Friday, January 29, 2010

Aliens, Facial Expressions, Fear and Diplomacy

Let's say you're in that classic science-fiction scenario: first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

And, let's say that both you and the alien are (mostly) biological creatures. It's not the only option: (January 26, 2010)

Watching shows like the Star Trek series, you might get the impression that the first steps in communications shouldn't be too hard. Your Universal Translator might have some trouble with the language for the first minute or two, you could at least tell how the alien felt about you.

Not necessarily.

Long before Star Trek, R. A. Heinlein and others were writing about humanity's first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

Robert Anson Heinlein had a reputation - deserved - for having done the math in his science fiction stories. He understood transfer orbits, and what rocket-driven spaceships can - and can't - do.

He also used his head, when depicting people who weren't human. For example, in one novel he'd set up a situation where representatives from three galaxies' worth of aliens were all in one room, conducting a trial. The novel's focus character was listening to someone who had anger management issues, and observing the other people.
"...I could not tell how the invective affected them. The girl creature was taking it quietly, but what can you say about a walrus thing with octopus arms? If he twitches, is he angry? Or laughing? Or itches where the twitch is?..."
("Have Space Suit - Will Travel" R. A. Heinlein (1958) Charles Scribner's Sons, chapter 10/page 238)
It might be hard to tell if an alien was laughing, or "itches where the twitch is" - until you learned which twitches meant what, and which were just twitches.

There isn't even a guarantee that your 'first contact' alien would use the face for most emotional communication. The human face can - and does - express a huge range of emotions. And the basic human expressions are the same, all around the world. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (January 28, 2010))

What, if Anything, Can We Expect From Aliens?

For starters, assuming that they move around, they'll most likely have something like a face. Sessile people, built along the lines of sea anemones, might not. And, there are starfish.

For the most part, though, animals that move have a fairly well-defined front end: with sense organs, mouth, and brain in front. Even some animals with radial symmetry, like squid and octopi, have their brain, eyes and mouth at one end.

So, if you meet E.T., the alien will probably have eyes (if any), ears (probably), and other sense organs like whiskers at the end that's facing you.

And, if the first thing the alien does after spotting you is open it's eyes, mouth and anything else at that end: I'd suggest that you make no sudden movements, and be quite gentle about any sounds you make.

The alien is, almost certainly, scared. And frightened people may act rashly.

Fear and Disgust May Look the Same on Everybody

"Why a scared expression brings a survival advantage"
New Scientist (June 15, 2008)

"You wrinkle your nose and squint when you see a dead rat in the road, but open your eyes, nose and mouth wide when you see a live one in your bedroom.

"Why? Common facial expressions like disgust and fear, new research suggests, do more than just convey how you are feeling - they alter your sensory relationship to the world around you...."

"...The open eyes allowed quicker detection of objects on the periphery, as well as faster eye movements back and forth, while an open nose took in more air with each breath without any extra effort. An MRI scan confirmed the difference in the space in the nasal cavity.

" 'These changes are consistent with the idea that fear, for example, is a posture towards vigilance,' says [University of Toronto, Canada's, Joshua] Susskind, 'and disgust a posture towards sensory rejection.'..."

(from New Scientist, used w/o permission)
No translation needed.

So, if the alien's mouth dropped open, and the eyes got a whole lot wider: the alien may be deciding, none too calmly, whether it's safer to run away - or incinerate you on the spot.

Note to inter-species diplomats - do not, no matter what, squint or wrinkle your nose. The alien most likely won't appreciate it. At all. Would you?

"Why a scared expression brings a survival advantage"

newscientistvideo, YouTube (June 13, 2008)

"...Research at the University of Toronto shows how facial expressions can affect our sensory capability"

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