The allure of mysteries

Elizabeth Michaelson Monaghan meets researchers to look behind the painting…

In the photograph ‘Behind the Old Painting’ (on the cover of this issue), a teenage girl peers behind a portrait hanging on a wall. A taller friend has placed a protective hand on her shoulder. In the foreground, a third girl looks to the right, towards something just beyond the range of the lens. The girls’ clothes – calf length skirts, blouses, and flats – belong to another era, adding to the eerie atmosphere and sense of distance from contemporary life. The photo depicts a moment of discovery, but the viewer can’t see what’s been revealed.

The photo is part of fine art and commercial photographer Holly Andres’ Sparrow Lane series. This 2008 collection of 15 photographs features young women exploring colourful, highly decorated interiors and leafy landscapes in photos with titles like ‘Outside the Forbidden Bedroom’ [above] and ‘The Magic Elixir’. The photos tell a story, but I don’t know exactly what it is. The photos are captivating, and deeply mysterious. I can’t stop looking at them.

‘In the simplest sense, a mystery is something we don’t know the answer to. Mysteries are about trying to find answers,’ says Les Lancaster, professor emeritus of transpersonal psychology at Liverpool John Moore University and the founding director of the Alef Trust, a Wirral-based online education non-profit.  ‘If we didn’t ask questions about what is going on and why, we’d still be at the level of apes,’ Lancaster says. ‘Mysteries help us expand our horizons, and give us a greater repertoire for interacting with the world.’

Consider the mystery novel, which Lancaster says ‘is engaging in its own right. The plot is a microcosm of what’s going on in the mind all the time – discovering a question, gathering the pieces, or clues, and finding an answer.’ That’s my cue.

What makes mysteries so alluring?
Real or imaginary, mysteries have several uniquely enticing features. Mystery fiction, for instance, is mentally engaging in a way that other literary genres are not, argues Alan Goldman, philosophy professor emeritus at the College of William & Mary. Mysteries require readers use their cognitive abilities to interpret clues as well as their imaginations to identify with characters including the detective, and, in crime fiction, the culprit(s). Mysteries engage us emotionally, usually via vicarious excitement and fear. They also ask us to understand both the novel’s structure and the author’s style.

Mysteries may also intrigue us because developing an understanding of characters is more important in this than in other genres, according to Ohio State University School of Communication professor Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick and her co-author, Caterina Keplinger. The urge to form impressions about others is intrinsic.

Fan preferences also play a role in mysteries’ appeal, observes Dolf Zillmann, professor emeritus of communication and psychology at the University of Alabama. For instance, some fans enjoy mysteries because they like to have their deductions confirmed, while others appreciate being surprised by the solution.

A third group enjoys the genre’s inherent uncertainty, Zillmann adds. While uncertainty is traditionally associated with anxiety and nervousness, investigators at University of Virginia and Harvard University demonstrated that people’s good moods last longer in uncertain conditions, provided they know the outcome will be positive – in this case, a solution to the mystery will be presented (Wilson et al., 2005). Moreover, the anticipation that accompanies the wait for a (presumably) satisfying resolution is itself often pleasurable (Loewenstein, 1987; Monfort et al., 2015; Luo et al., 2018).

Finally, the structure of mysteries spurs interest. Unlike many other forms of entertainment, mysteries usually start with the outcome, such as the discovery of a murder victim; the initiating event (the murder) isn’t revealed until the end. The non-chronological order of the story triggers curiosity (Knobloch et al., 2004).

The need to know
Curiosity, along with surprise, interest, doubt, and other affective states, is an epistemic emotion (Vogl et al., 2020), or an emotion related to a desire for knowledge and understanding (Scarantino & de Sousa, 2018). Curiosity can be understood as ‘a form of cognitively-induced deprivation that arises from the perception of a gap in knowledge or understanding, or an information gap’, according to an influential 1994 paper by George Loewenstein, co-director of the Center for Behavioral Decision Research at Carnegie Mellon University.

‘The promise of knowledge is alluring,’ says psychology professor Kou Murayama of the University of Reading, and the head of its Motivation Science Lab. ‘We evolved in a way that makes us attracted to missing information, or to things that we do not know… knowing information is adaptive for animals’ survival… You need to know where the food is, who is reliable, etc.’ The curiosity that drives us to learn the solution to a detective story can be understood as ‘a generalization of the basic motivation to seek information’ (Kidd & Hayden, 2015).

Obviously, not all of the things we don’t know intrigue us. Murayama explains that’s because ‘For the knowledge we don’t have to be attractive, we need to be aware of the information gap… mysteries are seductive because they make people aware of that gap. Then, either consciously or subconsciously, you expect a rewarding experience for obtaining the missing information or knowledge’ (Murayama et al., 2019; FitzGibbon et al., 2020). Preventing access to information (like when the police refuse to let the protagonist view the crime scene), ‘also makes people aware of what they do not know,’ Murayama adds.  

‘Mysteries have almost all the factors that we’ve identified as triggering curiosity,’ says Dr Russell Golman, a mathematician-turned-behavioural economist who works with Loewenstein (e.g. see Golman & Loewenstein, 2016). In addition to immediately alerting us to the information gap, mysteries often concern a naturally attention-grabbing subject: crime. ‘Crime makes any related unknown information feel important,’ Golman says. ‘Mysteries that deal with romance may be similarly interesting, because romance also naturally grabs attention… From an evolutionary psychology perspective, people are naturally attuned to information relevant for survival or reproduction.’

Moreover, ‘Mysteries are usually told as stories, and there’s a narrative flow, with twists and turns,’ Golman notes. A well-designed mystery ‘sets you up to believe something. Subsequent surprises make you question these beliefs.’ Mysteries’ capacity to surprise us is integral to their appeal, he says.

‘One of the insights George [Loewenstein] had about information gaps was that as you begin to get closer to the answer, the more interested you get. We think, paradoxically, that uncertainty can draw in your attention, and that obtaining information also draws in attention. Things that are uncertain and keep giving us more pieces of information attract the most attention from us,’ Golman explains.

Finally, with mysteries, ‘You get the feeling that if you just get the right piece of information, you could make sense of the whole thing,’ Golman says. ‘There’s the potential for an epiphany.’

The mysteries that elude us
But conundrums may also engage our interest on a deeper level. ‘There is a mystery at the core of our being’, Lancaster says. ‘What we call the unconscious is mysterious by definition, since we cannot consciously know distinctly what is there, though we gather hints, or clues, about the unconscious core. I would say that it’s this mystery that sets us up to be engaged with other mysteries.’

‘All the great psychotherapists have shown us that whatever is going on at the surface is the tip of the iceberg,’ Lancaster continues. ‘There’s so much more going on unconsciously. The whole process of psychoanalysis is trying to get a handle on what we don’t know. The fact that everything about us is not transparent, even to ourselves, is an aspect of mystery.’

‘There are pieces of us, of our psyches, that aren’t integrated,’ Lancaster continues. These pieces, which we might glimpse as Freudian slips, or remembered images from dreams, ‘do not readily fit into the narrative we construct about ourselves to explain things we don’t know or understand. And yet, at some level, we do recognise that these pieces of the psyche are little openings to the unconscious.’

The puzzles we enjoy mulling over can mirror our own inner mysteries: hard-to-decipher clues resemble the fragmented psyche pieces we encounter, and the detective can function as what Jung called a ‘psychopomp’, a kind of guide that allows the ego to connect with the unconscious. Just as the detective puts together the clues to reveal truths, the psychopomp helps us recognise the real meaning of these psyche fragments.

Exploring mysteries isn’t just for people in therapy, or artists, Lancaster points out: ‘Most scientific discoveries come up by accident, on some level. It’s a myth to think we logically come up with answers. The answer’s not in the test tube, the answer is in our imaginations. And the way we work with imagination is through mystery. To the extent that we engage with the mystery, we gain insight and enrich our minds.’

Engaging with mystery
My quest to understand mysteries now takes me back to the photographer we met at the outset, Holly Andres. ‘My creative process is probably similar to solving a mystery’, she says. The mystery begins when she is drawn to an idea, though she’s not always sure why, or what the finished artwork will look like. Sometimes, an experience, memory, or conversation ‘elicits images in the form of a mental filmstrip of sorts,’ Andres explains. ‘If the images are particularly vivid or surreal, they’ll trigger a physiological sensation. This feeling is unpredictable, but can’t be ignored. And then, sometimes I set out to recreate one of these mental filmstrips.’

The Sparrow Lane series was inspired in part by a conversation Andres had about the Nancy Drew novels. ‘I had read most of the books when I was a young girl, and although I couldn’t recall a single plot, I realised the provocative images from the book covers were still nestled somewhere in my mind,’ she says. ‘I became interested in making a series about the precarious transition to womanhood… when a female starts to feel simultaneously vulnerable and empowered.’ So Andres drew on the conventions of the Nancy Drew narratives and illustrations to create an elliptical narrative about domestic secrets and adolescent discoveries, in which ‘I could embed these psychosexual metaphors, and also show moments of awakening, discovery, and awareness of an outside threat.’

Sourcing props and wardrobe from a thrift store, Andres tells me she will ‘sink into this Zen-like space when I get really hyper aware and sensitive to all of these objects.’ Then on the day of the shoot, Andres refers to her shot list to realise specific moments she’s envisioned. ‘Then I try to couple this consciously prepared vision with an attempt to capture natural uncertainty… If I can be open to moments of serendipity and ways to deviate from my plan, then sometimes something really beautiful and interesting and better than what I planned will happen.’ This sounds like the moment of epiphany Golman mentions.

When I ask Andres, ‘what is behind the old painting?’, she says she doesn’t know. Sparrow Lane’s narrative is open to interpretation, and even when Andres knows her photos’ secrets, she doesn’t reveal them. She wants viewers to have the potential to fill in the blanks, and find their own solutions.

From the mundane to the mysterious
When Holly Andres told me she didn’t know what was behind the old painting, I was disappointed. Rationally, I knew that the painting was a prop, but the idea that Andres had extended her creation into reality was very appealing.

I rarely encounter mysteries outside of novels; most of the time I’m fully occupied with straightforward questions, like how to get my four-year-old to eat something besides fish sticks. Compared with my daily routine, the idea of a mystery – something hidden that I might discover, and derive greater understanding from knowing about – is immensely romantic. An unexpected, and invaluable, gift.

Mysteries, fictional or real, fully realised or merely hinted at, offer so much richness. They allow us to be absorbed by something other than our own concerns, satisfy our curiosity, and enjoy the sense of realisation and accomplishment that comes from turning bits of information into meaningful stories.

But maybe what I like best about mysteries is the promise of more. I hope readers will respond to my article with more: more pieces to fit together, more layers of meaning, more to be discovered, more to wonder at.

BOX: How the brain responds to mysteries
Exposure to certain stimuli activates the brain’s reward circuit, where the things we want and are motivated to obtain are evaluated and processed. These activated pathways encourage us to seek rewarding experiences, and reinforce the behaviours that allow us to attain them. ‘Rewards’ traditionally refer to necessities like food, shelter and warmth, or tangible items like money or goods. But a 2009 fMRI study found that trivia questions also prompted activity in subjects’ reward circuits. As the researchers noted, ‘curiosity is a form of reward anticipation’ (Kang et al., 2009). Others have also found that ‘the reward value of information is processed in the same way as conventional rewards, like food or money’ (Kobayashi & Hsu, 2019).

While information is rewarding because it allows for better decision-making, ‘Information can also be traded (bragged about, compared with what friends think),’ observes Colin F. Camerer, director of the California Institute of Technology’s Center for Social and Decision Neuroscience, and an author of the fMRI study. ‘Even if information does not have any immediate value, the brain has a general hunger for just knowing for the sake of knowing.’  

But isn’t trivia a little, well, trivial? Murayama suggests that the type of questions used in the fMRI study can trigger curiosity acutely, but it won’t last so long because there’s a lack of contextual knowledge. ‘Mysteries could be more compelling because readers have abundant knowledge about the context.’ Echoing Loewenstein’s ideas, he adds that ‘the more knowledge you have about the topic, the more compelling the missing information would be’.

BOX: Exploring the house of your mind
At the interactive art installation House of Eternal Return, visitors explore a purpose-built two-storey house and the dozens of rooms, tunnels, and zones that surround it. People come here to find and interpret hundreds of clues about the family that lived at – and disappeared from – the house. The entire production is lodged in a 20,000 square foot former bowling alley, the creation of arts and entertainment non-profit Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The House of Eternal Return provides an unusual experience: a truly immersive live encounter with mystery. Can this sense of mystery be accessed in real life, and if so, how? Joanna Garner, a playwright and Meow Wolf’s Senior Story Creative Director offers, ‘When developing new story experiences, we talk a lot about apophenia,’ or the tendency to see connections or meaningful patterns where none exist. At Meow Wolf, ‘We instil in participants a sense that connections and patterns can exist everywhere, and that they should look for them’. Exercising the imagination, looking for patterns, and meaning-making can help people approach mystery.

‘Constantly ask “What if?”, and “What else?”’ Garner adds. ‘Cultivate the practice of exploring the house of your mind. As a writer, I often try to chase the feelings of fear and excitement in my creative practice, as both signal me to go deeper or farther.’ And don’t dismiss your own ideas too quickly. After all, to create a mystery, or to recognize one when it appears, ‘You have to get weird,’ Garner concludes. So ‘Get weird!’

Elizabeth Michaelson Monaghan is a New York City based freelance writer and editor.
https://elizabeth michaelson

Key sources
FitzGibbon, L., Lau, J.K.L., & Murayama, K. (2020). The seductive lure of curiosity: Information as a motivationally salient reward. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 35, 21-27.
Goldman, A.H. (2011). The appeal of the mystery. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 69(3), 261-272.
Golman, R. & Loewenstein, G. (2016). Information gaps: A theory of preferences regarding the presence and absence of information. Decision, 5(3), 143-164.
Kang J.K., Hsu H., Krajbich I.M. et al. (2009). The wick in the candle of learning: Epistemic curiosity activates reward circuitry. Psychological Science, 20(8), 963-973.
Knobloch-Westerwick, S. & Keplinger, K. (2009). Mystery appeal: Effects of uncertainty and resolution on the enjoyment of mystery. Media Psychology, 8(3), 193-212.
Lancaster, B.L. (2018). Re-veiling the revealed: Insights into the psychology of ‘enlightenment’ from the Kabbalah. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 37(2), 73-87.
Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116(1), 75-98.
Wilson, T.D., Centerbar, D.B., Kermer, D.A. & Gilbert, D.T. (2005). The pleasures of uncertainty: Prolonging positive moods in ways people do not anticipate. Journal of Personality and Social Science, 88(1), 5-21.
Zillmann, D. (1991). The logic of suspense and mystery. In D. Zillmann, & J. Bryant, (Eds.), Responding to the Screen: Reception and Reaction Processes. Routledge.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber