A Truant Disposition

"I must be idle."

Do You Believe in Monsters? How About Woolly Mammoths?

Written By: Ainy Rainwater - Feb• 22•12

I’m always happy when a new episode of the Monster Talk podcast pops up in my podcast feed. The new one deals with the recent Wooly Mammoth hoax, but I’d like to talk a bit about why people often believe. I learned a new word today: pareidolia. Maybe I’ve heard it on previous episodes, but it really struck me today. It refers to the mind forming a pattern out of something random, such as when we see an image but can’t clearly tell what it is, our mind will try to fill in with something.

The brain is always trying to makes sense of the world. If I leave a letter out of a word — or a word out of a sentence — most people won’t notice: their minds will fill in what’s missing. (Which is what makes proofreading so hard!) Likewise when a person is going deaf the brain will try to fill in the missing sound data, to make sense of the not-quite distinguishable bits of a sentence. When we see a picture, perhaps a close-up of something or a tiny thumbnail image and we don’t have a caption or clue to what we’re looking at there’s a moment when we may see it as something other than it is. The brain is very agile and it’s always trying to fill in the gaps in a way that makes sense to the person whose brain it is.

I recently had jury duty and though I wasn’t selected I found the voir dire process interesting as usual. One of the things that struck me afterward was the picture or story that had formed in my mind as a result of the questions that were asked. Though the questions could not address the case specifically, the questions dealt with specific types of circumstances so that by the time I left I felt like I had a pretty good idea what the case was about and what had happened. Talking to another of the jurors who wasn’t selected, I realized that she’d come to a completely different scenario. Doing a bit of research online after I got home— which is allowed only because I was not selected — I realized we were both probably wrong in our conclusions. But the point is, that even trying to keep an open mind — and even with carefully worded questions by both attorneys — it was impossible for our brains not to try to fill in the gaps and generate a story out of the questions we were asked and the charges that were brought.

The mind is perpetually generating stories about the world around us. These stories are based on what we experience filtered through our beliefs and individual personalities and past experiences. In the case of internet hoaxes with a visual component such as blurry photos and shakey video, the brain will try to come up with something recognizable and all it takes is the suggestion of something and that gap is filled almost automatically. Add to this the personal factor of whether you believe or want to believe in little green men or woolly mammoths. I suspect that people might be more likely to believe in wooly mammoths, Big Foot or Nessie because there’s something wonderful about the possibility. It makes me wonder if fewer people believe in the more unsavory “monsters” of lore.

There’s a lot of lore about malevolent supernatural entities, malevolent aliens, and assorted terrestrial monsters. This stuff makes for good stories, but do I want these stories to be true? Hell, no! I prefer to live in a Scooby Doo universe where houses are not haunted by malevolent supernatural entities, but by a person with a hidden agenda who can be exposed.

On the other hand there are legends of “monsters” (in the loosest sense of the word) which are often referred to as cryptids, that is, an actual existing species of animal that has remained undiscovered or not scientifically documented. I feel differently about these. I think it would be cool if Bigfoot, the yeti, and the Loch Ness monster (to name a few of the best-known examples) were proven to be real, extant (albeit endangered), species. New species of animals are still being discovered every year. I think this is wonderful.

A skeptic of the sort you’ll hear on Monster Talk isn’t some grouchy curmudgeon who just wants to rain on the parade and prove than anything marvelous (in the older sense of the word) that’s purported to be real is just a hoax or scam. I get the sense from all the episodes of Monster Talk I’ve listened to that the hosts are folks who find it all interesting and would not be bent out of shape if someone proved a cryptid existed. But they’d have to have incontrovertable scientific proof. I don’t think this is unreasonable.

Science is how we explore the world we live in. Our lives are immersed in science. All our technology is based on science. Even if we lived in a cave somewhere we would still be subject to the laws of science: gravity, fire, electrical storms, how our bodies process food to give us energy, etc.

I like Monster Talk because it’s a brilliant mix of mythical, imaginative lore and scientific inquiry with good hosts who are fun to listen to. Their guests are fun to listen to also. They’ve had scientists talking about dinosaurs since some cryptids are presumably prehistoric, about hominids (yeti, bigfoot), about carnival hoaxes, ghost hoaxes, authors of folklore (the Djinn episode is great), and even a witch (who they did not burn at the stake), as well as people with technical expertise to examine forensically the evidence presented for some “monsters”. The episodes range widely in subject matter. If you sometimes feel like you waste too much time on internet junk and podcasts, dig through the Monster Talk archives and it will be time well-spent: you can get your “junk” fix with the monsters and yet get good science. (Bonus!)

As an author of fiction I don’t find it at all contradictory that I like a podcast that demystifys monsters and legends. I enjoy reading good stories and my enjoyment isn’t contingent on whether the story is fiction or non-fiction. As a writer, my job is too immerse the reader in the fictional world to the extent of “the willing suspension of disbelief” (as Coleridge phrased it). Good fiction should feel real while you’re reading it, but not be real once you’ve finished it. Some stories resonate more with some readers than with others and that affects the “willing suspension of disbelief”. I suspect the recent woolly mammoth video resonated with a lot of people: it’s the sort of thing that most people would want to believe (even though it looks like a very small mammoth). Since it was a hoax, I’m glad it was proven to be a hoax, but if I’m completely honest there’s a teeny tiny part of me that’s sort of glad someone went to the trouble to do this hoax (though I in no way condone stealing video footage)…because it’s such a nifty magical kind of “what if” to consider: “what if woolly mammoths still roamed in Siberia”. As an author of (and reader of) imaginative fiction, I can appreciate that. 🙂

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