Monday, 14 July 2014

The neuroscience of animation - how your brain's wiring makes you like cartoons

Your brain, but animated
At this year's SAS (Society of Animation Studies) conference in Toronto, a number of presentations focused on the subject of Animation and the Mind - The Neuroscience of Animation. This field of research tries to look at animation from a neuroscientific point of view, asking what it is about the design and structure of our brains that influences how we watch and enjoy animation. It's field that asks not just which cartoons we like, but why we like them, on a level that digs deep below our subconscious.

Bugs Bunny. Copyright: Warner Bros
Stephane Colgnon from Belgium argued that “Animated cartoons are caricatures in motion”. He looked at the Neuroscience of caricature, suggesting that cartoon characters are essentially a caricatures of human babies, designed to eleicit an “aww…. cute!” reaction among adult humans. In other words, the design of bugs bunny (for example) is created - no doubt unconsciously - to provoke an exaggerated neurological reaction. In other words, in neuroscientific terms, "exaggeration works".

Stephane argued that "Studies have shown that humans like babies that are caricatured and more “babyish” than real babies. It’s like women who have a boob job – it speaks to our wiring. Cartoon design works because its how your brain works".

Baby Herman - exaggerated cuteness
Ann Owen, of Falmouth University, in her talk "Seeing the real. A neuroscientific perspective on stop motion animation", argued that Stop motion animation in particular "provokes a nostalgic simulation of childhood ativities".

Films like James and The Giant Peach "provoke nostalgic emotions" in the audience. Hence stop motion films are "full of toys, and other old-fashioned things". These items "provoke a sense of pleasure" in adult audiences, remembering their own childhoods.

Stop motion: "uncanny"
Ann went on to talk about "The Uncanny" in Stop Motion films, such as Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas. She quoted Sigmund Freud, suggesting that this kind of work "reminds us of the mortality of our own bodies". For example, "remove a character’s eyes, and we can no longer simulate...we cannot predict their intentions...we feel the mutilation in our own bodies."

However, Tim Burton's work is more "faux uncanny", than real uncanny. The audience gets it - it's just a joke. We're "not really spooked".

So now you know. Our enjoyment of animation is just an extension of the wiring of our brains. So next time you want to design a cute character, don't go to a character designer - just ask your nearest neuroscientist.


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