Tom Dolack, Wheaton College
It has been postulated that religious beliefs “minimally violate ordinary intuitions about how the world is” (Atran, In Gods We Trust 83). This is not to say that religion need be defined by counterintuitive imagery. There is a constellation of behaviors that has been proposed as underlying religion including a “hyperactive agency detection device” (Guthrie), overpromiscuous Theory of Mind, and ritual practices. Nonetheless, counterintuitive imagery appears to be a religious universal. Some research on this topic has noted that counterintuitive imagery is not a priori religious. Specifically, Kelly and Keil have looked at Ovid and the Brothers Grimm; Burdett, Barrett, and Porter have looked at folktales; and Swan and Halberstadt have more recently examined what differentiates religious from fictional counterintuitive agents. Even so, work in the field has mostly focused on the religious domain. What I propose is a research program that explicitly applies insights into religious counterintuitive imagery to narrative more broadly, including modern literature. This is in keeping with the idea that cognitive “templates” for religious concepts, discussed by Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained 78), have application in a wide variety of cultural artifacts.
Art was once thought to be the sole province of Homo sapiens, a cultural Rubicon that only we crossed. But, as has often been the case in recent years, the archaeological record shows that we are not so special. Intentional markings have been found on mussel shells dating back a half million years, which would make the suspected artiste Homo erectus (Joordens et al.). Whether we wish to term these engravings “art” is open to debate, but they seem to be intentional, serve no apparent utilitarian function, and are not random. If not art, then what? Doodle, perhaps, but that would probably be distinction without difference in this context. Our cousins the Neanderthals clearly also “doodled,” as evidenced by cave art in Spain predating the arrival of Homo sapiens (Hoffmann et al.; Hawks). Examples from our own direct ancestors are widespread and found all over the world (Henshilwood et al.; Aubert et al.). But much of the art we find in the record can be described as decorative or mimetic. The type of symbolism or figurativeness we associate with the term “art” in modern times, not to mention with human behavior more generally, is clearly a more recent addition.
Along these lines, the Löwenmensch or Lion-Man, found in the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in Germany, stands out. Not only is it one of the oldest, if not the oldest, statuette on record; it is also conspicuously not abstract, mimetic, or purely decorative. About a foot in height and carved from a mammoth tusk, the largest piece of the figurine was unearthed in 1939 (smaller pieces were dug up later and the pieces painstakingly reassembled). The Löwenmensch has a human body, with the head of what appears to be a lion. It is unclear if the figurine was meant to be symbolic or religious (theories abound), but it is clearly figurative. Nobody ever saw such a creature. It is all too easy to lose sight of how revolutionary this would have been. It would be unexceptional today in our world of CGI; it would have been unexceptional even thousands of years ago when mythology and tales around the campfire were commonplace. But there was a time when such a hybrid creation was entirely new, and it changed human culture forever.
We don’t know when or where this capacity for imagining hybrids originated, and can only hypothesize about how it came to be (changes to our mental architecture along the lines of Mithen’s “cognitive fluidity”? A tipping point in cumulative cultural evolution?), but however this change occurred, it signals a new ability to envision what did not and could not exist; previously we could either reproduce what we had seen or heard about or make abstract shapes that we found pleasing.
I suspect it is no coincidence that this oldest of all figurative art is a hybrid. Such hybrids are a stock element of religions, mythologies, and folklores the world over. The technical term for them is counterintuitive imagery. What makes these images special is that they violate our natural intuitions. We have innate ontological categories (Atran,“Basic Conceptual Domains”) in our minds such as animal, person, inanimate thing, tool and plant. Each of these categories involves specific expectations regarding our innate knowledge domains of physics, biology, and psychology. A natural object such as a rock does not move on its own, does not grow or reproduce, and does not think. An animal does move on its own, grow, eat, and reproduce, has some mental workings, but does not speak. Humans are like animals biologically, plus have additional psychology faculties, but are restrained by certain physical laws (we can’t fly or walk through walls). Counterintuitive images violate these ontological expectations in one way or another—an animal that talks, a person who doesn’t die, a stick that heals. A table from Justin Barrett covers all of the bases (see Figure 1).
This table covers the panoply of figures in religions, mythologies, folklores, but also science fiction movies and fantasy novels. A zombie is a person lacking human consciousness (a violation of expectations regarding psychology); a ghost is a person without a body (a violation regarding biology); a talisman is an artifact with magic properties (physics violation); Ents are plants that behave like people (biology and psychology violations); monotheistic gods are often people lacking bodies and with reality-defying powers (psychology, biology, and physics violations). And so on.
A primary postulate for why counterintuitive imagery is so common in the religious imagination is because it is better remembered. But we need not restrict ourselves just to the religious imagination in this regard (Barrett, “Utility” 250). Atran and Norenzayan did experiments where stories with counterintuitive imagery were better remembered after one week (see also Barrett and Nyhof). Perhaps most interesting, they found an ideal ratio of counterintuitive to intuitive imagery (mostly intuitive with some counterintuitive), which accounts for why all or even most religious imagery is not counterintuitive. This is an explanation for its universality – in a tradition lacking writing, imagery that was better remembered would have a Darwinian advantage. And, indeed, such imagery does seem to be universal. Donald Brown lists belief in the supernatural, anthropomorphism, magic (which involves category violations of some sort), and myths all as human universals (139).
This may explain the abundance of spirits, and giants, and witches, and gods and the like – all the mythic figures that populate the religions, folklores and stories the world over, all of which have their roots, if you go back far enough, in the letterless past. But can we say the same about wizards and aliens and all the creations of modern fantasy and science fiction that are solidly within modern times? Clearly memory is no hurdle to the retention of something located conveniently in paperback or blue-ray. Indeed, if we extend our view to incorporate our metaphors (your eyes are like diamonds, a mountain of a man, fast as a cheetah), counterintuitivity pervades all of our narrative, even the most realistic.
This points to a possible need to expand what we mean by the term “supernatural.” Rather than being the domain of magic, mysticism, or the occult, an understanding of our innate folk physics and folk biology lets us understand why exactly we draw a line between natural and supernatural, and that there is nothing inherently religious or magical about things on the other side of that line. As Konika Banerjee notes (Banerjee et al.), in actuality, we likely get the directionality wrong: counterintuitive imagery isn’t religious, there’s just something about it that leads to its overrepresentation in allforms of narrative. The “supernatural” (read: counterintuitive) surrounds us, we just tend to notice only the more extreme examples found in mythology and religion. This meshes quite well with the work of Kelly and Keil that found similar rates of cross-domain transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
But if counterintuitive imagery is so ubiquitous, even (especially?) into the modern day where memory is no longer a restricting factor, what can account for its prevalence? Why would Hinduism, Ovid, and comic books all contain similar imagery? Banerjee uses the phrase “inferentially rich,” which may be on to something. If a novel counterintuitive idea breeds new ideas and images, this may make them more attractive. There is perhaps something more creative about them. This fits with one approach to creativity at the cognitive level that assumes creativity to involve the combination of two previously separate ideas in working memory (Vandervert et al.; Fink et al.). Thus, counterintuitive imagery may force us to be creative in reverse by separating the components of a hybrid that we had not encountered. But much more research is required on this specific question.
An Attempt to Test Some Hypotheses
Based on the standard formulations of the role of counterintuitive imagery in religions, I formulated two hypotheses that could be empirically tested. First of all, if memory is truly the main reason for increased counterintuitive imagery, we should find more of it in oral traditions than written traditions. Second, if there is something religious about counterintuitive imagery, we should find more of it in religious texts than non-religious texts. Obviously, counterintuitive imagery exists in both written and secular texts, but there should be some difference in the rates. With these hypotheses in mind, I and a group of undergraduate students began to tabulate rates of counterintuitive imagery. The project is highly labor intensive and so progress is both slow going and narrowly focused. Consequently, conclusions are so far highly tentative and really only serve as means of directing future research. But the data has been interesting, nonetheless (Dolack). To date we have gotten through the Hebrew Bible and the Harry Potter series, which is only a starting point. Obviously, this choice alone is a delimiting factor in the results, but we believe that at the very least we have established that a fuller empirical study along these lines promises to contribute to worthwhile research programs on counterintuitive imagery and narrative.
What we have done is tabulate all of the characters in both works (over 3,500 total) and, using the rubric established by Boyer and Barrett (“Natural Foundations”), marked which ones had counterintuitive elements. Specifically, we tracked whether each character had some additional, unanticipated domain capacity in psychology, biology, or physics, or whether it lacked such a capacity (marked as +psychology, or –physics, for instance). Some simplification was necessary, especially at this stage. Future work could involve the subtlety built into Justin Barrett’s coding system, particularly his distinction between “counterintuitive” and “counterschematic” (Barrett, “Coding”).
Some of our basic results showed that only 8% of characters in the Old Testament had some form of domain violation. However, if we counted not just characters, but how many times the characters were mentioned, it turns out that 33% of character mentions involve a character with a domain violation. This means that counterintuitive figures were much more likely to be mentioned multiple times than “normal” figures. This fits with the predictions of the theory – there is obviously selection pressure for counterintuitiveness in the Bible.
To test another prediction, we tabulated the percentage of character mentions involving a counterintuitive character per book of the Bible. We did percentage and not raw numbers because otherwise larger books such as Genesis would have an unfair advantage. The results look like Figure 2.
Some books have very high numbers because they only have a handful of people, all of whom are prophets, or fall into some other counterintuitive category. The test here was to see if the earlier books of the Bible (the ones more likely to date back to a purely oral tradition) had higher or lower rates of counterintuitive figures. Dating books of the Hebrew Bible is tricky as there are no exact dates to begin with, but things are further complicated by when texts were written down or edited. But using a rough ordering, my team came up with Figure 3, which shows a general decrease from older to newer texts.
The overall decrease in the percentage of domain violations fits with the model’s predictions as well. But what happens when we look at a work of contemporary fantasy? Our prediction based on theory was that rates of counterintuitive imagery would be lower, but our instincts said it would be about the same. It turns out that 45% of the characters in the Harry Potter novels are counterintuitive. That’s far higher than the 8% in the Hebrew Bible. If we look at character mentions, the disparity is much less: 49% compared with The Bible’s 33%. The percentage of mentions jumps much less than with The Bible; a counterintuitive character in Harry Potter is only slightly more likely to be seen more often than a non-counterintuitive character. We suggest this difference is because the initial rate in Harry Potter is so high and because The Bible was winnowed down and changed over centuries.
What conclusions can we draw from this admittedly narrow selection of texts? Based solely on this one example we can say that individual, modern, written works can have as much or even more counterintuitive imagery than religious or oral texts. Indeed, this is another sign of the universality of counterintuitive imagery. It also supplies support for the hypothesis that memorability may not be the only reason for the prevalence of such imagery. Harry Potter is not dependent on long-term memory for its propagation, only its appeal to readers. So perhaps counterintuitive imagery is more engaging (or exciting, or rich), and not merely more unforgettable. These results point more to what work needs to be done than to answers to our original questions.
This line of research clearly needs more data from as many different sources as possible. There is no way for two works to give an accurate view of the problem; what we have been able to do is more akin to a pilot study that prepares the way for more systematic work. For starters, we should compare rates of counterintuitive imagery in cross-cultural folklore and mythology to see if there are geographical variations in rates or preferences. (Work already appears to show that counterintuitive imagery is cross-cultural. See Boyer and Ramble, and Barrett et al.) Second, we need more work on counterintuitive imagery in literary texts. What are the factors that affect counterintuitivity – genre? tradition? audience? Do counterintuitive elements appear in our metaphors at the same rate as counterintuitive images appear in folklore? Finding counterintuitive imagery in a broad range of works and types of work would suggest that it is fundamental to our imagination. Lastly, these data can be used to investigate why this type of imagery is so pervasive since it seems that memorability alone cannot be the answer. This could be a consequential undertaking, because any line of investigation that gets to a possible common root of religion and the narrative arts could also shed light on the evolutionary origins of both behaviors. Common ancestors are not just valuable in anthropology and paleontology.
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