Atlantic Cities

This Is Your Brain on Cars

This Is Your Brain on Cars
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Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek is in the middle of something extreme. He's walking around the world to retrace the migratory paths of ancient humans, beginning in the Rift Valley of present-day Ethiopia and ending in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. The journey will take seven years and cover 21,000 miles. He’s about 1,500 miles in at this point. You can read about Salopek’s journey as he chronicles it for National Geographic.

As human quests go, Salopek’s is an epic one. But one of the reasons it captures the imagination is that it is made up quite literally of small steps. The ability to walk is one of the defining attributes of our species. The act of walking is something that humans relate to and experience on the deepest neurological level. Our brains are walking brains.

And yet, as Salopek wrote in The New York Times over the weekend, one of the very first things he noticed as he set out on his journey was a different kind of mindset, one that has come into being abruptly and violently in the last eyeblink of human history. He calls it Car Brain:

Cocooned inside a bubble of loud noise and a tonnage of steel, members of the internal combustion tribe tend to adopt ownership of all consumable space. They roar too close. They squint with curiosity out of the privacy of their cars as if they themselves were invisible. In Saudi Arabia, this sometimes meant a total loss of privacy as Bedouins in pickups, soldiers in S.U.V.’s and curiosity seekers in sedans circled my desert camps as if visiting an open-air zoo, gaping at the novelty of a man on foot with two cargo camels. Other motorists steered next to my elbow for hundreds of yards, interrogating me through a rolled-down car window. (Not to pick on Saudi Arabia, which is no worse than any other Car Brain society, but exactly one driver in 700 miles of walking in the kingdom bothered to park and stroll along for a while.)

Salopek writes that during the first part of his trek, in the Horn of Africa, things were different. Here, at the origin point of civilization, walking paths are still everywhere. Even a small child can tell you how to get to your destination on foot and guide you along your way. These people still enjoy what Salopek calls “the slow pleasures” afforded by walking:

In Africa and in the remnant pastoral communities of Arabia you must stand dozens of yards away from huts and homes, waiting politely to be noticed, before exchanging greetings. A lovely courtliness marks these bipedal encounters.

For an increasing number of humans, Salopek notes, such interactions are not only uncommon, they are unnerving. “Car Brains,” he writes, “have lost all knowledge of human interactions on foot.”

As Salopek looks back on the first phases of his world perambulation, cars often dominate his perceptions—cars and the attitudes shaped by cars. People he encounters think he must be sick or crazy to be on foot. They have contempt for him. Only the poorest can help him get where he's going, because they are the only ones who still know how to travel by foot.

In just over a century of automobile travel, this “windshield perspective” on life has spread to nearly every corner of the globe, and it has become our default mode.

As Craig Chester (a.k.a. @MiamiUrbanist) pointed out on Twitter, Salopek’s account of his loneliness among the Car Brains recalls Ray Bradbury’s classic science fiction story “The Pedestrian.” Published in 1951, the brief tale recounts a walk taken by a Mr. Leonard Mead in the year 2053. Leonard likes to walk, but no one else in his suburban American environment ever does: “In ten years of walking by night or day, for thousands of miles, he had never met another person walking, not once in all that time.”

On this particular walk, Leonard strolls past houses lit only by the flickering of television sets. He contemplates fallen leaves and surveys an empty cloverleaf intersection:

During the day it was a thunderous surge of cars, the gas stations open, a great insect rustling and a ceaseless jockeying for position as the scarab-beetles, a faint incense puttering from their exhausts, skimmed homeward to the far directions. But now these highways, too, were like streams ina  dry season, all stone and bed and moon radiance.

Suddenly Leonard is stopped by a police car. The car – there are no humans inside it and it is apparently operating itself – questions him about his suspicious movements:

“Just walking, Mr. Mead?”

“Yes.”

“But you haven’t explained for what purpose.”

“I explained; for air, and to see, and just to walk.”

“Have you done this often?”

“Every night for years.”

That is all the car needs to hear. It opens its door and orders him inside. He is to be taken to “the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies.”

Bradbury’s little fable is admittedly crude. But some 60 years after it was written and 40 from the date of its setting, it is also proving disturbingly prescient. In this country, a man can be arrested for insisting on picking up his children on foot rather than by car. A grandmother can be cited for letting her grandchildren ride their bikes on the street in Charlotte, Tennessee—a town that prides itself on its “quiet, charming atmosphere” but where the mayor says, “You just can’t let kids be out there unsupervised.”

“It can be lonely out here among the car brains,” says Salopek. Lonely, and all across the planet, getting lonelier. Surely now is the time to reclaim our walking brains, one step at a time. That could be the most epic journey of all.

Top image: Philip Lange / Shutterstock.com

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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