Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction: Emotion without Expression

Elana Johnson recently discussed some ways to reach more people with your blog, and one of them was to make your name more prominent near the top. (At least, I think it was Elana who said that.) Hence the name change from Dual Citizenship in Specfic and Mundania. I think the new name looks better with this theme too.

Anyway, the New York Times online is a good source for intriguing science articles, including this one about Moebius syndrome, a rare condition in which the victim suffers from facial paralysis. That means the person can't show the typical emotional expressions we expect other people to display, and that can lead to difficulty communicating with others and establishing a connection. During social interactions, people subconsciously mimic the emotions they see on others' faces; this not only helps them establish a rapport with other people but helps them interpret the other person's emotions. This mimicry isn't possible for people with Moebius syndrome, but a recent study suggests their brains have other ways to read people's emotional expressions, and these other systems help them compensate. Just as a blind person interprets the world through the rest of the senses, a person with Moebius syndrome uses other types of nonverbal communication to express their emotions and show rapport with others. Further research into these types of nonverbal communication may help not just people with Moebius syndrome, but socially awkward people (the article's words, not mine!) in general.

As I read this article, I thought of all types of non-human sentients who might have trouble communicating with us if they had no form of social mimicry. Robots would be one example--unless they had some sort of "facial screen" where they could project a human face. Aliens, genetically enhanced animals, fantasy races like elves -- all of these creatures might have different types of nonverbal communication unlike our own. How would we communicate with these beings? Would we find new mutual ways to express ourselves, or would we misunderstand each other, leading to hostile consequences? Would we need a new type of interpreter? Also, how does this tie into the Uncanny Valley, the hypothesis that when nonhumans have a certain amount of humanoid appearance but still look "off," they tend to repulse us instead of attracting us? Sentient beings who can't display human emotions may fall into this valley.

We use speculative fiction as a way to look at ourselves, but when the reflection is distorted, we may be too focused on the inhuman to see the human aspects of others. And when we can't do that, our ability to empathize and communicate with them is diminished.


Ann said...

Very interesting post. Thought provoking indeed.

By the way I like the new look to your blog.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Thanks, Ann!

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