It has long been an article of faith among scientists that the fact many people believe in something has no bearing on whether it is true.
[But] now a legend has received support from research into an obscure medical condition known as Williams Syndrome. First described by an eponymous heart specialist in New Zealand in 1961, Williams Syndrome affects around one in 20,000 births. It is caused by the loss of around a score of genes lying on Chromosome 7.
Those with the disorder have cardiovascular problems such as heart murmurs, sub-normal intelligence and are acutely sensitive to sound. But the most striking thing about them is their appearance. They are typically stunted, with child-like faces -- small, upturned noses, oval ears, and broad mouths with full lips and a small chin. In short, they look like the traditional depiction of elves.
In next month's issue of Scientific American, Professor Howard Lenhoff of the University of California, Irvine, argues that Williams Syndrome may have formed the basis of the legends of elves, fairies and pixies.
It is a suggestion based on more than just appearances. Those with Williams Syndrome are loving, caring and sensitive to the feelings of others. Despite having very low IQs, they display astonishing abilities to tell stories and have a talent for music.
"The 'wee people' of folktales often are musicians and storytellers," says Prof Lenhoff. "Fairies are frequently referred to as the 'good people' and are said to repeat the songs they have heard, and can enchant humans with their melodies. Much the same can be said of people with Williams Syndrome."
Prof Lenhoff should know: he is the father of a 42-year-old Williams Syndrome musician.
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