Seed magazine has a nice piece on neuroscience research aimed at transforming the century-old psychoanalytic concept of the uncanny into a data-supported and more strictly defined phenomenon.
Disturbing experiences that feel both familiar and strange are instances of the “uncanny,” an intuitive concept, yet one that has defied simple explanation for more than a century. Interest in the particular occurrences of the uncanny, in which humans are bothered by interaction with human-like models, began as a psychological curiosity. But as our ability to design artificial life has increased—along with our dependence on it—getting to the heart of why people respond negatively to realistic models of themselves has taken on a new importance. Attempts to understand the origins of this reaction, known since the 1970s as the “uncanny valley response,” have drawn on everything from repressed fears of castration to an evolutionary mechanism for mate selection, but there has been little empirical evidence to assess the validity of these ideas.
The article discusses Sigmund Freud's 40-page essay on the concept and the 1970's essay by roboticist Masahiro Mori that introduced the "uncanny valley" concept. It then goes on to discuss new findings from Princeton researcher Asif Ghazanfar.
Last spring at Princeton’s Neuroscience Institute, Asif Ghazanfar developed a computer model of a macaque monkey designed to interact with real macaques. But the monkeys weren’t fooled. Further testing revealed that, much to Ghazanfar’s surprise, his model was eliciting an uncanny valley response from the monkeys. It was the first time scientists had ever observed such a response in a non-human species.
“By showing that monkeys can do it, several things become plausible,” Ghazanfar says. “One is that there is an evolutionary explanation for the uncanny valley and the other is that it is not something specific to our human, cultural experience.” These findings may for the first time allow scientists to go back through a century’s worth of peculiar ideas about the origins of the uncanny valley and begin putting them to the test.
Ghazanfar puts forth his own non-Freudian theory of the uncanny:
Ghazanfar rejects all of these hypotheses. “What is really going on is much simpler,” he says. He believes the uncanny valley response occurs because an animal—human or nonhuman—is evolutionarily inclined to develop an expectation of what members of its species should look like, a supremely important skill, as it lets the animal know with whom it can and cannot interact.
In this sense, life-like robotic and computer-generated models occupy a weird middle ground in an animal’s mind: They are familiar enough for the animal to consider the possibility that they are of the same species, but strange enough that they don’t quite meet the expectation the animal has developed for members of its species. “Any face that violates that expectation is going to elicit the uncanny response,” Ghazanfar says.
There does appear to be some experimental evidence in support Ghazanfar’s theory. Studies with children have shown that at a very young age, babies do not react negatively to human-like robots. As children grow older, such robots become more bothersome. This, Ghazanfar suggests, might be an indicator that infants have not yet developed a narrow expectation for what a human should like. As of yet, however, he has not tested his theory explicitly.
All praise to the wonderful Mind Hacks blog, source of neuroscience brilliance.