I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in elves.

October 2, 2007 | By | 6 Replies More

Think of all the mythical creatures that have populated human imagination and legend! Unicorns, chupacabras, Loc Ness Monsters, hydras, elves, gods and goddesses- how did we come up with such a wide array of fantastic stories? Various cultural anthropologists and historians can give us solid guesses, but we really can’t know for certain how our storytelling species crafted all of these ideas. We also can’t tell how some of these stories live on while others have died out at the hands of science and skepticism.

Most legendary, fanciful critters haven’t fared as well as our ambiguous, all-powerful big-man-in-the-sky. Elves disappeared from any kind of sincere account many, many years ago. We now find them relegated to the realm of animated movies and cookie packages. Yet I believe more in elves than I do in God.

Actually, I know elves exist. Soon you will be able to make that claim too. You’ll just have to stretch your understanding of the impish, fun-loving humanoids a little. First, strike that concept of “humanoid”- elves don’t just look like humans, they are humans. Elves are humans with William’s syndrome.

William’s syndrome results from the deletion of genetic material in a region of chromosome 7. The condition results in a wide array of cognitive deficits. People with William’s have no depth perception, and have trouble with spatial imagination. The condition results in mental retardation; most people with William’s have IQ’s in the 60’s. Along with William’s many effects on the brain, the genetic deletion results in cardiovascular problems. The syndrome has many autism-like symptoms.

But if ever you meet a person with William’s syndrome, you’ll hardly believe the condition’s close relationship with autism. Unlike the quiet, unemotional, nonsocial appearance of an autistic child, a William’s child often runs to greet a stranger. People with William’s love to engage people in conversation, adore socializing, and have amazingly upbeat moods. Their strong language and conversation skills mask their other mental drawbacks. The striking opposite to an autistic child, who has trouble relating with people and processing empathy, a William’s child appears highly sensitive to a person’s mood and approaches social contact, rather than shrinking away.

How does a loveable, socially outgoing person with a mental disability become a fantasy creature in ancient lore? To understand what makes William’s people “elves”, note a few of their other typical characteristics. The syndrome carries with it a strong association with musical ability and interest- many people with William’s have perfect pitch or spot-on rhythm. Their surprisingly honed speaking abilities make many of them dynamic storytellers with remarkable imaginations.

Also, the facial features characteristic of William’s syndrome match the mythical accounts of elves and fairies: small-framed, short people with low nasal bridges, upturned noses, wide mouths and deep-gazing eyes that strive to make a social connection with every face it sees. Many experts who have studied or worked with people with William’s syndrome believe that they provided the inspiration for the various cultural stories of tiny, friendly, gifted people- elves and fairies and others.

Take for instance Biopsychologist Dr. John Pinel’s description of William’s syndrome in the textbook Basics of Biopsychology:

You may have unknowingly encountered stories of William’s people. Many cultures feature tales involving magical little people: pixies, elves, leprechauns, etc. Remarkably, descriptions and drawings of these creatures portray them as virtually identical to William’s people, who are often described as elfin in appearance…Even the typical behavioral characteristics of elves- engaging storytellers, talented musicians, loving, trusting, and sensitive to the feelings of others- match those of William’s people.

It does not seem far-fetched to me that legends of elves arose from real-life William’s people. We know of a real-life condition and genuine people that match up with the fantasy stories of dwarves- we sometimes even refer to the condition as dwarfism. Couldn’t another imaginary type of little person also exist in real life the way that “dwarves” exist in real life?

The more we look back, the more we can see that fictional beings tend to arise from actual living inspirations. Vlad the Impaler sparked the Dracula story. Mermaids may have come from superstitious sailors spotting dolphins. God- who knows. But amazingly, fascinatingly, we can say that elves did and do exist.


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Category: Science, Uncategorized, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (6)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    NPR has featured a couple of excellent stories on William's syndrome. Listen to them here and here. The New York Times also has a fantastic, very lengthy article on William's here.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Thanks, Erika. Your post made me wonder about the use of the term "elf." Is it pejorative to use that term when referring to someone with Williams' Syndrome? Your post does point out the historical ties between the term "elf" and the symptoms (which I did not know). When people used the term "elf" long before Williams was recognized as a medical condition, perhaps they used the term in the same sort of factual way that we attempt in modern times when we use the term "Williams Syndrome." Your article also caused me to wonder whether someone with an IQ of 60 would have sufficient understanding to be insulted by the connotations with North Pole toy makers . . .

    When seeing the term "elf" coupled with a medical condition, I recalled my surprise, back in an undergrad psychology course, when I learned that terms like "imbecile," "moron" and "idiot" were once used as serious professional attempts to describe mental conditions.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    My older son, who is severely autistic, has a classmate with Williams syndrome. She has been his best buddy since they first met in preschool. She is very small in stature for her age, looking more like a 6 year-old than the 13 year-old girl that she is. I will call her Mona (not her real name). and to anyone who has met her, it is easy to see the elfish charm.

    My son has infantile autism, meaning that his development was normal until around the age of two, when he started to regress. This is the form of autism that is on the rise.

    His expressive communication skills are almost non-existent, but he is very outgoing. (an unusual trait for autistic individuals) Most children refuse to play with him, however, Mona accepts him unconditionally she looks out for him while he looks out for her.

    It is odd that you would mention IQ. There is a problem with IQ as a measure of mental ability. The problem is that all foms of testing must assume certain subjective responses as normal. When used to evaluate an individual with cognitive disfunctions, such tests are less than meaningful. The cognitive disfunctions actually shift the priorities away from communications and toward other skills. Since IQ tests rely on the subjects ability to communicate some response, or to respond to communication from the test-giver,

  4. Erika Price says:

    Niklaus: I do agree that IQ has many flaws as a measure of mental merit! However, William's Syndrome comes with many other cognitive drawbacks- such as lacking a "sound theory of mind" the same way autistic children typically do, and also very poor spatial skills and spatial imagination. So even for those that believe we should divide intelligence into different subsets- emotional intelligence, physical intelligence, linguistic, etc, William's people still generally have a very significant drawback. I think in someways IQ provides a useful shorthand if nothing else.

    But the social flair of William's people actually comes from their disability. Brain scans show that people with the syndrome cannot register any kind of social fear- nothing intimidates them in a social setting, and they can't really pick up on negative social cues. That makes them so friendly! You can frown and roll your eyes or look menacingly at a person with William's, and typically they'll respond with their standard friendliness.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and input!

  5. Kerri says:

    I find this to be insulting, as a WS mom. My baby boy is NOT an elf. I wish people wouldn't write stuff like this…

  6. Erika Price says:

    Kerri, I'm sorry if my post offended you, and I completely understand the reaction. Erich's comment even anticipates such a reaction from those close to people with WS. To reduce a human to a fanciful, imaginary creature belittles their value as a fellow living, breathing, thinking human.

    In this post, I intended to draw out the fact that many imaginary creatures, such as elves, may have come from a primitive misunderstanding of a real biological condition. The same disservice may have occurred in people with Dwarfism; the link to fantasy even remains in the name. I don't think your son, or anyone else with William's Syndrome, is an "elf". I just think a limited understanding of science and medicine created the concept of an "elf" out of a real syndrome.

    You have my most serious apologies for any insult my writing has caused.

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