Sunday, April 24, 2011

Observation Vs. Interpretation

It is a fact that thousands of people have claimed to see/hear large, upright, hair-covered, manlike animals across North America and in parts of Asia. These observations have lead the witnesses (as well as the researchers, academics, skeptics, and journalists involved) to have many different interpretations about what was seen or heard.

This article is about separating the observations from the interpretations. I'll be examining a few different aspects of the sasquatch phenomenon, and discussing how different interpretations of the phenomena can become far-removed from the actual observations. I strongly feel that this occurs within the realm of research all too often.

- Observing Unexplained Phenomena - 

Paranormal phenomena is defined as phenomena that occurs outside of the normal range of human experience, or involves something that has yet to be fully examined and explained by mainstream science. Although many researchers feel that sasquatches have, in essence, already been discovered; they still fall into the category of paranormal or unexplained phenomena.

Like other paranormal phenomena, sasquatches are frustratingly difficult to document. As a result of this difficulty, rampant speculation about their true nature, origins, etc. abound.

Most observers get a fleeting glimpse of one; few are lucky enough to see/interact with one for any length of time. Moreover, most pieces of visual and audio evidence are quite brief; so brief that we are only able to gather a limited amount of data from them.

Nevertheless, these observations and bits of evidence occur frequently enough to fuel the speculative minds of researchers and enthusiasts alike.

Observing rare and unexplained phenomena creates a conundrum for many people, as we typically want a sufficient explanation for all things. There is a deeply ingrained desire to "fill in the blanks" of one's experience. There also seems to be a limitless number of "experts" who are willing to fill in those blanks for other people, too. As sasquatch researchers, we're often guilty of that. I know that I have been. It's simply in our nature to want to understand these mysteries thoroughly. 

- Interpretation - 

The interpretation of paranormal phenomena is a subjective practice. It is completely influenced by the interpreter's background, culture, religious or spiritual beliefs, personal experiences, desires, exposure, environment, geography, etc. It can have either a lot or very little to do with what was actually observed. 

Here's an example (albeit a broad generalization) of an observation/interpretation scenario:

Observation: Unusual lights are seen in the night sky. The lights move irregularly and then disappear from view.



Let's say that there are many different witnesses to this event. What will their interpretations be? How will they differ? One person might claim that they saw an extraterrestrial craft being operated by beings of a higher intelligence from elsewhere in the universe. Another might claim that it's a foreign military craft collecting intelligence and scouting for an imminent attack. Some might speculate that it's top secret US military technology being tested in the dead of night. Some might say it's being generated by a deity. Others might dismiss it as atmospheric light phenomena. The list goes on and on...

Truthfully, the only thing that was observed were lights in the sky. The interpretations are all the result of factors other than the observation itself. They can't all be correct in their interpretations, can they?

Now, on to the sasquatch...

Observation: A large, upright, manlike animal is seen in a remote river valley. It moves quickly into the nearest treeline and disappears from view.



Those who are reading this blog have probably heard that one before... but how does this get interpreted? Here are a few that I've heard (some more than once) over the years:

"It's a surviving gigantopithecine; a member of the Asian wood ape lineage."

"It's a racial memory; a vestigial genetic imprint of the encounters that humans had with large apes in our past."

"It's a hallucination/manifestation of the wild-man archetype; brought about by a deeply ingrained need for humans to reconnect with the natural world." 

"It's an alien/human hybrid created eons ago by visitors from outer space." 

"It's an individual from tribe of Neanderthals who evolved to achieve a tremendous size, and who've lost the need for tool use or fire."

"It's a dude in a gorilla suit."

"It's a bear on two legs."
 
"It's a projection from a machine that's buried under the surface of Mars, built by Martians. That's why no one can kill or capture one. Occasionally, the machine gets turned off, and that's why people see them disappear or tracks end abruptly." 

(That last one is my favorite. I heard that explanation during an episode of Coast To Coast AM.) 

Again, these speculations are being influenced by the variables that affect the interpreter. It is paramount that we (as researchers) separate these from the observation.

Please understand that I am not suggesting that we dismiss, ignore, or throw out the interpretation. In fact, the interpretation can offer invaluable insights into a witness, investigator, researcher, journalist, etc. I am merely saying that these things should be calculated and weighed separately from the observation.

Here's a more specific example. I recently interviewed one of the most compelling witnesses that I have had the opportunity to speak with. This witness had a fascinating story; a series of events at rural farm and homestead in central Georgia. He had one very good visual observation of a large male sasquatch at close range. He said it had large dark eyes that were wide open. When I asked him to elaborate, he said this: "Its eyes were filled with pure hate."

That wasn't the answer that I was expecting, but it certainly helped me to understand how it felt to this witness (as a young man) to have been face to face with a sasquatch. The emotion that he described is of course an interpretation of his observation, based on how he felt more than how the sasquatch may have felt. Could that look have been fear? Apathy? Disdain? Fascination? Confusion? Who knows... but it certainly gave me an important insight into the witness, and allowed me to make an emotional connection with him and his experience.

- Conflicting Descriptions? - 

Some sasquatch proponents make the assumption that there are different types of sasquatches based on the differing descriptions of witness. I suggest that we remain cognizant of the context of the observation/encounter when studying reports.

Again, context is everything when it comes to how witnesses interpret their observations. To illustrate with another example, I'll use the mountain gorilla.

Observer A: Observer A is watching a large male silverback though thick glass in a local zoo for over an hour. The observer has the opportunity to see many subtle and intricate nuances of the gorilla's behavior. The observer intuitively picks up on many of the shared primate behaviors between humans and the gorilla. At the end of the observation, Observer A is certain that he/she has just watched a very human-like animal, one of our closest living relatives.



Observer B: Observer B is walking alone through a thick jungle in the Virunga Mountains. He/she begins to hear movement just out view. There seems to be a large animal just behind the thick vegetation. Suddenly, the foliage bursts to life as a large silverback gorilla bluff charges the observer, screaming and baring its massive canines. Before the observer can react, the huge animal disappears into the jungle. Observer B is certain that he/she just witnessed a terrifying animal, a veritable monster in the jungle. 



In this example, both observers saw the same animal, but have different interpretations based on their experiences. Sasquatch researchers must be cautious when weighing observations against each other from people with different experiences and backgrounds.

- In Conclusion - 

Human nature dictates that we will always attempt to explain that which we experience; no matter how unusual or brief. These explanations can often reflect more on the observer than the subject being observed.

As dedicated researchers who have involved ourselves in an unexplained phenomenon, we must be aware of, and be able to responsibly separate the observation from the interpretation of witnesses, enthusiasts, and most importantly ourselves.

3 comments:

  1. Didn't Vendramini use (or invent) the term "teem" to describe a "racial memory"? Good post bro. Keep on keepin' on.

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  2. Thanks! Yes, Vendramini called it a "Trauma Encoded Emotional Memory" or "teem". Fascinating stuff.

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  3. Wow, great read! Very insightful. It reminds me of a lecture I once heard from Tim O'Brien on his book 'The Things we Carried.' It was a collection of war stories from his time in Vietnam. He had received mixed reviews since some of his factual encounters were falsified with exaggerations. He explained that the feelings invoked by the book were real, and that he wanted the reader to experience what he had felt. As you pointed out, I can see this occurring with 'squatch encounters especially since the person who had the encounter not only wants people to feel the same emotion, but they're also having to convince people that it actually happened! So over-exaggeration and interpretation is probably inevitable.

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