Saturday, June 18, 2005

Pedestrian Fu

A complaint by Ann Althouse about Segways being sidewalk menaces reminded me of a cherished insight I acquired while on pilgrimage in the Far East. To the unenlightened--a category that I suspect includes Prof. Althouse--avoiding collision with other pedestrians is a passive and all but chance phenomenon. Allow me to inform you that this is merely an illusion.

What I learned in India is that, though it may be unconscious, avoiding impact with a fellow pedestrian is an active and high-level cognitive task, which furthermore the Eastern and the Western mind perform differently. To wit: I bumped into a lot of people on Indian sidewalks.

This wasn't because of the bustle or the crowdedness or because of unfamiliar obstacles like porters and beggars. It wasn't happening by chance either. I don't believe Indians tried to run into me, and I wasn't trying to run into them. But these were people I tended to see well in advance of collision, and who I believed to be aware of me. Often we had shared eye contact. Sometimes eye contact persisted up to the very moment of impact. These people didn't frisk me, feel me up or evince any curiosity about me. We just hit, and then they acted miffed.

It occurred to me that this might have to do with India being a right-hand drive nation like the U.K., and indeed being a responsible scientist I did perform the control. But when I stopped over in London and Oxford on my way back from Asia, nothing similar happened to me. It seems to be that however Indian pedestrians cue and/or read others in regard to navigational intent, I was doing the exact opposite.

The experiments I still hope to perform will involve placing a naive Indian subject at one end and a naive American subject at the other end of a football field and simultaneously instructing each to walk to the opposite side. If my theory is correct, they will collide every time. At least nine times out of ten.


trisha said...

This is really interesting.

I am not, though, and I have nothing substantive to add.

Murky Thoughts said...

Well, here's boring for you: Thanks!

she falters to rise said...

Mmmmm...could it be that they were simply following the "no twist" policy? Political upheaval and religious zealotry have made this new system a standard in many highly populated regions of the world.