Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Difference Between Constricted and Held

Temple Grandin, the famed animal scientist with Asperger's, is best known for the development of long curved chutes designed to calm cattle being led to slaughter. The invention she is less known for is one that was made for humans: the hug machine, which she developed at 18. Her observations of how calm the behavior of cows was when they experienced consistent pressure on their bodies combined with the anxiety she felt about being touched by other people led her to develop a machine that worked similarly for autistic people. People with autism spectrum disorders are often uncomfortable being hugged or touched too long by people; it's constricting. The hug machine basically looks like a book with its spine to the ground and partially opened to a V, but the pages are big padded panels instead of leaves. A person will lay across it and press the controls to apply pressure to the body. The pressure is comforting.

Something Jay said the other day in workshop made me think about this; he said that "Human beings are attracted to containment." The more I think about it, the more I see overlap in this with the idea of being calmed by your physical environment. It's not just physical; it's psychic. Few would argue that America in the 21st century is built on a culture of fear. No one had fences around their houses until the Cold War: “The fence creates a small private world around you and yours. Today, that is exactly what communists and bureaucrats and authoritarians want to destroy: the private sphere around the person” (this sentiment from an article in House Beautiful in 1953). But when did we start thinking that the private sphere needed to take up thousands of square feet? That this would make us safer? I feel more fear in places where I don't know or have control over what's going on further away. 

Last night, I had a dream that I was moving through a long hallway, passing room after room in what must have been a large two-story lodge. There were at least 12 rooms just on the bottom floor. When I woke up, it felt like a nightmare. And I realized that this is one of the most common dreams I have--moving through buildings so huge that there's no way to grasp what's going on. And yet this is what we seek; this is our supposed respite after a long day or life of work. This woman, Kathie, who I met at the workshop the other day, commented that she remembered looking out over a lake in her 5400 square foot house and realizing that she was miserable. 

When I had a little loft in Santa Cruz to sleep in, I felt so perfectly contained. My bed nestled just perfectly between the railing and the wall. There was only space for me, some books over my head, and a little reading lamp mounted to the wall. A couple of feet above me, little windows scattered along the center beam letting in the daylight and the sounds of barking sea lions at night.

One of the things that Jay speaks about is the necessity of private spaces even in small homes. An area for every person ensures that we all have a way of being alone when we need to. But the amount that's necessary for that is so minimal compared to what most of us have. I would say that in my apartment right now, there is likely 200 square feet of wasted space. I have a living room that I seldom use, considering that I don't have a TV and my stereo is in the kitchen next to my desk nook. 

So what happens psychically when you have all this space and not enough people in it? I think it feels lonely. The things so many of us loved as a child represented tiny homes: treehouses and blanket forts. When I was a kid, my dad built my brother and I a two-story playhouse out of plywood that was about five feet long, three feet wide and had a little covered porch. We would also build tunnels in the dirt and I remember sitting at the bottom of a maybe two or three-foot deep hole, inhaling that clean soil smell, the earth cool and soft around me. All of these places were magical in that they represented a space of our own. And they were most magical when we were sharing them with someone else. 

One article I found when researching a couple of years ago that I've never been able to get out of my head was a quote by a man who said he liked to be able to be at one end of his house while his family was at the other and not be able to hear if someone at the other side was screaming. This absolutely gave me chills when I read it (I would not want him for a father). Contact with neighbors is actually one of the five main factors people list as being necessary for home satisfaction, according to Scientific American Mind. I guess I'm wondering, how much space is enough? What is the threshold between feeling constricted, being comforted and held, to feeling out of control, stifled by so much space around us?

(Blanket fort image from here.)

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