Greg Lindsay's Blog

December 14, 2009  |  permalink

From The Everything-Bad-Is-Good-For-You Department

Writing in the new McSweeneys newspaper, The San Francisco Panorama (PDF), Proust Was A Neuroscientist author Jonah Lerer extols the cognitive origins and benefits of travel:

Travel, in other words, is a basic human desire. We’re a migratory species, even if our migrations are powered by jet fuel and Chicken McNuggets. But here’s my question: is this collective urge to travel - to put some distance between ourselves and everything we know—still a worthwhile compulsion? Or is it like the taste for saturated fat, one of those instincts we should have left behind in the Pleistocene epoch? Because if travel is just about fun then I think the TSA killed it.

And if the TSA hasn’t finished it off, there are plenty of climate change protestors in Copenhagen at the moment who would be happy to deliver the killshot. But not so fast:

The reason such travels are mentally useful involves a quirk of cognition, in which problems that feel “close”—and the closeness can be physical, temporal, or even emotional—get contemplated in a more concrete manner. As a result, when we think about things that are nearby, our thoughts are constricted, bound by a more limited set of associations. While this habit can be helpful—it allows us to focus on the facts at hand—it also inhibits our imagination.

Lerer goes on to describe a number of cognitive experiments producing evidence that travel—specifically encounters with foreign cultures—literally expands minds. He produces the evidence which supports my own argument defending air travel against those who would condemn it on climate change grounds—it create connections and spawns encounters that would be inconceivable otherwise, and the value of these connections both outweighs the moral condemnation directed against it, and the empty mileage racked up cruising exurbs aimlessly in our SUVs. One of the more annoying aspects of Copenhagen to me: rather than celebrating the conveyance that makes a truly global conference on climate change possible, they’re denouncing it. They need to keep a more open mind. Maybe a trip somewhere would help.

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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