Workshop: Animated Objects in Make-Believe

An especially curious subset of prop-oriented make-believe involves animating, or pretending to give agency to, objects in service of narratives. We see this with children who play with their dolls. We also see this with storytellers who tell tales with their puppets. This workshop brings together a psychologist and a philosopher to discuss the experience and perception of animated objects in make-believe.

Thursday, May 15th, 2014
1:30pm (Welcome)
1:35pm Brian Fiala [early career speaker]
2:30pm Louise Bunce
3:45pm Jim Hamilton

Leeds Humanities Research Institute
29-31 Clarendon Place
Leeds, West Yorkshire LS2 9JT

The workshop is free and open to all. Please register here, especially if you are considering attending the workshop dinner.


James Hamilton (philosophy, Kansas State University)

“Spectating Animated Objects”
There are a number of puzzles about spectating animated objects. One puzzle is that it seems spectators should not, at least when talking “seriously,” attribute mental states to them. And yet we do. A second puzzle concerns how spectators ascribe agency in performances featuring animated objects, specifically to puppets and puppeteers, and whether they perceive the relationship between puppet and puppeteer differently from that between an animation and an animator (or team of animators), and a robot and its engineer(s) and programmer(s). A third puzzle concerns how the information delivered in a performance involving animated objects, such as a standard Punch & Judy show, is actually processed in time by the performance’s spectators. A fourth puzzle concerns the apparent fact (which, if true, should be troubling not only to puppeteers and scholars of puppetry but also to those working on human-robot interactions and video animations) that the closer to human features an animated object is–in movement, sound, and appearance–the more responsive the human participant in the exchange is until, that is, the so-called “uncanny valley” is reached, at which point human participants become frightened, distrustful, and even disgusted by the animated object. This puzzling phenomenon, if it were real, would be both a practical concern to makers of animated objects but also a theoretical concern for those who wish to understand how animated objects are experienced and understood by spectators.

Louise Bunce (psychology, University of Winchester)

“Is It Real? Learning to Navigate Reality”
Our ability to make real/not-real judgments is an important skill that we use everyday, enabling us to reason about, and behave appropriately towards, a variety of objects and entities. This is a complicated task, not least because we can judge real/not-real status on the basis of reality-as-ontological status or reality-as-authenticity. For example, a child might believe that Father Christmas is ‘real’ (exists) but that a particular representation of Father Christmas is not ‘the real one’ (authenticity). This talk will present research to demonstrate how and when children learn to judge a range of objects and entities, from toys to taxidermy, on the basis of their real/not-real status.

Brian Fiala (philosophy-neuroscience-psychology, Washington University in St. Louis)

“Person-Perception and Puppets: Why It’s so Easy to See Inanimate Objects as Animated”
We see mentality everywhere, even in ordinary objects such as Roombas and burnt toast, and especially in aesthetic objects such as puppets. How do we do it? Using three children’s puppets as examples, I will sketch a psychological answer following Thomas Reid, who argued that god endowed us with a special pre-rational faculty for perceiving the mental states of other people. Sesame Street’s Grover illustrates the basic principles well. Grover has eyes, a biological body, and a sing-song voice. These simple cues cause us to attribute mentality to an object that we know to be a puppet. Shari Lewis’s Lambchop illustrates principles of cross-modal binding. Lewis’s ventriloquism is less than virtuosic, yet sufficient for us to perceive her voice as emanating from her sock-puppet. Finally, the more realistic-looking puppets from The Dark Crystal appear uncanny (creepy), because their faces fail to display the subtle emotional cues that are normally present in real people and animals. In short, puppets are effective aesthetic tools because they easily engage our natural mechanisms for person-perception.


This event is a part of the Experimental Philosophical Aesthetics and Human Nature project workshops, supported by Marie Curie Action Grant PIIF-GA-2012-328977.

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