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Asif Ghazanfar, Ph.D.: Primate Communication – Its Neurobiology, Evolution, and the Origins of the Uncanny Valley



When we communicate with our voice, how much work is our brain actually doing? How much of this work is facilitated by the structure of communication signals?

Asif Ghazanfar’s work shows that not only can the visual and auditory components of primate communication signals be tightly locked (removing the need for the brain to actively bind such information), but the statistical regularities in both modalities are optimized to interact with rhythms in the brain. This suggests that the structure of communication signals exploits the structure of on-going brain activity, with communication emerging as this interaction unfolds.

Tests of such hypothesis require synthesizing realistic communication signals, in the both auditory and visual modalities, so that one can manipulate their structure in a controlled and systematic manner. In the visual modality, the use of computer animated faces, or avatars, are a promising way to demonstrate what features or dynamics of the face are important for exploiting brain signals during communication.

The use of avatars, however, presents the potential problem of “the uncanny valley”: realistic avatars are disturbing to human participants. Is the same true for other primates? If so, what does this say about the origins of the uncanny valley? Is it an evolutionary or developmental process? The data from Ghazanfar and colleagues suggest that the uncanny valley originates in both processes and, regardless of its origins, avatars can be effectively used for testing hypotheses regarding the mechanisms of primate communication.


Dr. Asif Ghazanfar is an Assistant Professor at the Neuroscience Institute and in Departments of Psychology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. His research focuses on the neurobiology and evolution of primate communication and how both aspects are influenced by body morphology, development, and socioecological context. Dr. Ghazanfar received his BSci in Philosophy from the University of Idaho and his PhD in Neurobiology from Duke University. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tuebingen, Germany before moving to Princeton.