Dragons of the Mind: How Our Brains Construe A Classic Monster

Written by Thomas Kristjansen

Keywords: Ursula K. Le Guin, dragons, human supernatural imagination, cognitive machinery

Photo credit: Thomas Kristjansen

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic A Wizard of Earthsea, the young wizard-in-training Ged has a dramatic encounter with the mighty dragon Yevaud. The creature is described in this passage:

“When he was all afoot his scaled head, spike-crowned and triple-tongued, rose higher than the broken tower’s height, and his taloned forefeet rested on the rubble of the town below. His scales were grey-black, catching the daylight like broken stone. Lean as a hound he was and huge as a hill.”

Though this excerpt is merely half a hundred words, Le Guin’s prose evokes powerful imagery. She emphasizes the size, the power, and the casual destructiveness of Yevaud. Details like his spikes and his tongues are foregrounded. So far, so good. A classic example of the great and mighty dragon.

Completely missing is any kind of introduction to what a dragon is in the first place. In the novel, Le Guin mentions their existence casually and unceremoniously. Consider just how much information is left unspoken directly in the text. There is no comprehensive introduction to what a dragon even is in the first place. And yet, our reading minds immediate and effortless begin to construe and imagine this concept, despite it being not only fictional, but impossible and fantastical.

Gustave Doré’s biblical illustration The Destruction of Leviathan (1866) depicts a monster informed by millennia’s worth of draconic imagery.

Natural Mechanisms for Supernatural Ideas

It is easy to take for granted just how readily our brains navigate ideas and concepts both mundane and strange. Much of the human cognitive machinery works in the background and draws no conscious attention to itself. Evolutionary pressures have made our minds favor the quickest and most energy-efficient solution to any given situation. These cognitive shortcuts can have side effects with profound ramifications, but the basic tenet remains: The brain wants to waste as little effort and energy as it possibly can.

Rudimentary exercises of imaginative thinking are staggeringly easy. For instance, we can easily imagine a fictional bottle. We can even imagine a larger bottle, or a smaller one. Or a red, or blue, or green one. These thought processes require almost no effort or focus. Instead, the brain’s tacit systems of intuitive imagination are activated. Even if we have never seen a blue bottle, it is trivially easy for us to imagine one. It may be colored in a particular way, but for the most part we can reasonably expect it to otherwise behave as a bottle otherwise would. There is no need for our brain to reinvent the very concept of ‘bottle’ simply because a slightly different one is encountered.

The concept of ‘bottle’ is itself nestled within other concepts. Because it is an inanimate object, we can tacitly assume that whatever is true of animate objects in general is also true of bottles. This is another way the brain avoids unnecessary heavy lifting. If we meet a new person, we do not construe them from the ground up. Rather, we mobilize our broader expectations about ‘people’ - inferences that themselves are tacitly informed by our expectations about ‘living beings’, and so on.

The brain is thus constantly involved in navigating concepts and concept-templates. These mechanisms work intimately with the human ability to hypothesize and speculate on novel scenarios - an essential facet of planning future actions or evaluating potential outcomes. Such activities would be significantly harder if we were unable to quickly and efficiently mobilize vast chains of intuition about the concepts involved.

The dangerous, dramatic side of dragons make them compelling antagonists. Chivalric literature, such as the fanciful romances depicting supposed adventures of Alexander

the Great, teem with dragon and dragon-variants. Image courtesy of the British

Library, from Le livre et la vraye historie du bon roy Alixandre (c. 1420).

Minimal Prompting for Maximum Story

Stories do not need to supply endless explanations of their worlds. Rather they are quite reliant upon the reader’s mind to effortlessly transpose and import a vast network of inferences and ideas. If the storyteller or text would have to supply all concept-information present in it, the result would be infinitely regressive explanations.

In essence, when we imagine and construe the worlds of stories, our brains fundamentally utilize the same imaginative capabilities as it does about reality. Templates and concept categories constrain and guide the inferences we make about imaginary objects and agents. We may well imagine the fictional towers, talons, and tongues of Le Guin’s Earthsea without significant departure from realistic expectations.

But Earthsea, like all fantasy worlds, includes concepts that run contrary to the rules and concepts of reality. Yevaud is a dragon, and dragons are not just fictional, they are impossible. Despite this, dragons continue to exercise a firm grip on the human imagination and invite powerful imaginative engagement.

Supernatural concepts, dragons included, are counterintuitive. This means that they to some extent violate or transgress the usual characteristics of their concept-category. Statues do not speak – but we might envision a supernatural one that does. People age and die – but we might imagine magical folk who do not.

‘Counterintuitive’ means more than merely unusual. A castle might be exceptionally large, and while this is an unusual trait, it does not violate the general idea of what a ‘castle’ entails. But a castle whose corridors and hallways continue forever? A castle that floats in thin air? These examples are most certainly counterintuitive. They are also dramatic and attention-demanding, inviting us to speculate on the possibilities they create.

Supernatural ideas take some form of template or concept as reference, and then add transgressing, counterintuitive qualities. The result is a new concept, one that generates new inferences. If we imagine invisible people, we would expect them to generally behave as people otherwise would. They would get hungry and thirsty, they would possess inner emotional states, they would be subject to the rules of gravity, and so on. Combining provocative counterintuitive traits with otherwise mundane expectations is the general pattern of supernatural concepts.

In this way, counterintuitive concepts do not go against the human imagination. In fact, they thrive in it. The vast catalogue of supernatural concepts in imaginative culture across globe reveal just how easily we can entertain these types of ideas. This does not mean that the human brain is infinitely gullible or primed to engage with anything thrown its way. Successful supernatural ideas need to stimulate rather than frustrate our cognitive mechanisms.

Art for Marie Brennan’s novel A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir of Lady Trent (2013). An example of fantasy applying modern sensibilities of scientific and anatomical

plausibility to impossible creatures.

The dragon is an example of a supernatural concept that has shown remarkable longevity. Its basic template appeals to an atavistic fascination with large and dangerous reptiles. Accumulated cultural ideas about the concept provides us with an enormous source of local variants with specific modifications. Furthermore, fantasy fiction is open to letting the author make further adjustments to the supernaturalisms they borrow from myth and legend, opening the possibility space even further. If a story’s presentation of dragons adheres to the basic concept, they can vary enormously. Good dragons, evil dragons, cunning dragons, stupid dragons, small dragons, huge dragons - fantasy provides a huge amount of variation on this single leitmotif.

Thinking about the idea of ‘dragon’ reveals a microcosm of the human supernatural imagination. By mere mention of these creatures, the writer taps into a vastness of expectations and conceptions - things not directly present in the text but carried by the reader. Even before turning a page in A Wizard of Earthsea, we are acquainted with a huge catalogue of fantastical ideas. Like all fantasy writers, Le Guin leverages these concepts and reconfigures them for her story’s milieu. The minds of our species, shaped by the pressures of our evolutionary history, need but modest prompting to start imagining the fantastical.

/Thomas Kristjansen

To learn more about the researcher, please click here.

Further reading:

  • Atran, Scott. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Oxford University Press, 2002.

  • Asma, Stephen & Rami Gabriel. The Emotional Mind. Harvard, 2018.

  • Bellah, Robert. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Harvard, 2011.

  • Boyer, Pascal. Religion Explained. Basic Books, 2001.

  • Turner, Mark. The Origin of Ideas. Oxford University Press, 2014.

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