Art history has always fascinated me. It encompasses the history of art since essentially the beginning of intelligent Homo sapiens. The astounding art in the Chauvet cave in France dates back to 32,000 years ago! Think of it: These ancient people manufactured their own pigments and were painting before they could communicate through writing. A painting, any painting, is a puzzle. What purpose did the paintings serve? What were they trying to convey? Art criticism is trying to decipher just that. What did the artist mean? Is she successful in evoking the desired emotion?

To me, one of the fascinating aspects of Picasso’s work is his depiction of the women in his life. I read and re-read works of art criticism, trying to understand the images of women pulled and gouged into tortured shapes, women cut in bits and reconfigured on the canvas. Yes, I intellectually know that he had a stormy relationship with his Russian ballet dancer wife, Olga Khokhlova. But why do the paintings of her image evoke such a viscerally uncomfortable feeling? Is it the fact that her nose, painted in two perspectives is reminiscent of a pig’s nose? Or that the unnaturally long fingers and sharp nails are talon-like? Is it why paintings of Dora Marr, his mistress and accomplished photographer, resemble more a human-like monster than a warm-blooded human being?

 

A possible answer?

A recent paper in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences titled Monkey visual behavior falls into the uncanny valley (October 12, 2009) struck an Aha! bell.

As the authors note, “it is natural to assume that, as synthetic agents (e.g., androids or computer-animated characters) come closer to resembling humans, they will be more likely to elicit behavioral responses similar to those elicited by real humans (namely, empathy; my addition). However, this intuition is only true up to a point. Increased realism does not necessarily lead to increased acceptance.

And here is the amazing observation: “If agents become too realistic, people find them emotionally unsettling. This feeling of eeriness is known as the ‘uncanny valley’ effect and is symptomatic of entities that elicit the concept of a human, but do not meet all the requirements of being one.”

We know it from our own experience. Haven’t you found it almost irresistible to avert your gaze from a person whose face has become horribly deformed by disease or accident? Would you feel comfortable touching his or her face?

These unsettling emotions are thought to have an evolutionary origin, but no evidence for that hypothesis has been available—that is, until now.

Would monkeys, for instance, have this “uncanny valley” when shown pictures of monkeys that resemble, but not quite, a real monkey? To test their preference, researchers showed macaque monkeys real pictures, digital caricatures, and realistic reconstructions of other monkey faces. To the latter, the macaques repeatedly averted their eyes.

The visual behavior of the monkeys falls into the uncanny valley just the same as human visual behavior,” wrote Princeton University evolutionary biologists Shawn Steckinfinger and Asif Ghazanfar. The “uncanny valley” was identified in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahito Mori, who noticed that people presented with likenesses of increasing realism respond with increasing empathy, right up to the point where the likenesses are almost real. At that point, people are repulsed. The sudden dip in graphs describing their response gave the phenomenon its name.

 

Did Picasso know about the “uncanny valley”?

I am pretty sure he didn’t. But what I do suspect is that his genius was not restricted to painterly matters; he was intuitively a master of the human psyche. Picasso could be astoundingly brutal, to friends, lovers, even complete strangers. “Women are machines for suffering,” Picasso told his mistress Françoise Gilot in 1943. Indeed, as they embarked on their nine-year affair, the 61-year-old artist warned the 21-year-old student, “For me, there are only two kinds of women, goddesses and doormats.” Of the seven most important women in Picasso’s life, two killed themselves and two went mad. Another died of natural causes only four years into their relationship. So, is it far-fetched to suspect that the great wizard manipulated, maybe unconsciously, us, merely mortal admirers of his paintings, into feelings of unease, even hostility, toward the women he brutalized emotionally in the service of his art?

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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