There is something unsettling about those wax sculptures that look almost real. Something particularly irksome about those special effects in Evil Dead II. Something unpleasant about the characters in The Polar Express. Technically, these works are masterful, but there is always something, some small peculiarity in these almost-human features that tell us they are not human. And it is not OK.
In fact, CGI films such as The Polar Express, Beowulf, and TinTin have suffered at the box office, because audiences appear repelled by the almost-but-not-quite humanness of the characters: they have crossed into the Uncanny Valley.1
“The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of human aesthetics which holds that when human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.”2
ACCORDING TO FREUD
Freud attempted to explain this phenomenon in 1918 with an essay titled “The Uncanny” which he published in his own psychoanalytic journal, Imago (the word “uncanny” was coined only 13 years earlier by a German doctor named Ernst Jentsch).
Freud hypothesized that it all comes down to DEATH. Humans, you see, have a primitive urge to avoid death, to be immortal, and we attempt to achieve this feat by creating copies of ourselves. Freud quotes Otto Rank, saying that “this ‘doubling’ behavior is ‘an energetic denial of the power of death’ and suggests the idea of the immortal soul was the first double of the body.”3 In modern times, we are aware that immortality does not really work that way, but we can’t quite suppress our primitive need to strive for it. Freud concludes when a human attempts to create such a double, the copy “reverses its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death.”3
Ultimately, the essay claims that those almost-real objects and graphics only remind us of the original purpose of their creation: we are all going to die. Thanks, Freud!
THE VALLEY IS BORN
The term “Uncanny Valley” was first coined by Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in an article for the Japanese journal called Energy in 1970. His hypothesis evolved as while considering how people would eventually react to robots. As technology progresses, robots and prosthetics would begin to appear more humanlike, and Mori wrote that humans would “naturally respond…with a heightened sense of affinity.”4 However, there comes a point when we are fooled, if even briefly, by appearances. This cognitive dissonance produces an eerie sensation, followed by the realization that the object is in fact artificial.
Mori connects this response to the uncanny with death. A healthy, living human will have a natural feeling of closeness or understanding with another living human, because (at the very least) both are homo sapiens navigating life on Earth. However, “when we die, we are, of course, unable to move; the body goes cold, and the face becomes pale,” 3 and our bodies tumble down the slope into the Valley.
YES…IT MIGHT BE DEATH
In a 2005 study, Karl F. MacDorman tests the hypothesis that “an uncanny robot elicits an innate fear of death and culturally-supported defenses for coping with death’s inevitability.”6 He cites the Terror Management Theory, which describes how humans consciously and unconsciously deal with death.
1. Conscious thoughts are either suppressed or rationalized.
2. The unconscious mind tends to steer thoughts away from the anxiety of death by supporting that individual’s self-esteem and world view.
“…our ancestors developed a solution to the problem of death in the form of a dual-component cultural anxiety buffer consisting of (a) a cultural world-view — a humanly constructed symbolic conception of reality that imbues life with order, permanence, and stability; a set of standards through which individuals can attain a sense of personal value; and come hope of either literally or symbolically transcending death for those who live up to those standards of value; and (b) living up to the standards of value inherent in one’s cultural worldview.5
MacDorman’s study revealed that participants who looked at images of uncanny-looking androids tended to have reactions similar to those outlined by the Terror Management Theory: “On average the group exposed to an image of an uncanny robot consistently preferred information sources that supported their worldview relative to the control group.”6
IS IT AN EVOLUTIONARY THING?
Perhaps this uncanny valley response is simply our body’s way of protecting itself. As the species developed, “humans evolved a disgust response to diseased-looking humans, and the more human a synthetic agent looks, the stronger the aversion to perceived visual defects–defects that presumably indicate the increased likelihood of a communicable disease.”7
And apparently, it’s not just us. In 2009, Shawn A. Steckenﬁnger and Asif A. Ghazanfar from Princeton’s Neuroscience Institute published findings to “address the putative evolutionary origins behind the uncanny valley by examining whether it is based on human-specific mental structures.”7 They presented long-tailed macaque monkeys with digital video clips (both static and dynamic) of three different forms: a real monkey face, a realistic synthetic face, and an unrealistic looking face. In the end, the primates tended to look longer at the real faces and the unrealistic faces than at realistic synthetic faces, and thus, the visual behavior of the monkeys matched the behavior exhibited by humans experiencing the uncanny valley effect.7
Deep musing about death aside, it all comes down to expectations. If the form attempts to be lifelike, their shortcomings become glaring obvious. However, we do not hold the same expectations for those forms that do not attempt to appear lifelike. We excuse their limitations, and we connect with their human characteristics. There is also the added bonus that we, as true humans, are not torn from our experience by the disturbing realization that the thing in front of us isn’t actually human.
1. Rose, Steve. “Tintin and the Uncanny Valley: When CGI Gets Too Real.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 27 Oct. 2011. Web. 23 Nov. 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/oct/27/tintin-uncanny-valley-computer-graphics
2. “Uncanny Valley.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Nov. 2013. Web. 22 Nov. 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley
3. Kloc, Joe. “Into the Uncanny Valley.” SEEDMAGAZINE.COM. Seed Media Group LLC, 16 Nov. 2009. Web. 23 Nov. 2013. http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/uncanny_valley/
4. Mori, Masahiro. “The uncanny valley.” Trans. Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato. Energy 7.4 (1970): 33-35. http://www.movingimages.info/digitalmedia/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/MorUnc.pdf
5. Pyszczynski, T., Greenburg, J., and Soloman, S. (1999). A dual-process model of defense against conscious and unconscious death-related thoughts: An extension of terror management theory. Psychological Review, (CSLI), New York.
6. MacDorman, Karl F. “Androids as an experimental apparatus: Why is there an uncanny valley and can we exploit it.” In CogSci-2005 workshop: toward social mechanisms of android science, pp. 106-118. 2005. https://www.lri.fr/~sebag/Slides/uncanny.pdf
7. Steckenfinger, Shawn A., and Asif A. Ghazanfar. “Monkey visual behavior falls into the uncanny valley.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences106.43 (2009): 18362-18366. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/10/07/0910063106.full.pdf