Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Hum. Neurosci., 24 November 2011 | doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2011.00126

The human likeness dimension of the “uncanny valley hypothesis”: behavioral and functional MRI findings

Marcus Cheetham*, Pascal Suter and Lutz Jäncke
  • Department of Neuropsychology, University of Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland

The uncanny valley hypothesis (Mori, 1970) predicts differential experience of negative and positive affect as a function of human likeness. Affective experience of humanlike robots and computer-generated characters (avatars) dominates “uncanny” research, but findings are inconsistent. Importantly, it is unknown how objects are actually perceived along the hypothesis’ dimension of human likeness (DOH), defined in terms of human physical similarity. To examine whether the DOH can also be defined in terms of effects of categorical perception (CP), stimuli from morph continua with controlled differences in physical human likeness between avatar and human faces as endpoints were presented. Two behavioral studies found a sharp category boundary along the DOH and enhanced visual discrimination (i.e., CP) of fine-grained differences between pairs of faces at the category boundary. Discrimination was better for face pairs presenting category change in the human-to-avatar than avatar-to-human direction along the DOH. To investigate brain representation of physical change and category change along the DOH, an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging study used the same stimuli in a pair-repetition priming paradigm. Bilateral mid-fusiform areas and a different right mid-fusiform area were sensitive to physical change within the human and avatar categories, respectively, whereas entirely different regions were sensitive to the human-to-avatar (caudate head, putamen, thalamus, red nucleus) and avatar-to-human (hippocampus, amygdala, mid-insula) direction of category change. These findings show that Mori’s DOH definition does not reflect subjective perception of human likeness and suggest that future “uncanny” studies consider CP and the DOH’s category structure in guiding experience of non-human objects.

Keywords: uncanny valley, fMRI, categorical perception, virtual reality, avatar, human likeness

Citation: Cheetham M, Suter P and Jäncke L (2011) The human likeness dimension of the “uncanny valley hypothesis”: behavioral and functional MRI findings. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 5:126. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2011.00126

Received: 18 March 2011; Paper pending published: 01 July 2011;
Accepted: 13 October 2011; Published online: 24 November 2011.

Edited by:

Hans-Jochen Heinze, University of Magdeburg, Germany

Reviewed by:

Bernd Weber, Rheinische-Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität, Germany
Beatrice De Gelder, Donders Institute, Netherlands

Copyright: © 2011 Cheetham, Suter and Jäncke. This is an open-access article subject to a non-exclusive license between the authors and Frontiers Media SA, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and other Frontiers conditions are complied with.

*Correspondence: Marcus Cheetham, Department of Neuropsychology, University of Zurich, Binzmühlestrasse 14/Box 25, CH-8050 Zürich, Switzerland. e-mail: m.cheetham@psychologie.uzh.ch

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