The Malaysian Mystery : Why we’re fascinated

ImageHave you been thinking about the Mystery of the Disappearing Airplane?  

Maybe like me it has grabbed your attention – And I usually don’t get caught up in most current events.  But this mystery?  Two weeks’ running, it came up during Joys & Concerns in church.  We talked about it at dinner with friends.  On a 6 mile run, a friend of mine and I speculated what had happened.  (Aliens?  Parallel Universe?)  During Sunday School, everyone shared a theory.  And of course, it’s been all over Facebook.  

Why are we so fascinated?  Did you know someone on the flight?  Do you know someone who knows someone?  Are you an airline pilot?  Do you fly Malaysian Air frequently?  Will finding out what happened change your life in any way?  What is it about this story that has grabbed our attention like this?  Why are we so fascinated?

Our brains don’t like mysteries – Actually, our brains are obsessed with mysteries.  We want to figure them out.  We don’t like loose ends.  We go over and over and over all the pieces, all the facts, all the possible outcomes.  Mysteries are “sticky.”  When we’re in a new, or especially traumatic or challenging situation, our brains spin wheels constantly to make sense of it.  If you are a Sherlock Fan, remember how much time was spent on possible explanations for his “death by suicide but really not?”  (google “sherlock fake death and you’ll have 2,770,000 websites to investigate.)  

And we underestimate how mysteries obsess us – How curious we’ll be, how hard the “not knowing.”  (In one study, participants were offered a candy bar before they took a geography test, waiving their right to their score or the answers.  Those who chose the candy bar were surprisingly unhappy afterwards.  See “Stumbling into Happiness,” p 128.)  

But our brains are “Wired for Story,” as one book title suggests.  Stories change our brains.  No wonder Jesus told so many stories:  It’s how we learn.  And not just facts, or life lessons, but how we learn to connect.

Even when we remindourselves that the answers to this mystery won’t change our lives, our brains are desperate to learn what we can in case we ever are on an airplane that disappears.  Better yet, our brains take the “meta-story” approach:  Less important than “How to survive when your airplane disappears” is picking up a lesson on figuring out who we can trust and who we should not trust in threatening situations.    (See for more research.)

And of course, our brains live to make meaning.  To find connections even when none exist.  To come up with answers.  To make sense of a random, chaotic world.  It’s why superstitions and bad theology persist in rational, even scientifically-trained minds.  We mindlessly choose irrational beliefs because they soothe the anxiety of uncertainty.  

But mysteries?  They’ll continue to grab our attention – One day, we very well may need the lessons they teach us.  


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