McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Could mermaids, werewolves and dragons be real?

Published: November 17, 2016
A picture of zombies, mermaids, dragons and werewolves
Pictured (Left to right): A zombie, Ariel (Disney), Toothless (Disney) and a werewolf

Could superheroes, animated characters, mythical creatures, zombies or the animals of the Pokémon Universe be real? What would have to happen biologically and psychologically for them to exist in our world?

That's the challenge given to students learning concepts of biology and psychology in a third year Bachelor of Health Sciences course called 'The Biopsychology of Fictional Characters '.

"It's a serious course with a unique approach," says instructor Michael Wong.

"The students have to consider and learn concepts in biology and psychology to investigate fictional characters. I have been continually impressed by the amount of critical thinking and creativity the students have put into their projects. They have gone beyond biology and psychology to apply concepts in biochemistry and physics to their characters," he says.

"There are a lot of math calculations to figure out if something could live in our world. An example would be Toothless, a dragon from the movie "How to Train Your Dragon", whose wings are too small to sustain flight in the real world. What would have to happen for Toothless to actually fly or breathe fire?

"They are also looking at how the characters would fit in our world. The students have to think outside of the box.

"We're using the science of today, and extrapolating to what could be possible. The course promotes interdisciplinary learning, requiring students to draw upon concepts from a number of different fields in science." Student Helen Kim agrees.

 "This is truly a unique course that promotes interdisciplinary research approaches  of physics, biology and psychology in the projects," she says. "It challenges me to go beyond the conventional research and explore the use of images, animation, and interactive technologies to effectively communicate complex science and health topics within a fictional character."

Working in groups, the students' projects this fall include examining the reality of werewolves from Harry Potter; The Flash; Wolverine and other superheros; Toothless, the dragon from the movie 'How to Train Your Dragon; Ariel, the mermaid from Disney's The Little Mermaid and characters from Japanese anime, Psychopass Universe.

They've also worked in class on zombies and the animals of the Pokémon Universe, and looked at rare case studies in the history of psychology that have happened in the real world.

Student Gian Agtarap says the course has allowed him to analyze his favourite superheroes and villains from a scientific standpoint.

"The work we do in class doesn't feel like work because it comes out of genuine interest and curiosity. Using fictional characters as an avenue for learning has, to be quite honest, engaged me in my academics more than any other course could."

Student Sally Li says she has found the class bridges the fictional world of imagination and the real world of medical research.

"What I learned in this class is beyond knowledge, but a mindset when researchers and practitioners discovered the first patient of a rare illness: what do they do with the observation that was only heard of in mythical creatures. The potential scope of the class has truly surprised me."

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