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The Uncanny Valley and Death

by on October 17, 2012

I have been further considering The Uncanny Valley in terms of its purpose within human survival. Thierry Chaminade and Ayse Saygin from University College London conducted an experiment to understand the neurological implications of the Uncanny Valley. To their test subjects, they showed three video clips of simulacra picking up a cup, each with varying degrees of human characteristics. They used scanning to pinpoint brain activity to the parietal cortex:

                This area of the brain is known to contain “mirror neurons”, which are active when someone imagines performing an action they are observing. While watching all three videos, people imagine picking up the cup themselves. Chaminade says the extra mirror neuron activity when viewing the lifelike robot might be due to the way it moves, which jars with itImages appearance. This “breach of expectation” could trigger extra brain activity and produce the uncanny feelings.

Chaminade and Saygin suspect that this ‘may stem from an ability to identify – and avoid – those suffering from an infectious disease’. This would suggest that a human reaction to the uncanny is imbedded within our make-up to enhance survival, as with robots, ‘like people with a visible disease, aspects of their appearance jar.’

While this may be true, I also believe that the Uncanny Valley can be linked to a certain sense of necrophobia, or a fear of death and the dead. What produces the ‘uneasy feeling’ for me with simulacra which fall into the Uncanny Valley, I find their glassy ‘empty’ eyes the most disconcerting, which is a trait also shared with the dead. The general public’s fear of death has sparked mass inspiration for films and books, particularly within the horror genre. However, it is interesting to consider whether this fear of death is totally universal. As was discussed in Friday’s seminar, there is a question over whether our emotions are learnt or taught – the nature vs. nurture argument – and our attitudes to death vary greatly to those within other time periods and cultures. This conditioned reaction may explain why we place these life-like robots within ‘The Uncanny Valley’, while the Japanese are beginning to accept them into daily life.

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