This article is the first in a short series about things that look complex, but which derive from a few simple underlying principles. Often, those principles involve strategies for reducing cognitive load. These articles are speculative, but they give some interesting new insights.
I’ll start with Inuit tactile maps, because they make the underlying point particularly clearly. I’ll then look at how they share the same deep structure as satirical caricatures, and then consider the implications for other apparently complex and sophisticated human activities that are actually based on very simple processes.
There’s a scene in the movie Byzantium where a vampire hesitates at a threshold, waiting for her intended victim to invite her inside. The setting is a run-down seaside town, out of season. It’s a scene that combines several types of unsettling strangeness, which makes it a good starting point for today’s article about strange places.
Two boundary spaces: Image credits are at the end of this article.
I recently visited my old university town after being away for more than twenty years. It was a very unsettling experience; the town I saw was very different from the one I remembered, and those differences stirred up a lot of emotional turmoil.
I had uncomfortable visions of spending years coming to terms with those feelings, and with the deep subconscious issues that would probably be involved, about memories of my past and of days that could never be re-lived. It had all the makings of a great novel, until I mentioned it to Sue Gerrard, who said that more likely it was just a case of the uncanny valley.
So what is the uncanny valley anyway, and why does it mean that the world will have to settle for this blog article instead of a literary masterpiece? The answer takes us through a surprisingly broad range of phenomena that individually look difficult to explain, but which might be explicable together as the effects of some simple cognitive processes.
Images from Wikipedia; links are at the end of this article.
Complex things often have simple causes. Here’s a classic example. It’s a fractal.
Fractal images are so complex that there’s an entire area of mathematics specialising in them. However, the complex fractal image above comes from a single, simple equation.
Humour and sudden shocks are also complex, since they both depend on substantial knowledge about the world and about human behaviour, but, like fractals, the key to them comes from a very simple underlying mechanism. Here’s what it looks like. It’s called the Necker cube.
So what’s the Necker cube, and how is it involved with such emotive areas as humour and horror?