The Mobile Muse
During the final installment of the New York Academy of Science’s excellent “Science of the Five Senses” series last night, the singer/songwriter Roseanne Cash (who recently underwent brain surgery) was talking to neuroscience researcher/author Daniel Levitan (author of This Is Your Brain on Music) about the source of inspiration — i.e., “the muse.” She relayed a funny story about how Tom Waits was driving down the highway one day when a song came into his head. “Not now!” he yelled. “Can’t you see I’m driving?”
I personally haven’t had too many flashes of inspiration while driving — too much else is competing for attention. I do find walking (and Amtrak’s “quiet car”) to be particularly useful to helping solve problems, or stir thoughts, but I’m not sure whether this has more to do with the act of walking or merely the fact that I’m stepping away from the thing that I’m working on. Not sure if anyone has seen any research on this question — namely, mobility and the thought process.
As a bit of an aside here, Levitan also told an interesting story, told to him by an academic mentor, that was on my mind as I walked down the street this morning. Imagine a lake, and that on the shoreline of that lake there have been two shallow trenches dug in, six feet or so, with shallow water from the lake filling in. Picture also some fishing bobbers or similar floating in those trenches. Then imagine yourself sitting on the water’s edge, with your back to the water, but the floating objects visible in front of you. Now imagine being asked to describe what was going on in the lake — e.g., how many sailboats there were, how many swimmers, the height of the waves, the direction of the wind — based merely on how those objects were bobbing up and down. Sounds impossible, no? But that, he implied, is essentially what we do with our human sense of hearing, as our ears (those shallow trenches) — sharing a mechanism also found in fish — read the minor tremors and perturbations of all these sound waves lapping against the shore of our consciousness, creating meaning out of this invisible landscape. I’m not recounting the story with sufficient clarity or eloquence, but I found the idea compelling, and this morning tried to inventory all the sounds I could hear at once on the street, wondered why I paid more attention to certain sounds than others (feeling a bit like Harry Caul from The Conversation), and the whole process of interpretation — after all, as Levitan said, it’s not like the waves come with little tags saying, “I’m a garbage truck.”
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