Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Uncanny Valley and Monkeys!

I had never heard of the Uncanny Valley phenomenon until reading this article today, but now that I have, I'm kind of fascinated by it, and really interested in this research, especially as it applies to non-human animals.

Basically, the article tells us that monkeys respond to realistic and artificial images of monkeys with fear. Apparently this behavior has been seen in humans too. That when we look at realistic but artificial human faces--human but not quite human--we're disturbed by them, and respond with revulsion. Mostly this is applied to (or observed with) computer generated lifelike images (like characters in movies such as Polar Express and that newfangled Beowulf) and robotics.

I'm wondering if this applies to Wax Museum figures, and paintings that are so realistic they seem to stare at us, as well as just computer generated figures. I know that I can't stand wax museums, they creep me out. I don't necessarily have the same response to paintings though. I find realistic, almost photographical (did I make that word up?) paintings kind of fascinating to look at, and don't have any revulsion for them, but rather an admiration for the artist. Perhaps because they're static and only two dimensional, whereas wax figures are three dimensional and more lifelike? Too lifelike?

Anyway, apparently this is the first time this reaction has been observed in any other animal besides humans, and the most interesting part is, we have NO IDEA why we (or they) respond this way. I mean, there are theories listed within that wikipedia article that I linked to above, like, that the human but not quite human passive face reminds us of death and the innate fear of death we all have, and the fact that it may be conceived as a threat to our human identity, but we don't KNOW for sure what the imperative is.

Well, now that we see it in another species, and know it isn't just limited to people, it's no longer a potential societal construct. Do monkeys have the capacity to feel their identity threatened by a facsimile? Reminder and fear of death could still fit. I don't imagine any animal likes to see one of its own lifeless. Elephants actually stop and grieve just at the places where one of their herd members have died, even if the carcass isn't there anymore, year after year. And I'd really like to know if any other species have this response. Could we test elephants? Make a giant robot elephant and see what happens?

I mean, what does this response say about the animals that have it? Because if it's something that's really limited, as far as recognition of OTHERNESS is concerned, maybe it can tell us which other animals are operating on a similar level to monkeys, which we consider our closest cousins. Animals that we've perhaps neglected to consider may be operating on that level. On the other hand, if this is just some instinctual and visceral fear, why don't we see it in other animals too? Or do we, when the dog starts barking at that annoying electronic dog robot thing? Or the one that barks and does flips?

Personally I find the mate selection theory to be kind of bogus, because of evidence of cross-species mating (such as between polar bears and grizzlies, and even lions and tigers) where there is a like-but-unlike species differentiation. Then again, if those animals that do engage in cross-species mating don't have this same response, then that's another story, I guess. But I would think that if it were mate selection, it would be global as far as animal species response goes. I mean, why would only humans have that response, and monkeys, and no other species? Why would only we need that instinctive response for distinguishing between our own, and the other? It doesn't make sense, especially considering the fact that we're, arguably, more capable of discerning something like that without it. Or are we? Our sense of smell, a key sense for other animals and species for identity and communication, is much much less refined. But do monkeys have the same lack?

It just opens up whole worlds of thought and so many questions. If anyone has any further information on this kind of research, or hears of it being done with other animals, please, please, please, let me know.


  1. Very Interesting.
    I didn't know monkeys reacted the same why. I totally buy the "looks too much like a dead monkey" argument. Best to stay away from a dead body- could be contagious.

  2. Thanks for commenting!

    I didn't even really think of that--contagion, I mean. But that makes a lot of sense. The human "reminder of mortality" didn't seem like it would make a lot of sense for monkeys. I'm not sure they have that same awareness, but they would definitely have a survival instinct that would ward them off from disease which might be caught from a dead fellow.

    On the other hand, if it's just an instinctual response to protect from contagions and disease, I DON'T buy that it's limited only to humans and monkeys. It should be fairly universal, cross-species.

  3. I would bet it has to do with facial recognition areas of human and chimp brains. Those are pretty unique to primates, and a large portion of human thought goes into deciphering and interpreting human expressions into a model of other's emotions. The parts of Beowulf that were creepiest to me were the close-ups of the faces.


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