Pennywise the clown is downright terrifying. But take away the fangs and penchant for haunting the dreams of New England youth, and a large portion of adults would still find the circus performer-turned-gore-freak purely terrifying. Zombies and humanoid robots fall into the same category: They just give some people the willies.
Why is that? Clowns are supposed to be funny. Zombies aren’t real. Data was the best character on Star Trek: TNG. We’ve known for a while that as a creation gets more and more humanlike, our comfort level goes up for a while, and then suddenly drops into what we call the “uncanny valley” (illustrated above).
Some new research out of UC San Diego may have put a little neuroscience behind this phenomenon. People viewed androids and people while being imaged by fMRI:
They hypothesized that, at least in part, the effect might result from a violation of the brain’s predictions. When we anticipate one thing but see another, we get an error, and that error makes us shy away from the thing we’re viewing.
… ”Your brain’s gonna be like, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you told me this was a human, and now this area told me that this is not moving like a human. So, I have to really compute that,’ ” [Ayse Sagin] said. “That’s what we think the uncanny valley might be partially caused by, and we have seen some brain activity that looks like that.”
The dissonance between what your brain expects to see and what it does see may be at fault. The tiny movements that don’t match, the slightly different facial ratios, Tom Hanks’ weird porcelain skin in The Polar Express … they all make your brain uncomfortable. Other researchers think that our keen perception of “healthy humans” might be an evolutionary adaptation to take care of our fellow living humans, and perhaps it even plays into our fear of death. Quickly recognizing human faces and features may be so core to our brain’s function that we can track it to the single cell (sort of).
All I know is that my wife punches me if I make her get within 50 feet of a clown. Remember, in the uncanny valley … they all float.