A Mountainous Riddle: The View From Cornfield Creek

Our perception of the world is filtered through our emotions, especially fear and caution. Proffitt and his many colleagues and students have come to believe that we don't all "see" the same world with the same topography.
09/11/2012 02:24 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

The main drag through Pasadena Peninsula is called Mountain Road. Also known as state highway 177, it is the only way in and out of many Magothy River communities, including ours on Cornfield Creek. It's heavily-traveled, fast and homely, dotted with service stations and supply shops and dubious diners and karaoke bars.

It's also flat as can be -- not a mountain in sight. Not even a hill really. So the road's name is one of those linguistic anomalies, like Greenland and the Los Angeles Lakers, which demand an explanation.

Well, it turns out there is a story, and one involving none less than Captain John Smith, the English explorer. Smith sailed up the Chesapeake in 1608, mapping the region and describing its topography, vegetation and animal life in his journals. Both his maps and the journals describe the Bay's western shore as "mountainous," and other early mapmakers pinpointed various peaks as well. Indeed, Gibson Island, the tiny gated community at the eastern end of Mountain Road, was originally known as Seven Mountains, though it hardly rises above sea level.

Why would this be? Well, one theory is put forth in Between Two Rivers, Isabel Shipley Cunningham's engaging pictorial history of the Peninsula. Cunningham speculates that these western shores, compared to the low-lying coastal plains of the Eastern Shore, did in fact appear mountainous, especially when viewed from water level, as they would have been by these sea-going colonists. There is no evidence that Smith ever actually set foot on the Peninsula, nor did he sail up the Magothy. He had his eyes set on bigger prizes, like the future Baltimore harbor, but his perplexing observations stuck.

That's an interesting theory, and not inconsistent with another idea from psychological science. This theory has to do with our basic vision and perception of the world -- especially unfamiliar terrains. For many years, behavioral scientist Dennis Proffitt of the University of Virginia has been exploring the idea that what we see is not merely what's projected on the eye's retina. Our perception of the world is filtered through our emotions, especially fear and caution. Proffitt and his many colleagues and students have come to believe that we don't all "see" the same world with the same topography. Each of us has an idiosyncratic vision that is shaped by the emotional baggage we carry.

I actually took part in one of the University of Virginia studies some years ago. It was quite simple. I stood on an outdoor balcony looking down at the ground, and I estimated the distance to the ground below. I also estimated the size of a disc lying on the ground. Taken together, these estimations capture how my brain perceives the distance down, and guess what? I seriously over-estimated the distance -- not even close. This, I learned later, is because I have a pretty serious fear of heights. This fear literally alters the distance from balcony to ground -- at least in my reality.

I'm in good company here. Indeed, another 17th century explorer had a very similar experience, on a much larger scale. Father Louis Hennepin was the first European to describe the wonder of Niagara Falls, and in his 1677 journal, he described this future honeymoon destination as a "prodigious high" 600 feet. That wasn't even in the ball park -- the falls are a mere 167 feet high. This lousy guesstimating suggests to psychologists that the French friar probably had a pathological fear of heights.

But here's the interesting thing. We all misperceive such drop-offs -- falls, cliffs, even steep hills -- to some degree. This is probably because our ancient ancestors learned the hard way that cliffs are dangerous and should be approached with caution. This deep, careful habit of mind stays with us today, even though we live in much safer environments for the most part. It keeps us from taking untoward risks, but also steers us away from novelty and challenge.

But back to Cpt. Smith. A powerful and ancient fear of falling makes intuitive sense, but why would Smith overestimate distance upward? Why would he look at our rolling woodlands and see peaks? Well, think of it as a fear of climbing. One of our ancient ancestors' most valuable commodities was energy, stamina. Running out of fuel could be dangerous, even fatal, so the brain learned to conserve wherever possible. These ancestors didn't calculate energy costs in any literal way, but on an unconscious level, every ascent represented a choice -- is this peak worth it? This ingrained caution lingers in our neurons today, making us see every hill as just a little steeper than it is in fact.

Consider, too, that Hennepin and Smith were traveling in a strange and perilous land. It makes sense that their perceptual distortions would have been even more out of whack than ours today. No wonder Hennepin saw the thunderous Niagara Falls as three times their actual height, and Smith saw mountains where we see level mile after level mile of Mountain Road.

For more by Wray Herbert, click here.

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