Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it


July 20th, 2008 Posted in Psychology

I went to see Wall-E yesterday and, without spoiling it, it was great. Seriously, go and see it.  I’m still from the generation who count polygons in computer animation, so it’s obviously all rather jaw-dropping.  I think the most amazing point was that they somehow make something so anatomically simple portray such a wide range of human emotions.  That takes real skill, but it also takes a human brain which is hardwired not only to recognise faces and facial expressions, even in artistic representations, but also to derive emotions from the simplest of behaviours.

In the early 1940s, two psychologists, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, developed a short film involving simple gemoetrical shapes moving around a screen in a way that mimicked social interactions.  These shapes, two triangles and a circle, were shown to a group of adult subjects who universally attributed them with human emotions and motivations.  The movie can be seen on YouTube. It’s almost uncanny how we can assign social relations (‘bullying’, ‘friendship’) and emotions (‘fear’,’aggression’) to gemoetrical shapes that, as we well know, are not and never have been thinking creatures. In fact, even within the animal world we probably assign a far greater ‘humanlike’ social intelligence to animals than their actual motivations merit.

It is primarily these two psychological traits (identifying faces and atributing social motivations in situations where they do not exist)  that allow master animators such as Pixar to create such works of genius as Wall-E, and their previous works.  Perhaps their first demonstrations of this skill, was the infamous Luxor Jr. animation, that inspired the short animation that now precedes all of their films.  In this short piece we learn so much about the human brain; about our capacity for compassion and sympathy. It takes a great mind to create such an illusion, but a more remarkable feat, it might be argued, to be fooled by it so completely.

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