In 1960, scientists conducted a study called “The Visual Cliff” in which a piece of plexiglass was placed over a high-contrast checkered cloth. The cloth lay just underneath the glass on one end and on the other dropped to 4 feet beneath it. Then there was a baby and there was her mother. Mom stood on the other side of the glass, Baby placed on the opaque end of the platform, just before the earth seemed to fall out from underneath her. It was the mother’s job to call to her child, coaxing her across what appeared to be thin air. The scientists decided that if the infant refused to cross, or displayed any hesitation in crawling to Mom, it meant that she perceived the apparent cliff. I’m tired of paraphrasing, so here’s a Wiki cut-and-paste of the results:
The researchers found that 27 of the infants crawled over to their mother on the “shallow” side without any problems. A few of the infants crawled but were extremely hesitant. Some infants refused to crawl because they were confused about the perceived drop between them and their mothers. The infants knew the glass was solid by patting it, but still did not cross. In this experiment, all of the babies relied on their vision in order to navigate across the apparatus. This shows that when healthy infants are able to crawl, they can perceive depth. However, results do not indicate that avoidance of cliffs and fear of heights is innate.
So: God knows whether we’re born with a hell-no-I-ain’t-crossing-that-shit switch, but we’ve at least figured out that it doesn’t take long to get one. Whether we cross or not, we know the fact of a cliff.
How this has dug itself into my days:
The bulk of stories, be they on screen or on paper, have something to do with the crossing of a wobbly surface to a person who is on the other side, smiling and waving and perhaps blowing air kisses. You know how the tragedies end, and you know how the comedies end, and the dramas you sit through and hope end in a way you can stand and with not too much yelling.
And then there are the stories you wake up to, and fall asleep thinking about, and you hope the same for those only more so because there’s no walking out of the theatre on these ones. No putting the book down for a cigarette break. What happens is you hope so hard that it scares you so much that you tell yourself you don’t care at all. These wobbly surfaces do not come with soundtracks or archetypes or perfectly timed taxis. There are just the false starts and the fizzles—the development hell you hear about, that place stories fall into and don’t come back from. But the humans around you tell you to believe in the Until. And despite all the not caring, you do.
And you don’t care and you don’t care and you don’t care. Until until until. Cross, baby, they say. So you cross, baby, every time. Knowing the fact of a cliff, you cross.