In 1970, a Japanese robotics expert, Masahiro Mori, coined the term “The Uncanny Valley.” What he was describing was how humans interacted with and felt about robots. When robots looked very little like a real human being, the viewers emotional response was increasingly positive as they moved toward humans. However, when a robot looked, say 80% human, the negative emotional response poured in and viewers felt that these “near human” robots were creepy and scary. The chart that describe Mori’s term is often used to describe why we find zombies so horrifying.
Unfortunately, some of the negative aspects of the “Uncanny Valley” can occur in the context of TBI. Consider, for example, the difference between our response to a person in a wheelchair and a person who is walking with an extreme limp. Mori, and others who have researched this phenomenon, suggest that persons who appear human, but are physically or neurologically impaired in some way, trigger a response in the viewer which says “that person is pathological or sick.” This also may account for the negative feelings that arise when a TBI victim is 70% or 80% of the pre-accident person, but has frontal lobe injuries that have changed the personality and cognitive functioning. The most common description, in my experience with TBI, from a spouse of a TBI victim is “that’s not the person I married.”
Studies using functional MRI have verified these emotional responses in the human brain – whereby as what is being viewed becomes more and more human, the emotions fall off the cliff at a certain point near fully human. Hopefully, our future research can find ways around this ingrained human response so that TBI victims do not have to deal with it. In the meantime, it needs to be taken into account as one of the problems to be faced on a daily basis by victims of TBI.