Saturday, May 31, 2008

Polar Bear Theory

On one of the first episodes of Lost, the survivors see a polar bear. I will admit that this is fairly strange, since the island is tropical. But then again, tons of weirder stuff has happened, like the mysterious black smoke, or Ben somehow moving the island.

Yet for some reason, people love to complain about how strange it is that a polar bear appeared on the island. They wonder, how could it survive in that climate? How would it have gotten there? I have long found this complaint to be irrational. There is a preponderance of weirder stuff that should be mentioned first if you intend to argue the feasibility of the show.

But I'm now beginning to think that this complaint may be predictably irrational. Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970 hypothesized that while robots far removed from human likeness would cause no emotional reaction, robots that look "almost human" would give you goosebumps. This phenomenon is known as the uncanny valley, and it may explain the polar bear complaints as well.

Phenomena on Lost such as the black smoke, Walt's telekinesis, or the magic box are too far removed from everyday life to stir up our innate "is this possible?" meters. On the other hand, a polar bear on a tropical island (or the fact that Hurley hasn't lost weight) is just close enough to reality to make us question it.

Might the uncanny valley explain other odd facets of visual perception? I should point out that although the hypothesis is not fully accepted by the scientific community, it is already being put to use in movies such as The Incredibles.