October 31, 2006
Running in Herds, Traffic, and Intuition
It has always amazed me how birds can fly in formation and large animals can run in herds. You would think they would get in each other's way with disastrous consequences. Yet evolution makes sure that it works out.
Even more amazing to me is the way that we humans get from one place to another in this day and age. Much of the time this entails getting into a steel hulk with wheels on speed and sharing the roads with many other fast, steel driving machines. We are not all going the same place, even in an interim sense, unlike birds flying in formation or animals running in a herd. Nonetheless we manage to navigate even very complicated traffic with relative ease for the most part. Consider the complex information processing required to maneuver a busy traffic circle without an accident. (We have some real winners around Boston.) Evolution could not have bred us for cars or traffic circles, nonetheless even here we feel its hand.
I learned to cross streets as well as to drive a car in Harvard Square. Back then the traffic patterns in Harvard Square were all cockamamie. Crossing the street was a considerable challenge. I somehow learned that what I needed to do to get across safely was to get a glimpse of the face of the approaching driver. Immediately this would tell me whether he/she was a toughie who wanted to play chicken, or someone who would let me cross without a fight.
My intuitive education deepened when I learned to drive. I realized that you could get some sense of the other driver and his/her intentions, even when you couldn't see their face. This came through very subtle characteristics of the way they handled the car---at least at the first order approximation. It's as if you can sense something about the driver, their quality of attention, and what they are going to do next. Whatever its actual source, I suspect that receptivity to this very subtle level of information is part of what allowed us humans to have taken to the roads.