Animation by Devyn Carter, lead research specialist, using LightWave 3D, NewTek, Inc.
Emory researchers have documented the first example of chimpanzees empathizing with computer animation. The study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is part of an effort to learn more about the impact of cartoons and video games on the human brain.
“Humans experience emotional engagement with animated characters, empathizing with happiness, sadness or other emotions displayed by the characters,” said Matthew Campbell, a post-doctoral fellow in psychobiology, and the lead researcher. “Previous studies have suggested this type of emotional engagement may be to blame when children mimic violent video games and cartoons, so we thought it important to learn more.”
Yawns were chosen for the chimpanzee study, since they are large, unmistakable expressions, and they are contagious – the way that smiles, frowns and fear are contagious.
The chimps yawned significantly more in response to 3D animations of yawning than they did to animated chimps making control mouth movements.
“Next, we want to study what aspects of animation make it more or less likely to be mimicked,” Campbell said. “One of the first things we’re going to look at is whether realism is important for the chimpanzees to empathize with what they’re seeing."
The knowledge gained could help in the design of animation to promote imitation, such as therapies for children with autism, or to limit imitation, such as violent video games.
Campbell’s advisor is psychologist Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center at Yerkes National Primate Research Center.
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