Alessia Cara. The Project. Ten Network. February 27th 2017.
Alessia Cara. The Project. Ten Network. February 27th 2017.
Editor’s pick: Excluded from the uncanny valley
From Bob Cockshott
New Scientist. Issue 3100. November 19th 2016. p.60.
The experience described in the letter seems to suggest that there is more to face recognition than simple memory or faces, or could it be that there are aspects of the perception of faces in particular that make them especially memorable? Faces are easy to personify because they are usually found on people. Perhaps it is the ability to detect the person behind the face that has become amiss in the letter’s author following his stroke, and maybe this ability feeds into face memory? Such a relationship would explain the author’s inability to notice the uncanny valley, and it would also explain why a personifying synaesthete like myself is also a super-recognizer.
I’ve had a read of the interesting article by Laura Spinney that this letter was a comment about, and I think the Perceptual Mismatch Theory of the Uncanny Valley Effect probably offers a more plausible explanation of my a prosopagnosic might be unable to detect the uncanny valley than the competing Category Uncertainty Theory. The article explained the two theories and evidence supporting them. To summarise, the CUT explains the UVE as the result of confusion about what type of thing one is looking at (for example robot or human?), while the PMT explains the UVE as resulting from unease or perceptual confusion when different features or parts of the thing or being viewed have dissimilar levels of human-like appearance (for example the face and skin look realistic but the eyes do not move like human eyes). I think the case of a prosopagnosic not detecting the UVE when people with normal face perception do is support for the PMT theory rather than the other because as far as I know, prosopagnosia does not involve inability to classify faces or bodies as human or non-human, while I believe there is evidence supporting the idea that prosopagnosia can be the result of not being able to perceptually integrate the features of the face as a whole that is recognizable as a unique or distinctive mix of many attributes and features. A non-prosopagnosic person should be able to perceive a face or body as a whole made up of parts, and notice if one or more elements has a level of humanity that does not match other parts, as in the PMT, while a prosopagnosic might not. Of course, research is needed to investigate my armchair speculations.
A closely related family member of mine recently scored a perfect mark on an adult literacy test geared to normal adults (which was true to form) , and another closely related family member in mid-childhood recently explained that they perceive motor vehicles as having faces and they categorize cars, utes and 4WDs into genders, square old 4WDs being male. I can see how that makes sense, but all the same I’ve never been that much of a car personifier. Ever since I was a child I’ve personified numbers and alphabet letters in great detail, along with perceiving them as essentially associated with very specific colours, and the shapes and motions of cars often make me think of hunting animals in some deeply instinctive way, but unlike my young relative and the many Australians who decorate their own motor vehicles with oversized curly eyelashes or giant imitation testes, I don’t see motor vehicles as male or female.
On the surface most people seem pretty-much normal and average, but if you make the most superficial investigation by testing or speaking with people about their thoughts and perceptions, you might find that there is an interesting and sometimes significant range of differences in the way our minds work. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia, personifying synaesthesia and elite and precocious levels of ability in reading, spelling and general literacy are just some of the interesting things that run in my family and are also experienced by me, and I am also a super-recognizer. A super-recognizer is a person who has an elite level of ability in recognizing faces or face memory, and typically can achieve perfect or near-perfect scores on tests of face memory. I believe that this co-occurrence of synaesthesia and elite abilities in face memory and literacy are no coincidence. I believe all of these things are based on hyper-connectivity or hyper-development in the rear parts of the brain including the fusiform gyrus, and also in the right hemisphere of the brain. I believe the genetic basis of this development might be linked to genes that code for particular variations in the functioning of the immune system, possibly involving the complement chemicals, microglia and synaptic pruning. I’m fascinated by the possibility that research work that has been done in the last decade linking immunology and neuropsychology can inform us about the origins of synaesthesia and also specific gifts and deficits in memory and cognition, and maybe also inform us about some types of dementia. In 2012 at this blog I explicitly identified research on the immune system, complement, microglia and synaptic pruning done by Dr Beth Stevens as a possible explanation for the origins of developmental synaesthesia, an idea that was so good that some synaesthesia researchers made it the basis of a speculative paper that was published in a peer-reviewed journal last year (they forgot to acknowledge me as the first to publish this idea). Work done on MHC1 (part of the immune system) and the brain by Carla Shatz is another area of scientific research that I find tremendously exciting, and I believe that the general area of research on the relationships between brain structure and the immune system is of such originality and importance that it should attract one or more Nobel Prizes.
The Thomas the Tank Engine stories, with railway stock who have faces and voices and dialogue and relationships and dramas, and the Wizard of Oz story, with a tin-man and a living scarecrow and curmudgeonly apple trees are just two examples of classic children’s fiction which translated very successfully to popular family screen entertainment, and both are full of objects that are personified. Many synaesthetes like myself have naturally and mysteriously developed conceptions of letters of the alphabet and numbers as having personal characteristics such as genders and personalities, as well as individual and specific colours. These synaesthetic ways of thinking formed in childhood and has become embedded in the structure of the brain. It is possible that all people once experienced synaesthetic thinking as children, but synaptic pruning did away with all that fanciful nonsense for most of us. Perhaps we were all personifying synaesthetes when we were little kids, and perhaps that explains why object personification pops up so often in children’s entertainment. To complement the winter school holidays one of our TV channels is broadcasting The Wizard of Oz for the umpteenth time. I’m not sure if I’ve ever sat and viewed the whole thing and forgotten half of it, but there was some familiarity in the deep and gruff sound of the voice of one of the apple trees. Could any grown tree have a voice that is not dark and resonant? I doubt it. Irrational as it is, object personification operates according to psychological rules and relationships, and big dark brown things tend to have deep voices.
I’m sure I’m not the first to observe that popular movies are full of psychology, and the Wizard of Oz is as good an example as any. There’s the object personification in many of the characters. There’s also some interesting psychology in the way that Dorothy feels that she has known her three strange new friends for a long time, but also logically knows that can’t be true (the story is set in a dream with bizarre characters which Dorothy’s sleeping mind has created out of memories of real people in Dorothy’s real life). “Oh, you’re the best friends anybody ever had. And it’s funny, but I feel as if I’d known you all the time, but I couldn’t have, could I?” Would face processing researchers call that “implicit familiarity” or “covert recognition”? It is actually person recognition, not just face recognition, but then again, I’ve been arguing at this blog that face recognition cannot be separated from person recognition. Faces are only memorable because they are the front windows of minds. I think Dorothy’s strange and unexplained feeling of familiarity is a nice illustration of the way that person recognition is swifter and more emotional than the verbal labeling of people with personal names and place names that we are able to do once we are able to figure out where that person fits into our autobiographical memory bank. That memory bank is quite a thing to search, so it can take a while. I like the way that the Dunning-Kruger Effect or something like it is woven into the centre of the narrative of The Wizard of Oz, the tin man not understanding his own emotional dimension, the scarecrow suddenly spouting a bit of geometrical wisdom once told he does have a brain, and the lion needing to be told how brave he actually is even though he had been through so much. There’s also a message about the possibilities of human development, effort and experience changing what we are, if we care to give it a red-hot go. That could have something to do with synapses. Of course, this story has a lot to say about the psychology of quacks, con-artists, fame and inflated authority figures, but the odd thing is, despite the many decades of popularity of this book and the Hollywood movie, great hordes of educated people in America and other English-speaking countries continue to be conned and robbed by quacks, con-artists, famous people and inflated authority figures. Yes, I’m no genius for pointing out the main message of the story of The Wizard of Oz, but if it is such an obvious message, then why does it appear to be so seldom heeded?
There I was last night watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show with one of our kids who was viewing it for the first time (and was predictably an instant fan), and I was impressed by what I thought were similarities between the “Expert” character played by the late English actor Charles Gray and the European-raised Gilbert Proesch, who is one half of the two-man art phenomenon Gilbert and George. I felt there was such a similarity that I wondered if the artist had done an acting role, and they were the same person, but at the same time I knew that one has a very asymmetric face and the other didn’t. I still felt that there is some similarity, but wasn’t sure exactly what or how. Now that I’ve been able to Google up some images of the faces of both men, it is clear that their faces in still photography look quite different, and it is also obvious that although the artist has lived in England for a long time, he retains an exotic European accent that is quite different to the English actor’s. So why do I still feel that there is some similarity? Clearly it isn’t face or accent matching. Perhaps their voices are similar in pitch or something, but I think what I’ve been doing is recognition of personas or personalities or characters. The characters portrayed by Gray and Proesch (Gilbert and George are an act, though probably close to reality) are similar in many ways. They are English gents wearing suits with gray hair of a similar style, of a similar age (in the films I’ve viewed of each), with personalities that are male, quite handsome, well-spoken, urbane, controlled and focused, culturally English, intellectual, interesting and authoritative in some way, but at the same time both operating within the shock-comedy-art genre (Gilbert and George’s interviews are often very funny and their art could be interpreted as shock-comedy-art). I think it is possible that their body language and/or voices might be quite similar, which might not be captured in still images.
What does this mean? Why does this matter? I think it shows that there’s much more to being a super-recognizer (as I apparently am according to numerous test results) than merely memorizing the shapes and contours of mental images of faces. I think the thing that gives me “the edge” in face recognition is a great memory for personality or character, which means being able to automatically encode in my brain the whole package of what makes a person; face, hair, body, culture, gender, personality, level of intellect, vocabulary, race, etc. I’m certain that this ability in memorization of the whole person is related the the fact that I’m a synaesthete with a hyper-connected brain, which may well mean that I’m better than others at memorizing a concept of one particular person consisting of a large number of traits of that person, including visual, conceptual and auditory information (face, personality, voice etc) and each of those traits things that they might have in common with any number of other people I’ve seen and memorized. As you should be able to see (in your mind’s eye), this type of memorization is like a huge and complex network of associations. I suspect that a hyper-connected brain might be good at handling this type of categorical thinking about disparate characteristics. I also think this type of personality recognition is related to the fact that I’m not only a synesthete but a personifying synaesthete. Ever since childhood I’ve automatically thought of numbers and letters as having human attributes such as ages and genders and personalities. This is called ordinal-linguistic personification, and it is a type of synaesthesia. I guess my brain has always been very keen to memorize personalities, even in things that aren’t actually people. If you want to fully understand superiority in face recognition, you will need to look at synaesthesia and personification. That is my tip to researchers and that is also MY idea.
I’ve been watching a repeat of the series Secrets of the Superbrands, a TV series about marketing of global mega-brands, and the host of the series was visiting a laboratory that creates flavourings and fragrances for super-brands. They spoke about creating flavourings that match the “personality” of the brand, citing a list of emotional attributes that can be embodied “serious”, “playful” etc. How is the different to the varieties of synaesthesia that personify concepts such as numbers and letters, or the varieties of synaesthesia that personify objects such as house plants, fruits and cutlery?
Later a researcher in South London, Prof. Gemma Calvert of the Neurosense Group, at the Centre for Neuroimaging Sciences, was shown doing a study with an MRI brain scanner, putting people into the scanner while they were shown photos of the faces of people in their immediate family, and also shown photos of the products, featuring familiar product logos and labelling and packaging design, that they are personally familiar with. Apparently the photos of faces and products triggered similar patterns of brain activation, activiating a “reward centre”, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and also the face recognition areas at the back of the brain. This could be interpreted as evidence that advertising and marketing and brand packaging design produces the effect of personifiying products in ordinary people, so I think it follows that one does not need to be a personifying synaesthete to perceive objects as though they are faces or people. Perhaps personifying synaesthetes are more consciously aware of this effect, or perhaps we are more open to being manipulated in this way, but it shows that we aren’t really that special or different.
No wonder the youth of today have mixed-up minds!
This is text from a sheet explaining the correct way to write letters which was given to primary school students in Western Australian government school:
“With a straight neck and a round tummy, put his hat on, five sure looks funny.”
Actually, the number five doesn’t have a round tummy, the curve at the lower half of the number is legs. He is running so fast that his legs look like a round blurry wheel, just like in old cartoons which I used to watch on TV when I was a kid, a very long time ago. When people think about letters of the alphabet as though they are people, that is called ordinal-linguistic personification and it is thought to be a variety of synaesthesia. A lot of folks must have it I think.
I’ve also seen a classroom activity in which the students have been asked to sort and paste pieces of coloured paper into the two categories of “warm” and “cool” colours, a cross sensory activity for sure, bordering on synaesthesia. At this rate, we will have a 100% prevalence of synaesthesia in the upcoming generations.
When I look at this ad I can’t help thinking about the letter Y. He is such a happy and friendly personality. Here he is playing with some dogs in a park:
How creepy is this? Another example of a sculpture or creative design that features personification added to the form of an everyday object. My particular interest in personification is my own theory that personification synaesthesia (as experienced by myself) or something like it gives rise to superiority in face memory (or being a super-recognizer) by naturally making the faces of unknown people more memorable and interesting. But the personification of objects is not limited to synaesthetes or people with unusual perception of faces. The personification of objects is a theme that can be found in sculpture, design, art and advertizing, and I’ve written about an photographed many examples at this blog. Not all personification in sculpture or design takes the form of a face, as in this creepy sideshow ride car. One could say that the fanciful face of this pretend car is a reference to pareidolia, which is a psychological phenomenon in which the mind interprets random or vague images or stimuli as having a pattern or significance. Some classic examples of pareidolia are seeing animals in clouds or seeing faces in rock cliffs orhearing voices in white noise. Even though the fronts of motor cars have little in common with faces (except that maybe a person looks forward through both, and a mouth and a radiator grille are intake openings), the pattern of two headlights above horizontal design features in a symetrical layout at the front of a car makes the human mind think of a face. It is thought that we are so sensitive to face-like patterns because our minds are designed to look for faces. All the same, I’d rather not have to look at one as creepy as this one.
Is there any connection between transgender-ism and personification processes in cognition or in personification synaesthesia? I’ve no reason to believe that trannies are any more likely to be synaesthetes or vice versa, but I can’t help wondering whether being transgender could be an odd or questionable type of (gender) personification of the self, while ordinal-linguistic personification is an odd type of personification applied to the concepts of numbers and letters (and other things in some cases). Is self-image and self-concept different to the personification of other people with characteristics such as gender and age and personality? Is self-image and self-concept different to the odd personification a different kind of thinking to that found in ordinal-linguistic personification synaesthesia? Why do some/many people experience odd types of personification? Note that OLP involves the personification of characteristics beyond gender. It can also involve ages, appearance, personalities and personal relationships. So I wonder whether there are people who feel that they have personal characteristics other than gender that don’t appear to match their physical being? Are there people who feel that they are the wrong age or the wrong weight or a mismatch in some other way?