A Moment of Science

Folktales Meet Science

For only a few hundred years have people been doing what today we call science. Instead, in the past the things that we didn’t understand we often tried to explain by using legends. For example, there never were any real dragons in the world–but the world is indeed full of frightening animals.

A fascinating example of this has been suggested folktales about fairies. Imagine a more or less typical fairy, “pixie,” or other little magical person. Many people will recognize certain facial features. Fairies have little, upturned noses. They have wide mouths, pouty lips, little chins, and big ears. Indeed, these features on people are often described as “Elfish.”

This sounds a lot like a condition known as “William’s Syndrome,” and some researchers have argued that William’s Syndrome is the origin of legends about fairies. People with William’s Syndrome grow slowly, tend to be small, and have “elfish” facial features.

More interesting to the folklore connection, though, are the talents of people born with William’s Syndrome. Such people have impaired IQ’s and may be retarded–but certain brain functions are often stronger than normal. For example, people with William’s Syndrome are very good at telling stories, even as children. Even more impressive, they tend to excel at music, having a sometimes amazing capacity for instruments, rhythms, and pitch. Finally, they show a predisposition toward kindness, sympathy, and caring.

Could such a condition be the origin of stories about kindly little people, so often associated with tale-telling and musicianship? What we now understand through science may once have seemed to us like magic.

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