaginations transform us in many ways, and one result is our ability to "feel" ourselves into another person's skin, to "walk in another's shoes". This ability is the wonderful human skill we call Empathy.
Empathy means to feel what an Other is feeling. This imaginative ability to "feel" someone else is at the root of the most universal rule of conduct of our species:
Do to others as you would have others do to you, or, treat others as you would like to be treated, often called the Golden Rule. It is found in ancient writings from China, Israel, Greece, and Egypt as well as in the Christian Bible in the Gospel of Matthew (7:12):"In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you. . ."
If we could not think and feel ourselves into other persons' situations, and in a way briefly transform into them, we could not understand the Golden Rule.
Some criminals, called sociopaths, are people who simply cannot make that imaginative transformation that can let us know what someone else is feeling. So transformation by empathy is a skill of great human value to us.
Here are some words by poet Walt Whitman from Leaves of Grass:
There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he looked upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day
or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass and white and red morning glories,
and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the third-month lambs and the sow's
pink-faint litter, and the mare's foal, and the cow's calf.
In such ways experience of Other enlarges us, makes us more able to accept Otherness.
During recent human history, most people around the earth have lost the daily contact with animals and wild nature that was our heritage for a million years. We grew up in Nature, became human within Nature. Now, childrens' primary connection to animals is imaginary: stuffed animals, stories of cartoon animals on the media, no direct sensory knowledge of any true animal except for the lucky kids who are allowed pets.
Many of our toys are animals; Many are humans.
As children, we love to transform into both, even the occasional humanoid robot like Robbie, as long as it can move.
An important kind of transformation is not for fun. Religious drama and rituals are found in human societies all over the world. Festivals like Mardis Gras are relicts of once serious (but not somber) religious occasions.