Book review: Enter the state of 'Deep Travel'

Being in motion heightens concentration, a creative spin on being 'in the zone.'

A Toronto friend looking for his first house recently settled on a newish build, located well to the west of the downtown and away from transit lines. For a single guy with no car and few possessions, years from starting a family and used to the amenities offered by the city’s centre, it seemed a puzzling choice. But being employed by a global consulting firm, his commute is more often to and from Pearson International Airport than his financial-district office. The house is a half-a-million-dollar concession to that fact: a shorter trip to YYZ eases the ceaseless grind of travel, and for him, that trumps the downtown’s restaurants, theatres, stadiums and parks.

Even those of us with lifestyles more stuck-in-traffic than Up In the Air feel the strain of business travel, not to mention the often tedious commutes that bookend our workdays. “The widely shared if unvoiced assumption,” writes Tony Hiss, “is that the time we spend moving around, except during vacations and getaways, is a burden, a necessary evil, a delayed goal, something we have to put up with.” But despite travel’s often quotidian nature, the former New Yorker staff writer believes that, for reasons rooted deeply in evolutionary science, it has the potential to create a unique state of awareness and reflection in the human mind. We tend not to recognize this state when it arrives, or if recognizing it, not to understand from where it comes and how it works. With In Motion: The Experience of Travel (Knopf), Hiss tries to define it and explain how it’s triggered, what it’s good for, and how it can be controlled to our advantage.

Sceptics won’t have to search long for a reason not to bother with this book: pride of place on the back cover is given to an endorsement from alternative medicine and integrative health guru Dr. Andrew Weil. The very notion of a state that Hiss calls “Deep Travel” will come off a little too hippie-dippy for many. But it’s hard to deny that there is something, sometimes, that happens when we travel, even as part of the regular hour-and-a-half the average North American spends doing it each day — a sense of dislocation, even in familiar places, that helps us notice new details about our surroundings or that gives a new cast to those we’ve internalized. Often, we’re barely even conscious of this, or pay it little heed; but sometimes it feels, if not that time has slowed down, then that time is somehow beside the point. It’s akin to what athletes describe when they talk about being “in the zone.” Call it a state of heightened awareness, if you don’t like Hiss’s capitals.

As In Motion defines it, Deep Travel puts the mind in a place of great creative potential. “Energized, untethered, unhurried, and protected, your mind can be free to explore any subject at all, because all possibilities lie open.” One architect tells Hiss that her most mentally productive hours are those spent in long-distance transit. “I enjoy a good interval of speeding scenery,” she says. “It induces a spatial detachment and the time suspension necessary for bold thoughts to race ahead. … Sensations of speed encourage the mind to dart.” Biologist Richard Lewontin talks about a mental breakthrough on a long bus trip that allowed him to scientifically disprove the notion that there are deep genetic differences between races. A long, late-night drive opened biochemist Kary Mullis’s mind to the insights about DNA that earned him a Nobel Prize in chemistry.

The mental state Hiss homes in on is one which “helps us keep a sustained, continuous, even-handed focus on some event or question.” This involves a suspension of judgment and a temporary divorce from the mind’s usual habits and rhythms.

This “larger awareness,” writes Hiss, “is an integral part of the equipment entrusted to us by our ancestry.” A part of our minds that enables heightened perception and broader awareness may, he argues, have evolved in conjunction with our forebears’ shift, some eight million years ago, from quadrupedalism to walking upright, and thence to their migration around the world. That increased awareness was necessary, a reaction to the need to find food in a changing landscape, and a trade-off for the increased physical vulnerability that came with bipedalism in an era when roaming hominids had their share of natural predators. Both creative reverie and focused attention offered evolutionary advantages, and in Hiss’s reading, the state of Deep Travel that can settle on us while in transit, even if walking just a few blocks, is an echo of those early advantages.

How, then, to tap into it? Hiss makes a few suggestions, among them a game one of his friends calls “the Warsaw Induction.” In a Madison Avenue coffee shop, the friend tells Hiss to look around and ask, “What would I notice, what would I want to know more about, what would I find compelling and be fascinated by if [I were] in Warsaw right now” instead of New York — and if Warsaw isn’t exotic enough, then Cairo or Ulan Bator. The game encourages you to inspect and question things you take for granted in your environment (“Why was there a bowl of pickles on the table before we even sat down?”), and to enjoy the resulting sense of dislocation.

But prescription, really, isn’t one of In Motion‘s strengths. Hiss seems satisfied with encouraging the recognition of this state of mind and, via his website, with crowd-sourcing people’s encounters with it. He scatters across the chapters a handful of suggestions about cultivating and exploiting Deep Travel, but they’re couched in digressions about jet lag, lucid dreaming and advanced theories of time. All fascinating; but readers wanting to get in and out of this volume in a hurry will be frustrated. Of course, a quick A-to-B reading of it would really be counter to the ideas In Motion explores. If travel is a necessity, and sometimes a burden, it is one that offers unique potential for reflection and creative thought. And this is a book in which the reward is mostly in the journey.

Executive summaries

Bust: Greece, the Euro, and the Sovereign Debt Crisis (Bloomberg)
Matthew Lynn

A financial writer for Bloomberg News and a regular correspondent for Britain’s Spectator, Lynn long called for the eurozone to let Greece go bust. For much of this book, however, Lynn’s experience writing pulp thrillers (the Death Force series, no less) serves him in equally good stead. He reconstructs how Greece got into this mess in the first place, and documents the horror spreading through Paris, Berlin, and beyond as the rest of the world realized just how badly the Greeks had stepped in it — and what the potential consequences could be.

To that end, Lynn suggests that Greece holds no chance of recovering from its current quandary, unless it abandons the euro. “The trouble [is], the rules of the euro didn’t envisage anyone ever leaving. Once you were in, you were in, and you were meant to stay in whatever the cost might be.” But if fiscal union is a real-world non-starter, as Lynn believes, and if alternative suggestions — like telling Germany to weaken its own competitiveness for the sake of the eurozone — represent “the economics of the insane asylum,” then a full, stage-managed breakup of the single currency is the only alternative he sees. By his final chapter, Lynn is already writing about the euro in the past tense.

The Price Of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do (Portfolio/Penguin)
Eduardo Porter

“Every choice we make is shaped by the prices of the options laid out before us … measured against their benefits,” regardless of our relative richness or poverty. From this principle, Porter, a member of The New York Times editorial board who focuses on business and economics, suggests that a better understanding of the prices we face offers insight into history and society.

Porter takes this far beyond the supermarket, of course. Freakonomics-informed chapters dedicated to work, culture, gender relations, and faith probe the ways, visible and unseen, that pricing guides or intermediates our behaviour. On the subject of religion, Porter points out that the time, effort and currency invested in the practice of faith is simply the price of receiving “a mixture of insurance and social services.” When the Asian financial crisis rocked Indonesia in 1997, attendance at communal Koran-study events spiked. Every dollar a family cut from its monthly budget increased by 2% the chance that they would start attending the events, and enjoying the charity of the congregation. “When crises drive people into the arms of God,” Porter notes, “they embrace Him for the insurance as well as the spiritual solace.”

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions (Henry Holt)
Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde with Sandra Blakeslee

“Magicians basically do cognitive science experiments for audiences all night long,” say the neuroscientists who are this volume’s principal authors. “And they may be even more effective than we scientists are in the lab.” Magic tricks manipulate our attention and our cognition, and though we know we’re being tricked, we fall for them anyway. So Macknik and Martinez-Conde have coined the term “neuromagic” to describe their investigations into what illusions can tell us about our brains. They’re particularly intrigued by the way stage magicians toy with our expectations and assumptions, or offer “the illusion of choice.”

Their study of a card trick offers an example of a memory illusion, where the mutability of our memory is leveraged to implant ideas in our heads. Here, that’s used to convince a volunteer that a magician predicted which card he’d choose from a deck — the magician distracts the subject, then convinces him that events unfolded differently than they actually did. But it’s also the kind of sleight of mind that makes advertising so effective when it tells us, over and over, that a product is the best available. Our brains “don’t concern [themselves] as much with the source of our information as with the content.”