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What Is the Uncanny Valley? We Talk to an Expert to Find Out About This Weird Sensation

23 June 22 words: Lizzy O'Riordan
illustrations: Jay Wilkinson

Scared of clowns? China dolls send shivers down your spine? You might be experiencing the uncanny valley - that eerie feeling that comes from seeing not-quite-human figures. Confounding researchers, no one quite knows why the phenomenon exists, but Nottingham Trent University professor Andrew Dunn thinks it might be something to do with our categorical operating system. If you fancy knowing what exactly that means, then keep on reading as we dive into the uncanny, the pleasure in being unsettled, and the oddness of The Polar Express

The LeftLion June theme is fear, and I’d really like to focus on the uncanny valley - the phenomenon where we feel disgust at things that look human but aren’t. Are you familiar with this?
Yes! So, the feeling of the uncanny valley is really an emotional response that is somewhere between disgust and repulsion. We often talk about it in terms of faces because that’s where a lot of research has been done, but it can also occur with voices and places. You might go somewhere and find it uncanny and not be able to work out why. It centres around something very natural becoming very unnatural. So if we take a robotic face and a human face for an example, there’s a point when they blend, at around 70%, where it suddenly hits a boundary between the robot and the human that our minds can’t tolerate, and then we start to find it uncanny. 

Wikipedia actually has a really great graph where they plot that point. It shows that people’s feelings toward something [imitating human features] increases and then drops depending on how blended it is between human and non-human. So it’s quite a fun phenomenon. 

Apparently 12% of the British population are afraid of clowns, and other common fears include life-like dolls and ventriloquist dummies. Do you think we can cite the uncanny valley as the cause of these fears? That they seem both human and non-human? 
Yes, though something worth mentioning is that not everyone dislikes this unpleasant feeling. So, for example, some people love clowns precisely because they are weird. Like with a roller coaster, some people like the thrill, and it’s the same with the uncanny valley. Some people find it weird and don’t want to look at it while others find it weird and want to experience more. We’re not sure why people experience it differently, I’m sure there will be social factors involved, but ultimately we just don’t know why some people love clowns, and why some people find dolls terrifying. But it definitely has that blend of feelings where you kind of hate it and kind of like it. 

That’s why it works so well in art. It can be used as a deliberate thing, to create a kind of thrill. David Bowie is a good example because he was someone who liked to play around with that feeling of the uncanny, he loved to blend the boundaries - whether that was with gender fluidity, or mixing high art with pop music. Likewise, the surrealists were really into playing with the uncanny. 

Do we know why the uncanny exists? 
The truth is that we don’t really know why, and there is a lot of controversy about whether or not we can explore it from a scientific point of view. But the science behind it comes down to the idea of human beings being categorical, and that the basic operation of the nervous system is categorical. It’s one of the things that we as humans have relied on, that ability to categorise, to say that’s a snake, or that’s a person. We do it with everything, even things like colour - the colours of the rainbow don’t exist but we perceive them by putting a boundary in them. All of human psychology comes down to this idea of categories, and we feel that uncanny emotion when something sits on the boundary between categories. It’s a point of conflict in our mind between one category or another, and you get this emotional survival response. 

The uncanny valley is really an emotional response that is somewhere between disgust and repulsion

So when someone is afraid of a doll or a clown, it’s because of a moment of category confusion? 
Yeah. If you’ve ever seen those bistable images where it looks like an old woman and then a young woman the next moment, that’s the kind of thing we’re talking about. It’s the feeling of that fluctuation between something natural and unnatural. 

If you know the word penumbra, it describes the fuzzy edge of a shadow. On the light side of something you get a very dark edge, on the dark side you get a very light edge and between them is the fuzziness. And this is the same sort of thing, it’s the penumbra of our emotional feeling. The uncanny is like that fuzziness and it makes us feel strange.

We’ve talked about it a little in the context of phobias, but where else might we see it?
So it has real world ramifications when you’re trying to design systems that people aren’t freaked out by. For example, with driverless cars you want a voice that isn’t going to creep people out, and you’d have to experiment with making it more human or more robotic. Some of the early sat-nav voices suffered from trying to get these things right. 

Finally, do you have any examples of the uncanny? Outside of the obvious ones we’ve talked about. 
There’s a really good film called The Polar Express and it’s really weird because the animation style creates this uncanny feeling, it’s almost too realistic. They also had this problem with computer games and people weren’t responding to them well. I remember some games from the nineties where they tried to have very realistic images and it just didn’t quite work. There’s been a real interest in the uncanny valley when talking about AI, but it’s really time immemorial. I’m sure the Ancient Greeks were talking about it. It can’t be a new thing because it stems from our categorical process. 


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