Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Perceived Boundaries

I started thinking about how we perceive boundaries this weekend, while I was in Yosemite. What brought it on initially was our walk on the nature trail that surrounded Evergreen Lodge where we stayed. This trail was marked by the occasional numbered post, where we were to read things about local flora and fauna and their history, and by different sorts of boundary markers in different locations. At one point we walked along a barbed-wire fence. At other points there were long dead sticks of varying size laid along the borders of the path. In some places where we climbed over rocks, the boundaries of the path weren't marked at all. Somehow we managed to find our way all the way around the loop and have a good time without getting lost.

There was another form of boundary-marking in play on the paths within the Lodge cabin areas. The paths were paved, which made their boundaries very obvious, but I found when it was dark that the lights they put on both sides of the path weren't quite close enough for me to perceive the boundaries of the path when I looked from afar. What with the number of different paths, and their proximity to one another, looking at them at night was a lot like gazing at a bunch of random lights.

At the Lodge this weekend, someone was getting married, and given that the weather was very cold, they had the reception in a giant tent. This tent had transparent plastic walls, a very clear boundary. But once when I circumnavigated it, I found myself wondering if I should "count" the ropes that tied down the tent as part of the border, and skirt them, or not.

All of these struck me as questions of how we perceive boundaries. I've read that human minds like to perceive boundaries - we look for them. Our brains even exaggerate them, as when we perceive a larger difference in color between two adjacent blocks of color than actually exists (for an example, go here and look for "the shade of the center dot is the same in all the squares").
My children just noticed for the first time the other day that in the movie "The Jungle Book," the character of Mowgli has black lines surrounding him, while the jungle backgrounds do not. I remember noticing the same thing about the movie Totoro - the characters were outlined and clearly animated, while the backgrounds looked more real. Here's a little illustration of the difference between outlined and non-outlined colors.

Perceived boundaries can vary across cultures. I'm thinking in this regard particularly about perceptions of personal space (I've blogged about this before in Are You Being Invaded?). The boundary of personal space in the US differs significantly from that in Japan. In the US people typically stand and talk at handshake-distance. In Japan they do so at bow-and-don't-conk-heads distance, which is farther. However, the sense of personal distance in Japan alters radically when you change contexts from the social to the commuter train. In a commuter situation the boundary of personal space seems to me to move straight to the skin - people in a train station in Tokyo will walk right into you and pass by without appearing to notice that they just slammed into your shoulder. I remember coming back from Japan and encountering an entirely different type of perceived boundary: a woman in the grocery store had extrapolated the future path of her shopping cart, and mine, and having determined that they would intersect, apologized to me. I was floored by this after spending eighteen months using the Japanese system (to the best of my ability - I've never been able to handle jostling crowds well). I think there are some contexts in the US where that crowd impersonality takes hold and people jostle one another without perceiving an invasion of boundaries - a packed rock concert, for example - but I've never encountered it here to the same degree as in Japan.

Here's another example of children and how they perceive boundaries - or how they learn to change their behavior as a result of a perceived boundary. I have some neighbor kids who occasionally play with mine, and one day I was working in my garden weeding when they came over. I had one of them help me a little with my weeding, but her younger brother started pulling out plants I liked, so I asked him to stay out of the garden. This was very difficult for him. I don't imagine that he couldn't perceive the border of the garden, just that he hadn't learned to perceive that border as one that should stop his forward motion. So after that day I went out and bought a very short wire fence, to exaggerate the sense of the edge of my garden as a barrier. So far it appears to have worked.

This kind of boundary perception is something that may be worth considering in the process of worldbuilding. It's easy to assume that another group of people will perceive physical boundaries in the same way we do, but it might be more interesting to ask how they might not. Personal boundaries. Physical boundaries. The edges of objects. City, state, or national boundaries. All of these can potentially be called into question - either in their sensory perception, as with some kind of alien species, or in their interpretation. In a science fictional or fantasy world, or any other situation where culture is at stake, I think it's fascinating to play with misunderstandings (like the one about my garden!) surrounding the perception and interpretation of boundaries. What are we taught about what boundaries mean? Why might good fences make good neighbors (or not)? Why do nations need to draw lines between them, and how far can these disputes go (very far - witness Kashmir!)? Do the disputes of nations directly parallel the way that we treat our personal boundaries? And what about our psychological ones?

There are lots of implications there worth exploring.


  1. Now you've made me think. Fascinating post :-)

  2. The part about the boy and the garden reminds me of The Gods Must Be Crazy. The native man didn't perceive the boundary regarding the goats as belonging to someone. He just killed, cooked, and ate one with no idea that they'd belonged to someone. He still didn't understand it when they tried to explain. (And now I'm wondering how long it's been since I watched that movie. Haha.)

  3. That was a great movie. And yes, you've got it exactly. Thanks for the comment, Jaleh!