Posted by: Jodi | January 5, 2011

The Uncanny Valley

It’s a reaction we all have experienced when a doll, clown, robot, or animated person triggers a reaction of repulsion and disgust for no other reason then being not quite right.  Something in our brain screams that there is something wrong with what we are seeing but we can’t fully explain why.  Enter the Uncanny Valley, back in 1970 Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori stated that the more human a robot  acted or looked, the more endearing it would be to a human observer. However, when they become too closely human either in appearance or action it triggers a negative reaction.  We get creeped out.  If you were to graph the phenomenon it would look like this:

Image credit: Wikipedia

 

Not sure this is true?  Consider the following images:

Believe me now? Thankfully, we as writers can use this to our advantage, especially in the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror where robots, strange dolls, clowns, or otherwise altered humans might show up.  By acknowledging this reaction in a character it emphasizes their humanity in contrast to whatever thing they might have found.  Readers will instantly relate because they have felt it before.

Want to learn more?  The Wiki article on the Uncanny Valley explains the psychology behind the reaction along with lots of other interesting information.

Happy Writing!

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Responses

  1. Fascinating stuff. I’ve read critics commenting on this syndrome when reviewing the latest computer-animated movies. As the technology improves and characters become more human-like, the final ingredient seems to be the eyes — animators have struggled to avoid that “dead-eye” look and bring life to those CGI characters. On the side of using “the uncanny valley” deliberately, look at the character Big Baby in Toy Story 3 – just a baby doll, but turned into a disturbing villain by a damaged eyelid.

    • A big reason I chose this topic was watching Polar Express again for the holidays, the people look too real but are not close enough. I also find it creepy that the main boy body was acted by Hanks, kids and adults move differently.

      Thought Toy Story 3 was fun but it scared my kids the first time, they didn’t like the whole landfill processing sequence.

  2. Thanks for putting this into perspective, Jodi. I’ve had the experience, but never knew it had a name.

    • Tah duh! I first heard of the term last year and it was such a lightbulb moment. Before that I thought I was weird that certain dolls or robots creeped me out.

  3. Great post. Have you read the orignal essay on uncanniness by Freud? It’s called, ‘Das Unheimliche’ and is massively influential in fiction theory.

    • It was mentioned in the Wiki article and now I would love to get my hands on a copy. Makes a lot of sense with how the brain functions.

  4. creeps me out.

  5. I love this post. Never thought about it till now, but the uncanny valley has a lot of similarities to the sensation of dread, which is not the actual bad thing happening, but the immediate anticipation of something bad happening. The mind is a funny place where ‘almost-but-not-quite-a-thing’ is worse than the thing itself.

    • Wow, I hadn’t thought about it like that but it’s true. Our brains go a little nuts figuring out all the different ways things can go wrong and then amplify it. Keeps us safe, but at what cost?


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