Monday, September 10, 2007

Learning to Detour

An interesting thing has happened here in Minneapolis since the bridge collapsed. Instead of worsened gridlock and rising tensions as people cope with finding their way around a major artery, most of us are actually rising to the challenge of having to switch out of automatic pilot and think through how to get where we need to go.

I had been thinking about this some recently when our local paper, the Star Tribune, published an article about this very phenomena, "Adaptable drivers avert expected gridlock."

Recently I headed out to run an errand to Northeast Minneapolis, a destination that would normally be a quick hop via 35W and over the ex-bridge; then remembered as I left the house that I wouldn't be able to take that route, and so started constructing maps in my head, recalling which roads connected to what, which ones had bridges over the river and so on. I realized even as I was doing this that I was making my brain work a whole lot more than it normally does when running simple errands. And I couldn't help but think, this has got to be a good thing, for a number of reasons:

• We're so much less likely to respond irrationally to inconvenience when the inconvenience is anticipated and planned for.
• When our brains are engaged in rational problem solving we aren't distracted by emotional stressors so much -- the bad kind of stress that raises blood pressure. I do experience a kind of stress when I am figuring out my route as I go, but it's more comparable to the stress of solving a puzzle or engaging in vigorous excercise -- it's stimulating in a way that feels good and beneficial.
• All this mental excercise has got to be good for our brain health -- I actually wonder if it will manifest years down the road in a reduced incidence of Alzheimer's! OK, that's a stretch, but it would probably be a good idea to alter our routes to familiar destinations anyway. My father used to tell me you should vary your route home from work because most accidents happen close to home because people become less attentive the more familiar their surroundings. By taking alternative routes to familiar destinations, we become more mindful of our surroundings and so more alert and likely to avoid accidents. I haven't read anything about whether the bridge collapse has had any effect on the number of auto accidents in Minneapolis, however.

In the Star Tribune article, they lead with the example of a woman who tested out various alternate routes to work, adjusted her work schedule, and generally demonstrated a very rational scientific approach to the new inconvenience. I just find it really encouraging to see evidence that human nature may actually be more rational than we sometimes think!