Question: Are there some people who see everyone as though they’re in the uncanny valley and therefore have reduced respect for life?
Answer: Maybe, if this has to do with perception, and particularly how one perceives living things versus non-living things.
One of the more tasteful home decor items à Château Swivelchair is a pillow shaped like a cat that we call “Weird Kitty.” It mildly freaks out people and cats alike. (We dusted off Weird Kitty and showed this to an unsuspecting cat who sat glaring across the room, nostrils sniffing and pupils dilated).
We suspect that Weird Kitty is in the uncanny valley. The “uncanny valley” is a well known concept to those who work with robots, and basically describes the point at which “cute” or “interesting” becomes sufficiently life-like to turn into weirdness. We didn’t realize this was such an area of interest among those in a variety of fields, like, robotics (here’s an interesting site), and video games (recall the a 30- Rock episode where Tracy wants to make a video game called “Grand Theft Porn” and Frank advises that that is unfeasible because of the uncanny valley, see cached version on IO9). Here’s the chart:
Demonstrating the objective fact that when one learns a new word, everyone starts saying it, because we just learned about the uncanny valley, we’re seeing the uncanny valley everywhere. Like, when we couldn’t sleep so we watched the Oprah rerun with Dr. Phil and the woman who’s father was a serial killer. (Promo clip here). The serial killer was filmed saying he didn’t care about human life, strapped the body of his victims to the bottom of his truck (for instance) and treated his victims with the callousness one reserves for inanimate objects. Hated inanimate objects. He also put cats in a barrel and set them on fire, and tortured kittens. He treated them like Weird Kitty– hated Weird Kitty.
Being wide awake at that point, we caught the remastered Hitchcock film, “Touch of Evil.” The scene where Janet Leigh wakes up in Tijuana after being drugged and she’s in the seedy hotel and sees, about 2 inches from her face, Joseph Calleia’s dead, bulging eyes (because he had just been strangled by Orson Wells and thrown over the bed such that his head was dangling ), reminded us again of the uncanny valley. (We stayed up. Oh well.) And then, there was an episode of Criminal Minds entitled “Uncanny Valley.” The episode was about a girl who was given electroshock therapy by her evil abusing psychiatrist father and compensated for this by drugging women to paralyze them and dress them as the dolls that her father took from her, or some such. (It’s a little more complicated than that and way too contrived for our tastes. A little crime genre goes a long way with us).
The uncanny valley, we think, is the perception of lifelessness, with the natural result being fear and disgust, or fisgust, a word we just made up. This may be why, after being run down by a sociopath and realizing that the person has no moral wiring, we feel disgusted — the sociopath, to us, is in the uncanny valley. (Those of you who have experienced this know this kick-in-the-gut feeling). They seemed lifelike. But they’re really Weird Kitty.
Much of the theory involving why we are creeped out by humanesque beings has to do with matching the life-likeness with actual life. This involves studying perception, more particularly, social or action perception. Below is an image from a recent report demonstrating that the brain is much more active (in areas involved with predicting actions) when figuring out life-likeness versus visually obvious robots or visually apparent humans (click to enlarge), there’s brains on blatant robots (top), brains on life-like robots (middle one, with all the dots) and brains on humans (bottom):
Detecting biological motion is also involved, and perception of biological motion has a dotted line to perception of social emotion. We previously noted a recent paper that schizophrenia may involve faulty biological motion detectors, and failure to detect social emotion. This is pretty close to failing to perceive life.
Perception — the way one perceives things – seems key. Perception is a biological process and just as color blindness or deafness is a neural process, your perception wiring can determine what you see and how you feel about it. And there are those who have perception problems, particularly in perceiving faces. We previously proposed that paranoid delusions are a form of Capgras or other delusional misidentification syndrome (discussed in a terrific undergrad summary here). (These syndromes — involving difficulty in recognizing or even detecting a face — may have a genetic predisposition blogged here).With Capgras you see the person, but you think they’re someone else (“You’re not my mother, where’s my real mother?” We think we once had a cat with this).
We’ve also wondered if there was some kind of neural cross-talk, a la synesthesia, giving an immediate and involuntary response to facial visuals. We blogged about it here* with respect to spousal batters – those who selectively have proactive aggression, only against their spouses. Why do they spin out of control around their spouse? (Batterers treatment focuses on this, saying it’s a power and control thing). It may be a matter of perception: batter brain scans show an active precuneus — the brain area related to perception– when viewing films of violence against women:
. . .Maybe spouse abuse is the behavior resulting from a form of synesthesia hereby dubbed, “Spouse abuse” synesthesia. Using this framework, spousal abuse is really behavior resulting from a neural wiring cross-talk problem. The visual perception of a woman (i.e., spouse) results in (a) an involuntary connection with the emotion of defensive aggression directly, or, (b) an involuntary connection ascribing a threatening personality to the visual percept, indirectly giving rise to defensive aggression and hostile attributional bias. Or, heaven forbid, both (a) and (b). . .
Perhaps, sociopaths have a difficult time perceiving life. After all, schizophrenia and some other conditions involve difficulties in perceiving biological motion and social emotion. And, maybe the perception of others is simply skewed. Sociopaths tend to view others with contempt or disgust, and also have a tough time understanding why they should care about others at all. Perhaps sociopaths see others all the time as being in the uncanny valley. Maybe we are all Weird Kitties to a sociopath.
Update: 09.02.11: Is this another instance of a cat viewing an uncanny valley cat?