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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Other and the Same

Yesterday in a movie review I saw reference to a term I hadn't heard of before (why am I always the last to know?) ... the uncanny valley. I looked it up. What I found was so interesting in what it says about emotion, symbolic order, and maybe even about how religion treats abjected groups, not to mention its relation to CG characters in movies like Avatar.

- chart showing emotional response to human-like things, and the uncanny valley

Here's a little about the uncanny valley from Wikipedia .....

The uncanny valley hypothesis holds that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers ..... It was introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori as Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象) in 1970, and has been linked to Ernst Jentsch's concept of "the uncanny" identified in a 1906 essay, "On the Psychology of the Uncanny". Jentsch's conception is famously elaborated upon by Sigmund Freud in a 1919 essay titled "The Uncanny" (Das Unheimliche"). A similar problem exists in realistic 3D computer animation, such as with the films Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf.

Mori's hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels. This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a "barely human" and "fully human" entity is called the uncanny valley ...

- the Fantastic Mr. Fox

So why does something or someone seem ok if they are very different, and more ok if less different, and fine if they are just like us, yet evoke revulsion if they fall into the area of almost but not quite the same? Why is it that the more similar something or someone is to us, the more disturbing their dis-similarities become? Some say it's a kind of atavistic brain thing, an unconscious and unbidden recognition of two truths at the same time: that the object in question is one of us, and that there is something "wrong" with it. The response is the kind that tells you when someone is actually a corpse, or has a disease, or is a zombie :) It's the response that tells you that while the Fantastic Mr. Fox looks cute, the Bruce Willis android in Surrogates is creepy.

- the Bruce Willis android in Surrogates

Some people disagree about the existence or importance of the uncanny valley effect, and some say it can result from learned rather than evolved perceptions, based on culture or religion, etc. I agree and think that the downside of the uncanny valley effect is that it's mostly unconscious and unexamined, allowing it to whisper moral truths to us about "the other" that may actually have no basis in fact.

Here's an interesting video about the uncanny valley effect (with a brief cameo by Angelina Jolie :) .....


Blogger Liam said...

That may explain everyone's reaction to Joe Lieberman -- that "almost human" thing.

An anthropologist might remark on the fact that something that is almost human exists in an indeterminate field which can cause anxiety.

6:16 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Joe Lieberman :)

11:45 AM  
Blogger Mike L said...

I wonder if this could be the basis of why so many people feel uncomfortable when they meet a handicapped person or someone that has been maimed.

Perhaps in primitive times such a person was a real threat to the tribe. I can see where such a reaction could end up being built into our genes, and we haven't advanced enough to get rid of it when it isn't needed.

3:46 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Mike,

I think you're right. I've read that when people pick mates they tend to find healthy people most attractive on a subliminal level - probably has to do with the best chances for sucessful reproduction. It can be hard to combat these feelings because they are mostly below the surface, I think.

5:25 PM  

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