The Mobile Muse

During the final installment of the New York Academy of Science’s excellent “Science of the Five Senses” series last night, the singer/songwriter Roseanne Cash (who recently underwent brain surgery) was talking to neuroscience researcher/author Daniel Levitan (author of This Is Your Brain on Music) about the source of inspiration — i.e., “the muse.” She relayed a funny story about how Tom Waits was driving down the highway one day when a song came into his head. “Not now!” he yelled. “Can’t you see I’m driving?”

I personally haven’t had too many flashes of inspiration while driving — too much else is competing for attention. I do find walking (and Amtrak’s “quiet car”) to be particularly useful to helping solve problems, or stir thoughts, but I’m not sure whether this has more to do with the act of walking or merely the fact that I’m stepping away from the thing that I’m working on. Not sure if anyone has seen any research on this question — namely, mobility and the thought process.

As a bit of an aside here, Levitan also told an interesting story, told to him by an academic mentor, that was on my mind as I walked down the street this morning. Imagine a lake, and that on the shoreline of that lake there have been two shallow trenches dug in, six feet or so, with shallow water from the lake filling in. Picture also some fishing bobbers or similar floating in those trenches. Then imagine yourself sitting on the water’s edge, with your back to the water, but the floating objects visible in front of you. Now imagine being asked to describe what was going on in the lake — e.g., how many sailboats there were, how many swimmers, the height of the waves, the direction of the wind — based merely on how those objects were bobbing up and down. Sounds impossible, no? But that, he implied, is essentially what we do with our human sense of hearing, as our ears (those shallow trenches) — sharing a mechanism also found in fish — read the minor tremors and perturbations of all these sound waves lapping against the shore of our consciousness, creating meaning out of this invisible landscape. I’m not recounting the story with sufficient clarity or eloquence, but I found the idea compelling, and this morning tried to inventory all the sounds I could hear at once on the street, wondered why I paid more attention to certain sounds than others (feeling a bit like Harry Caul from The Conversation), and the whole process of interpretation — after all, as Levitan said, it’s not like the waves come with little tags saying, “I’m a garbage truck.”

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 30th, 2009 at 8:40 am and is filed under Etc.. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



April 2009

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