Sunday, February 28, 2010

Does the Devil Really Wear Prada? The Psychology of Anthropomorphism and Dehumanization

This is an article from Science Daily about anthropomorphism. I thought this was especially relevant to Pratt students, because anthropomorphism is something that comes up very often in art history. The first half of the article explains what anthropomorphism is and what its significances are, things most of us are already aware of.
The article gets more interesting in the second half of it. In it, the author makes the point that the process of rendering objects and symbols in the form of human-like features, also changes our perception of those symbols and objects. In other words, when something is given a recognizable human feature to identify it with, it is not only given the visual mask but also endowed with connotations of having the behavioral and mental capacity of humans.
This argument brings me back to a book I've read last year, The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. I was introduced to a 1992 neuroscience experiment done on monkeys' brains. The main conclusion drawn from it was that cells in a monkey's brain are triggered not only when he was actively intending to start an action but also when he was watching another monkey do something else. These cells are now called 'mirror neurons,' cells that give us insights about the level of empathy our brains process just by watching. This seems very relevant to the idea the author of the linked article is digging at.
By making man-like images, we are also simplifying shape-less entities or difficult concepts such as the almighty god. When given a human form, it becomes easier for us to accept a complicated phenomenon, because we can empathize with it by seeing that it has a shape similar to us. However, I'd like to question if simplifying such things by giving them the image of ourselves is such a good idea. Anthropomorphizing would disguise the deeper significance of that entity and replace it with a recognizable image. It makes things easier to recognize, but I'm not sure if it makes things any easier to comprehend. Many people would be prone to becoming ignorant about the true meaning of that entity which now has the face of a man, because they won't be provoked to ask much difficult questions, such as "does god actually think like us or feel? Is he an actual entity or something else?" It would make us intellectually lazy, and we can even fool ourselves to believe that the signifier is the same as the signified. As student with a role in learning the process of picture-making and visual stimulation, I think we all have the responsibility of being aware of such complexities.
Lastly, the article ends on a interesting note on how anti-social individuals might cling to anthropomorphizing while extreme homogeneous social groups might lean towards dehumanizing. I think the argument here gets too complicated, because it will involve Marxist and socialist theories, hence drifting away from the topic of psychology a bit, so I will end my summary here.

-Yeji Lee

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