Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Down in the Valley

I was talking to an ultrasound technician the other day--after the huge piles of cold hard cash, the talking to lots of interesting people is why I got into librarianship--and she said something I liked.

She said that they can do this 3D-style imaging of fetuses in the womb now, and that of course expectant parents always want to see them, but that she always recommends they not look at the 18-week images (although they always do anyway) because they're creepy-looking.

She said they're actually less creepy at 13 weeks, when the fetus looks less human, because at that stage it's sort of cute in an alien-blob sort of way, while at 18 weeks they're more human-looking, but also more weird.

"The uncanny valley!" I thought immediately.

For those not familiar, the uncanny valley is a theory that suggests that we find things more appealing the more human they look--right up until they reach a certain point, when we find them disturbing instead.

At that point, there in this uncanny valley, they're close enough to human that we sort of mistake them for human at a glance, but far enough away that we realize they aren't, and that makes us find them weird and wrong and super creepy.

You mostly see it used in reference to humanoid robots, and to characters in video games and CG animated movies, but I kind of like the idea that people also traverse the uncanny valley in the flesh on the way to being born.

As a not-very-developed embryo, with a vague general resemblance to a human, you might observe a sort of big-headed, spindly-limbed, weird charm. But as the fetus develops, acquiring more of the familiar characteristics of humanity, but still not having them all, it becomes faintly creepy-looking.

Also, of course, the resolution of the 3D images, compared to the classic, slightly fuzzy black and white ones, helps push the fetus into the uncanny valley by letting you see enough detail to notice how like/unlike a familiar human it looks.

It's all about the computer graphics, as usual.

At least that's my rough theory based on what the ultrasound tech said. I haven't seen a lot of 3D ultrasound images myself, and the ones I found online all look pretty equally creepy to me (here are some), so it could be a theory without basis in fact.

Nevertheless, I like it, so I'm going to assume, based on my extremely limited understanding of embryology and fetal development, that's it's totally plausible. As long as I never learn anything else about the subject, my theory should be untouchable.

Yup. That's how science works, people.

By which I mean, that's the opposite of how science works. Let my bad example be a terrifying warning to you.

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