Way back in 1919 Sigmund Freud postulated his concept of the uncanny. In the (cleverly named) The Uncanny, Freud explored a problem of aesthetics—when something is both familiar and unknown the experience of viewing it can be strongly unsettling. Fifty years later, roboticist Masahiro Mori presented his own work on the uncanny. Drawing heavily on his predecessor’s work, Mori developed his “uncanny valley” hypothesis.

The deceptively simple chart progresses from the decidedly not-human (a factory robot, for instance) to something that would be indistinguishable from ourselves (whether it’s a perfect computer graphic or these guys). One might guess that as the objects in questions become more human, they become more familiar to us, and so it goes. Until, that is, we hit the uncanny valley. Once the robot or graphic or toy or not-quite human creature becomes too human like (and yet not human like enough to be indistinguishable), we can’t handle it. Viewing these things stimulates a feeling of repulsion (they’re familiar! Yet unknown!) not readily eradicated. If we hope to make a future where robots are folded into the mainstream, the argument goes, we must be mindful these potential obstacles.

But enough theory!

In this first episode of our newest series, The Science of YouTube, John Pavlus and Christopher Mims of Small Mammal wrench open our psyches and explore the reasons why, right about now, you’re feeling so unsettled.