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Brain, Cognition and perception

The monster mind

Enlisting the help of Godzilla and a few of its friends, Jonathan Myers considers why we see monsters and what form they take.

15 June 2015

Love them or hate them, monsters keep coming back to frighten us. We tell each other stories, share them online, watch scary movies and TV programmes. Monsters loom large in our consciousness; and literally too when you consider the recent Godzilla movie. At 150 metres this latest incarnation of the prehistoric sea monster was approximately 40 per cent the height of New York's Empire State Building. The creature started out much smaller, at around 50 metres in 1954 (see That's a threefold increase in 60 years. For evolution to accomplish the same thing would take millennia.

For a psychologist it's fascinating to consider explanations for the popularity and increasing scale of such beasts. Largely these centre on an existential event that might well affect all of us in some terrible way. We're potentially under threat these days – or so we're told – to a far greater extent than ever before, whether it's from global warming, solar flares, nuclear devastation caused by a rogue regime, or any other large-scale catastrophe. Could it be that the bigger the threat, the bigger the monsters we create?

There's clearly historical precedent that some form of cognitive externalisation of this type is the case – from the monstrous Grendel of the ancient Beowulf epic to the terrifying creatures depicted in our modern-day fantasies (Asma, 2009), or the enormous shape-changing metallic aliens of the successful Transformers movie franchise. Big, scary, and often even extremely ugly, it's possible we may use the monster in all its forms as a means to crystallise our fears. But there's more to it. Research during the last few years, and particularly from the fields of perception and anomalistic and developmental psychology, suggests that we actually seem to be wired to see monsters.

Monsters on the brain

One of the most bizarre demonstrations of our brain's disposition to see fiendish creatures was discovered by researchers at the University of Queensland. They found that pairs of faces flashed at around four to five a second caused the observer to see the faces morph into grotesque images. If a person has a large forehead it becomes even larger, a small chin gets smaller, noses that are slightly bent become even more bent and crooked, the faces all becoming caricatures of themselves. It is known as the flashed face effect (Tangen et al., 2011), and it's quite astounding when you see it. The latest offering of this illusion on the web ( has celebrities turning into extremely ugly monsters before your very eyes!

Our visual system, it appears, tries to encode one face relative to the other. But trying to do two at the same time creates interference when the brain comes to sort out the incoming sensory data into a coherent picture, and in this way exaggerating the features.

Characteristics of the eye like the scotoma or 'blindspot' only add to strange perceptions, making you believe – like the ghoul from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – heads have gone missing from torsos (see it for yourself at Yet it is faces that have a particular resonance for our brains. So much so, in fact, that we are prone to see faces when no such face is actually there. This tendency, known as pareidolia, encompasses any false perception of an image due to having a heightened sensitivity to perceiving patterns in otherwise random sensory information. It is core to our make-up and believed necessary for our survival (see Sagan, 1965), and for this reason it is designed to activate on very little data.

But though the human brain may use a simple face-patterning method as a warning device – the amygdala responding more readily to faces with emotionally charged characteristics (Morris et al., 2001) – there's also a lot of more complex interaction in the cognitive processing of the incoming information (Palermo & Rhodes, 2006). Furthermore, if the image you see suggests a face yet is not quite right, distorted, it jars your sense of what a face should be, tripping a whole range of associations from memory. Aliens, skulls, evil-looking ghouls, all have been observed by people on a variety of surfaces and substances, including the gigantic face on Mars (, a demon behind the sofa (, even a haunted scrotum (

A 45-year-old man was referred for investigation for an undescended right testis by computer tomography … the right testis was not identified but the left side of the scrotum seemed to be occupied by a screaming ghost-like apparition. By chance the distribution of normal anatomical structures within the left side of the scrotum had combined to produce this image. What of the undescended right testis? None was found. If you were a right testis, would you want to share the scrotum with that? (Harding, 1996)

What the patient made of it all isn't reported but clearly Dr Harding saw the humour in this very strange scan.

Another primary aspect of visual processing is, of course, size perception. But this too can suffer from inaccuracy. Imagine you're in a boat. You might think a creature you see is further away than it actually is. Research bears out this strange inability of people to judge where a creature actually is, even when looking straight at it. Contrary to expectation, the reported distance in the majority of sightings of apparently unknown, large, marine animals or 'sea monsters', by witnesses in a boat or in the water, were at a close range of less than 200 metres (Paxton, 2009).

Because an animal is in reality closer, there should be more chance of identifying its features correctly. But this isn't necessarily the case. Size perception of spiders by arachnophobics, for example, shows that fear plays an important role, where the greater the fear the bigger the spider (Vasey et al., 2012)! An early study puts a rather nice spin on this, demonstrating that children's drawings of witches were larger after Halloween compared to before (Craddick, 1963). Granted, this may have more to do with excitement than fear. Alternatively, there may be some other factor that blocks the person's ability to analyse size and what they're seeing as familiar from facts held in memory. This might be due to, say, standing on a hill (Stefanucci et al., 2005), whether they're able to determine the contour or edge of what they're observing (Cavanagh, 1991), or their brain's 'Gestalt' tendency to fill in gaps, to make a perception whole.Perceptual issues like these could explain many sightings of the Loch Ness monster, where really all that's being seen may be formations of logs or swimming otters.

Size perception, however, is not only about perceptual and cognitive error, or indeed fear. Godzilla may look very much like a giant dinosaur – as intended by its creator Ishiro Honda (Smith, 2002) – but it has another important characteristic. As a huge beast tossing immense skyscrapers of steel and concrete aside as if they were made of cardboard, Godzilla creates awe in the viewer. In an experiment to study awe, subjects were asked to stare at a seven-metre-high Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur skeleton for one minute. A second group were asked to stare at an empty hall. Those who stared at the dinosaur were more likely than the other group to see themselves as connected to something beyond their immediate concerns, to something bigger than themselves (Shiota et al., 2007). And when people feel part of a greater whole that changes how they interact with the world and the people around them, as well as altering the values they hold.

Studies like this begin to shed light on why our minds are geared to see monsters in the way they do. And why, for example, these great creatures are such a recurring theme of children's toys, as well as why a similar kind of overwhelming feeling of awe is promoted when we look at the Grand Canyon or down on our Earth from space, as astronauts report experiencing (Suedfeld et al., 2010) Something changes in our perspective; it's meant to. The brain wants sensory stimulation, new thoughts to exercise it – even from TV and movies – but with an inherent richness of overwhelmingly strong content, this is like having a banquet as opposed to a meal.

Perception though consists of both external sensory input, bottom-up, and also internal cognition and memory acting on it, top-down. And just as vision largely shuts off during saccadic movements so you're not aware of the blur (see the stopped clock illusion), the visual cortex enhances its top-down tendency by disengaging during insightful thought. Gamma wave production – reflecting increased attention to problem solving – is immediately preceded by the firing of alpha waves, suggestive of a waking restful state (Kounios & Beeman, 2009). This 'brain blink' is necessary so that the brain is able to draw as much as it can from around its extensive neural networks without being distracted, making new associations and novel linkages, so promoting the chances of innovative thought to deal with new problems.

Your brain is designed to be inward-looking in this way. Seeing the occasional monster is perhaps the price you pay for your ability to have insight and be creative.

Help, the monster's got me!

And it is quite a price. This top-down, inward-looking tendency of the brain results in stimulation being generated internally from its imaginative content, and evoked through several powerful though very strange perceptual means.

Sleep paralysis (see is an experience causing some of the most startling monster hallucinations. And many of them – including devils, succubae, witches, vaporous dark intruders and little green men – have found expression in folklore as well as modern fantasies. It occurs essentially because part of you wakes up and part doesn't. You continue to be in a state of REM-induced sleep paralysis, and an element of your dream state remains present as you regain consciousness. Research bears this out, with alpha waves suggesting a wakefulness state combined with the experience of the normal paralysis that sleep brings to the body (Takeuchi et al., 1992). And in those reporting visual hallucinations, their alpha waves during sleep paralysis were interrupted by beta waves, suggesting that something had caught their attention. In this inward-looking state, the brain is likely to be creating some powerfully scary images as its focus.

Staring too can be associated with some very odd effects. The Bloody Mary illusion is quite well-known amongst teenagers, who often dare one another to go through the ritual in a darkened room that makes her appear from a mirror (spin around while saying her name three times, then stare at the mirror). Yet it's your brain that's the cause, and you're not seeing malevolent spirits. In an experiment to test this, participants were asked to do nothing more than look closely in a mirror for 10 minutes in a dimly lit room and describe what they saw (Caputo, 2010). None of the subjects were given any hint or information about what they might experience. Two thirds of the participants reported seeing huge deformations of their own face. Nearly half described seeing 'fantastical' or 'monstrous' beings! A few reported seeing faces of parents, ancestors, and strangers, including women and children. Every one of them saw someone or something in the mirror other than themselves! Many of them also reported feeling that the other someone was watching them, with several becoming extremely scared as they believed the face in the mirror was angry at them too.

Without some level of eye movement you stop perceiving external images. Even tiny movements of the eyes have benefits in this context, helping to provide ongoing stimulation to the brain's visual centre and stopping you going blind (Pritchard, 1961; Hafed & Clark. 2002). Micro-movements, microsaccades, are occurring all the time, producing a kind of baseline stimulation for your eyes. Intense staring overrides this; when your eyes can't provide the stimulation, your brain tries to compensate and makes some up.

Lack of external stimulation is a key extraneous factor that helps create the hallucinatory monster. For example, the sensed presence is a dissociative effect that can occur when people are isolated – such as walking through the Arctic alone or in hostage situations. Often it is innocuous – the presence of another person, though not real, providing a supporting role in their survival (Geiger, 2009) – but at other times, much like the intruder of sleep paralysis, horrific presences can be seen (Siegel, 1984). In many of these instances, however, there is violence occurring, which is a possible contributory factor in what creatures are observed.

A similar effect is caused when external stimulation ceases through vision loss due to illness. In an extreme form of Charles Bonnet syndrome monsters are seen that are reminiscent of our most enduring horror fantasies. Sufferers are not delusional, yet may describe snakes coming up from the ground or floating, disembodied heads that wriggle into their field of vision at random times. These often have wide, unblinking eyes, prominent teeth, and features like those of a hideous stone gargoyle (see

When the neurological wiring goes wrong, one rare condition, often associated with schizophrenia, stands out. In paraprosopia the person sees facial transformations (see Kemp & Young, 2003). And like Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk, Dr Jekyll becoming Mr Hyde and not a few actors changing into werewolves, the paraprosopic sees a complex bit-by-bit transformation of a face they're looking at.

Monsters in the cupboard

It is the normal childhood brain that underpins much of the process of monster perception. Our imaginative prowess begins its expansion in childhood, of course, but the brain is developing in other cognitive ways too, giving rise to a number of nightmarish effects that children experience (while often giving parents sleepless nights as well).

Several developmental theories bear this out, including the change from concrete to abstract thinking (Piaget, 1970), fantasy versus reality appreciation (Sharon & Woolley, 2004), verbatim versus gist understanding underlying how memories are recalled or creating 'pseudo-memories' (Brainerd & Rayna, 1998), and reality–pretence distinctions (Bourchier & Davis, 2002). Yet what is apparent from the research is that the cognitive processes involved are not clear-cut, nor does it appear to be a simple matter of giving children the time to develop new abilities. Indeed, young children appear to have many capabilities and understand a considerable amount about what's real and what isn't. Rather than being about acquiring new abilities, many of the cognitive structures that develop to support monster perception, it seems, are already in place.

And it's not just these structures. When three-year olds are shown a series of pictures, all of caterpillars except one which is of a snake, the time they take to identify the snake is faster than if the pictures are largely of snakes and they are asked to identify the single caterpillar (LoBue & DeLoache, 2008). Similar experiments additionally show that identification times are faster when snakes are depicted ready to attack as opposed to being depicted at rest (Masataka et al., 2010) and that the fear response for snakes and spiders compared to, say, mushrooms, extends into adulthood (Ohman et al., 2001). What this points to is a neurocognitive template, but rather than a range of animals loaded into that template the suggestion is that the human brain is wired to see features – for example, long teeth or fangs, claws and squirminess. It is in fact the case that people can be taught to associate an electric shock and the fear it promotes equally with pictures of snakes and spiders or pictures of flowers and mushrooms – but the effect lasts much longer with the snakes and spiders (Masataka et al., 2010; Ohman & Mineka, 2001). In evolutionary terms we therefore have the ability built-in to identify a whole range of dangers in our surroundings, and apply them to novel situations too. But just as these features are characteristic of snakes and other wild beasts, they are also characteristic of monsters.

You may be bleary-eyed from pacifying your child in the middle of the night and checking under the bed and in cupboards for the umpteenth time for hiding trolls and goblins, but between evolving cognitive processes and templates there's clearly a lot interacting in children's brains. Any night terrors are likely to be a way for the immature mind to come to terms with, and integrate, this external and internal experience.


Those memories created as a child stay with us into later life, informing our perceptions about scary creatures. And wired in the way you are there's a great deal of psychology involved in the perception of monsters – something often forgotten when hunters or TV shows go searching for Bigfoot and Nessie. So spare a thought for your brain next time you see a monster!

Jonathan Myers is a psychologist specialising in behavioural finance [email protected]


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