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MARTHA SEZ: ‘Everyone just calls him something informal, like Biff, or His-ears-stick-out’

My favorite quote this week comes from James Gibbs, a herpetologist at the State University of New York and the Galpagos Conservancy. He was commenting on a disturbing video of a giant tortoise slowly and clumsily stalking and finally devouring a seabird chick in the Galpagos.

“It’s a very interesting combination of diligence and incompetence,” he said.

Apparently, before this video came out, everyone thought that tortoises were vegetarian, even vegan. Some people still can’t accept the fact that giant tortoises, creatures they have long revered, are capable of stalking and eating baby birds. These people are suffering from information aversion.

I was so excited to learn that there is a name for a particular bad habit I have. Do you ever wonder why you do certain things that annoy your friends and family and are not even in your own best interest?

“Why do you do that?” you are asked by your (check one or more if applicable: mother, father, wife, husband, friend, child, co-worker, employer, other), and you mumble some excuse, while thinking to yourself, “danged if I know.”

Sometimes just naming something you dread brings it out of the shadows, makes it less mysterious and therefore easier to deal with. “Oh,” you say, “so that is just black mold (coulrophobia, dermatitis, assassin bug, the uncanny valley effect, francophilia, extreme hoarding, northern shrew, Munchausen syndrome by proxy). What a relief! I was afraid it was something serious.”

As long as you can call something by its name you have some power over it. It is a well-known fact–although whether it is true or not, I can’t say–that in some cultures a baby’s true name is kept secret. Everyone just calls him something informal, like Biff, or His-ears-stick-out, for his whole life, thus preventing possible voodoo spells or other power-robbing assaults against his person or even his soul. I really don’t know why it should be that black magic works only when real, official names are used.

“Oh, come on, you know who I mean, old His-Ears-Stick-Out!”

“No way, his real name is required in order to make him disappear.”

Magic is ineffable; it operates by its own set of rules.

Rumpelstiltskin, one of my favorite fairytale characters, simply self-destructed when the Miller’s Daughter “guessed” his name correctly. Rumpelstiltskin of course knew very well she had cheated–after all, nobody could actually guess a name like Rumpelstiltskin–a woodcutter had overheard the dwarf talking to himself in the forest and told her. Still, whether she knew it by fair means or foul, the Miller’s Daughter was able to utterly defeat Rumpelstiltskin simply by uttering his name. He stamped his foot and disappeared through a hole in the ground, thereby freeing up the Miller’s Daughter to renege on her side of a bargain to give Rumpelstiltskin her firstborn child. So you see the power of a name.

This same emphasis on proper names exists to this day in our highly technological society. Your name and number are serious business to the feds. After all, they have to keep track of you.

Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term “uncanny valley effect” in 1970. It refers to the anxiety robots or virtual characters with human characteristics can trigger. It is similar to the fear people wearing Halloween costumes or clown makeup can induce in children. Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns.

A study conducted recently in Sheffield, England, shows that children universally dislike clowns, and that a group of children, when asked for suggestions on how to refurbish the children’s wing of a hospital, requested the removal of the existing clown decor, which was supposed to be cheering, but which in reality frightened and revolted young patients.

So yes, I also suffer from information aversion. I’m not the only one!

I have never understood my own reluctance to perform such disparate tasks as have medical tests performed, open certain pieces of mail, or even, on occasion, answer the telephone.

Really, it is so simple. A study at Claremont Graduate University, California, found that some participating students did not want to know the results of certain medical tests. Their aversion to this information increased according to the seriousness of the disease being tested for. So it follows that a person might be more reluctant to get a mammogram–let’s say–than to have her temperature taken.

Information aversion! Through a very interesting combination of diligence and incompetence, I have figured it out. I also suffer from coulrophobia.

Have a good week.

(Martha Allen lives in Keene Valley. She has been writing for the News for more than 20 years.)