DATE July 28, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Michael Gazzaniga discusses left and right brain
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Maybe you heard our recent interview with Jill Bolte Taylor or read her
best-selling book about her stroke. Taylor describes how the hemorrhage in
the left side of her brain affected her powers of perception, memory and
speech. We wanted to hear more about the functions of the left and right
hemispheres of the brain, so we invited Dr. Michael Gazzaniga. He's been
conducting split brain research for the past 45 years. The left and right
hemispheres each have different functions and are connected through a pathway
called the corpus callosum. Gazzaniga has studied patients with epilepsy,
whose corpus callosums were surgically severed in an attempt to prevent
seizures from traveling across one hemisphere to the other. This allowed
Gazzaniga to study the right and left hemispheres independent of each other.
He's done similar perceptual research with people who have brain lesions or
have suffered strokes that made parts of one hemisphere dysfunctional.
Gazzaniga was the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the
University of California Santa Barbara. His new book is called "Human: The
Science Behind What Makes Us Unique."
Michael Gazzaniga, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why have you devoted so many years
to studying the split brain? What are some of the mysteries that these
studies can answer?
Dr. MICHAEL GAZZANIGA: If you have ever seen a split brain patient perform a
psychological act, you would quickly know why. Every time they do it, it's
intriguing. When you see one half brain do something the other side knows
nothing about, when you can then use these patients to see the specific
functions of each hemisphere and discover kind of how our own brains are
organized through that method, they remain extremely helpful in helping us to
see our way to understanding the human condition.
GROSS: Would you describe how the brain is anatomically split and how it's
Dr. GAZZANIGA: Sure. So we all know we have the left brain and the right
brain, and what the normal organization is that those two brains are
interconnected by a great big structure called the corpus callosum, 200
million neurons and so forth. And so each side keeps the other side up to
date through that avenue, and what you have in conclusion of all that is the
left brain is your dominant hemisphere, it's the one with your language and
speech, it's the one that does the heavy hypothesis making that we all do as
humans. And it also controls the right half of your body.
And conversely, the right hemisphere controls the left half of your body,
senses, the left part of your visual field, and all this kind of stuff. But
it also has specializations. It seems to be superior in perceptual grouping
kind of things. That means you can imagine a deer sort of walking through the
forest, and the trees are actually cutting it off as you stand back, and yet
you know it's a deer because you integrate the information across those blank
spaces and see that it's that kind of object. That may be specialized for
other things like managing attention, like modulating your emotional system
and so forth. So the two sides of the brain have these major different
And then by testing patients who have this surgery that divides their
hemispheres, you can then see even further truths about how the left
hemisphere really has this unique feature in the human, which we've called
over the years the interpreter. And what it's trying to do is constantly tell
the story, build up our own personal narrative as to why things are happening
the way they are. And it turns out after lots of studies we see that the
right hemisphere simply doesn't have one of those things.
GROSS: So what are some of the more amazing things that you've learned by
studying people for whom the left and the right hemispheres of the brain can
no longer communicate?
Dr. GAZZANIGA: The first thing you notice is there seems to be no difference
about them. The case L.B., one of the famous cases in the split brain world,
was 12 years old at the time, and he woke up from surgery and quipped in the
operating room, `I have a splitting headache.' And he was very quick to just
be his old self, and that is generally the rule. So the first thing you learn
is that just by general, casual clinical exam, you don't notice anything
different about the patients, even though their two hemispheres have been
The patients, of course, go through a recovery, and then you get them into the
laboratory where you start to lateralize information. You start to put
information only in one brain or the other brain. And there's very simple
tricks to do that. The simplest, if you think about touch, if you grab an
apple with your right hand, that information is only going to your left
hemisphere. And if you grab it in your left hand, it's only going to the
right hemisphere. So what does that mean with a split brain patient? That
means if you put the apple in their right hand and they're blindfolded and you
say `What is that?', they say, `Well, it's an apple.' Because the information
from the right hand goes up the left speech center and they just say what it
is just like you and I would.
So then you put the apple in their left hand and you say, `What is it?' And at
first they may even say, `I don't have anything in my left hand.' And then
they start to guess, but they basically don't have any clue what the object
actually is. And then they get very clever, and they try to figure it out
because their left hemisphere knows they want the answer, so they start
banging it on the table. Or if it's a pencil, say you put a pencil in their
left hand, they'll start to dig their fingers into a sharp corner and try to
deduce what it is. So anyway, the point is, with few simple tests, you can
see that they're dramatically different, that each hemisphere is independently
processing information from the opposite half body.
GROSS: The people who have split brains as a result of surgery they had to
deal with epileptic seizures, they must be really frustrated by the inability,
like when you're testing them, by the inability to name what's in their left
hand or, you know, to respond to the things you're asking them to do. Do they
face those kinds of frustrations in real life, where part of their brain is
incapable of processing what needs to be processed?
Dr. GAZZANIGA: Well, it would seem that that would be the case, but how it
works in real life is they're not in these laboratory situations where we
quick flash things to one side or the other, or we put things in and out of
the hands and so forth. What happens in real life is we scan our visual
environments, we're looking around all the time, your eyes make tens of
thousands of eye movements constantly every hour. We're constantly
integrating information into both visual fields, and we look down at our hands
if there's something in it we don't quite recognize by touch. And so in fact,
in the normal course of events, there's virtually no frustration or any sense
GROSS: You write a little bit about religion in your new book, and do you
think that there's a way of examining whether the brain is wired for religion,
or a way of thinking about religion as a phenomenon of what the brain does to
explain things, to explain the world, to explain existence?
Dr. GAZZANIGA: You know, I think this interpreter idea is very helpful in
trying to understand religious beliefs. We are belief-making machines. We
believe in all kinds of crazy things. And there's a whole set of reasons why
we do that. But imagine all of a sudden that here we are talking and we're
instantly here on earth with all of its modern devices and knowledge, and we
know them. And we're not burdened with all these religions and the stories of
the past and these myths that have come out of history and so forth. How long
would it take us to develop them? My guess is that we would invent religion
within a month because we want to invent something that gives an explanation
for what this all means, what is the meaning of life, how do we want to deal
with sorrow, how do we want to deal with hurt, how do we want to be--you name
it. Go right down the list of things that we do. We're going to quickly fit
those into a system that has some sort of story line to it. And once you
understand that, you realize there have been some terrific stories and rules
and all the rest of it that come down through history. And they play an very
important function and social role to billions of people.
So the fact that the modern trained scientist probably is less likely to
believe that these are real, there's no question to me that our brains are
built to generate these ideas for social purposes.
GROSS: My guest is Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, author of the new book "Human:
The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique." We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: We're talking about the functions of the left and right hemispheres of
the brain. My guest Dr. Michael Gazzaniga is a pioneer of split brain
research. He's the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at
the University of California Santa Barbara.
So you have studied patients whose left and right hemispheres have been
disconnected by surgery that was performed to deal with epileptic seizures.
You've studies people who've had strokes, you've studied people who have
lesions in their brains just to see like what happens with these dysfunctions,
what happens to perception, what happens to speech.
Dr. GAZZANIGA: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: But now we have imaging as well, imaging of the brain, and you've been
working with that, too. Can you give us an example of something that you've
been able to learn through imaging that you weren't able to learn just by
studying people who had various brain dysfunctions?
Dr. GAZZANIGA: Yes. Brain imaging allows you to study the kinds of things
that humans are hugely engaged in, and one of them is moral beliefs. We as a
species decide to do something or not to do something, and one of the things
we as a species tend not to do, do not like to do, is kill. Or we don't like
to steal, or we don't like cheaters, or we don't like any of a variety of
these universal things that anthropologists have discovered. And you can now
ask the question, well, what is the neurobiology? What is the brain mechanism
involved? Indeed, is there a detectable brain mechanism? Or are the rules
for such kinds of moral beliefs rules that we've learned? And there's just
been a lot of recent work in this field, very exciting work, showing that
there are so many of our moral beliefs that seem to be a function of built-in
mechanisms in our brain.
GROSS: How do you know that? You ask people questions about killing and then
see what part of their brain lights up?
Dr. GAZZANIGA: Well, the designs are a little bit more complicated. There's
a famous design that was developed by now an extremely young and still
talented neuroscientist, Josh Greene, who's now at Harvard, and he introduced
the classic trolley problem. You know the trolley problem?
Dr. GAZZANIGA: This is very clever. So here's what you have to imagine: A
train is going down a track and it's about to run into five people and kill
them. And you have the opportunity to pull a lever and divert the train to
another track. Problem is that on that other track is one person, and you
will kill that one person. But you'll save the five. OK? So that's a moral
dilemma. So you ask people of the world, is it OK to divert the train? And
90 percent of the people in the world say, `Yes, that's morally sensible.
You're saving five, and you're killing one.'
So then they change the problem a little bit. They say, `OK, you're on a
bridge, train's going underneath the bridge, five people ahead. Train's going
to kill those five people, but you have an opportunity to stop it by pushing
this fat guy off the bridge. Stopping the train is going to kill him, but the
other five will be saved.' So same outcome; five are saved, one is killed. Is
that morally OK to do? And only 10 percent of the people of the world say
that's morally OK. So from a complete utility point of view, there's no
difference in the outcome, but somehow the physical contact of pushing that
guy off the bridge makes it unacceptable to everybody in the world.
And so they do this in a brain imaging environment, and they discover that on
the pushing the guy off the bridge condition, the emotional circuitry in the
brain lights up. It's like brain brakes for moral acts. And that kind of
clever sort of experiment launched now hundreds of experiments where they're
looking at how the brain reacts to moral dilemmas.
GROSS: What about the criminal mind? Has the criminal mind been studied, and
are different centers of the brain activated in the criminal mind? Can you
see things going on in brain imaging different in the criminal mind?
Dr. GAZZANIGA: Well, I'm directing a new project called law and
neuroscience, and that's at the heart of the project, to try to figure out if
there are reasons to use brain scans in defense trials of criminals that would
help them be exculpable for their crime. That's one question. And the next
question is, are these new brain imaging techniques going to be able to
determine whether there are differences in psychopaths vs. normals, one kind
of criminal group vs. another kind. The current knowledge on this, from
autopsies and, you know, the past, is that you can't find anything in the
brains of people who have done horrendous things, serial killers and the like.
So you just say OK, science wasn't prepared to look at these issues. It
didn't have the tools, and now we have new tools, and are we going to be able
to do that? The answer is not now. But we are examining it, and I hope in
three or four years I'll be able to give you an answer.
GROSS: So if you found that the criminal brain was really different than the
average brain, would that be a reason...
Dr. GAZZANIGA: It would...
GROSS: What would that say in a courtroom about whether the criminal should
be serving time in a prison or a mental institution or executed or what?
Dr. GAZZANIGA: It's a profound problem. The basic notion is that if we can
state that a person who committed a crime probably because they had this brain
state or probably because of this or that or the other thing, then the whole
notion of retribution and punishment is up for grabs, right? How can you
blame somebody for something they couldn't help but do anyway kind of
thinking. The importance of finding out if there is a abnormal brain in the
criminal is an important issue for our culture.
GROSS: Now, what people assume to be true about the left and the right brain
is that the right brain is responsible for creativity, so if you want to be
more artistic, you need to learn how to liberate the right side of your brain.
Dr. GAZZANIGA: Yep.
GROSS: Would you say there's any or much truth to that?
Dr. GAZZANIGA: We lived through that idea. It came out of the research that
Sperry and I started 45 years ago, and it was because there are data that the
right side is better at perceptual grouping. But then the idea sort of became
hijacked into kind of a New Yorker cartoon level of, if you're artistic,
you're creative, you're right brained, and if you're a logical, linear, you
have this linear left brain. And those are half truths. It is the left
hemisphere that is the language, logical hypothesis-generating hemisphere, and
it is true that there are some specialized abilities in the right hemisphere.
But I will assure you that your creativity will go to zero if your left brain
was damaged. So it was an overstated view, and it's unfortunate.
GROSS: So you're not a big fan of the idea that, to be creative, you need to
liberate the right side of your brain. That's an oversimplification. What
about the idea that a lot of people believe that if you're a lefty, it means
you're probably a more creative person?
Dr. GAZZANIGA: There is good evidence that left handers tend to have a
higher percentage of architects, higher percentage of people who think
spatially, and so is there something tied to that left handedness and the
right hemisphere? It's a story that, again, has good correlational data on
it, and there may be something to it. There are all these funny links out
there that are really interesting to think about.
GROSS: If you think that religion is connected to the fact that the left
hemisphere of the brain is the interpreter and likes to come up with
explanations to explain things, and that would include religion, should I
interpret that as meaning that you don't practice one yourself?
Dr. GAZZANIGA: That's right. That's right.
GROSS: Because you think it's a construct of the left brain?
Dr. GAZZANIGA: I do. I do, but I'm not on a rant against them because if
they didn't exist, as I said, we'd invent them. And I'm one of those people
that looks at the good that religions provide and comfort religions provide
people. I have no interest in zealotry in religion, and that's where it
interferes with advancements. As you may know, I serve on the president's
bioethic counsel, and the people who religiously based and resisted stem cell
research were annoying to me, but that's such a small part of it. The larger
part of it is, for instance, who's the largest health provider in the world?
It's the Catholic Church. And anybody going to take up that cause? I don't
think so. So if you go down and look at all the social goods that religions
do, it's why they get so established in a culture and are passed down, because
if you probably look at the total good and comfort vs. the times when they're
just dead wrong and obstructionist, the comfort time wins. So it's just a
question of managing the other stuff.
GROSS: Well, it's been nice talking with you. Thank you very much.
Dr. GAZZANIGA: Thank you. My pleasure.
Dr. Michael Gazzaniga's new book is "Human." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Tom Vanderbilt, author of "Traffic: Why We Drive the
Way We Do (And What It Says about Us)," on traffic sociology
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Driving may be one of the most cognitively complex things we do on an everyday
basis; but when you're driving in familiar territory, it's easy to drive so
unconsciously you're hardly paying attention to the road. But Tom Vanderbilt
is paying attention to you. In his new book "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way
We Do (And What It Says about Us)" Vanderbilt analyzes many aspects of driving
behavior and traffic patterns that we take for granted. He's written about
design, technology, science and culture for Wired, Slate and other
Tom Vanderbilt, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, in your book "Traffic,"
you've brought together a lot of research about every aspect of traffic, and
it's things that you experience every day but you don't think about in a
systematic way. What led you to write the book?
Mr. TOM VANDERBILT: I had a sort of strange moment, but I think one that
almost everyone can identify with. I was driving back to New York from New
Jersey and was on a highway, and an orange sign came along warning "merge
right, one mile," and this is a two-lane road, so they're asking drivers to
essentially, you know, get into one lane eventually at the merge point. And
all my life I've been essentially what you might call an early merger. I was
kind of a polite Midwestern type who got over as quickly as possible. I sort
of didn't want to anger anyone and avoid the aggravation and not be one of
those people that I really resented who tended to stay in that open lane all
the way to the end. And I took a Zen approach, and, `Oh, let's just sit back
But one day I was just feeling particularly rushed or frustrated by the number
of cars that continued to pass me, so I got out of my early merge situation
and jumped back into that open lane, went all the way to the front, merged in;
and I felt so guilty about the whole situation that I started looking into it.
And in this kind of strange area of traffic engineering, which was a new thing
to me, discovered that if the system were set up so that there really were no
late or early mergers, everyone just went to that point and merged and turned,
the system would process cars 15 percent faster. And it doesn't sound like a
lot, but, you know, on today's crowded roads where, you know, we're not
building anymore roads, we're looking for minor improvements, you know, this
could be a huge effect on traffic.
And one organization identified "merging difficulties," was the word they
used, as the thing that bothered them the most about driving. There's just
something unpleasant about merging. And so I was forced to reconsider my
whole notion of what I thought was the right thing to do. And I thought,
well, what else about this kind of everyday activity might be, you know,
different than I had thought?
GROSS: So getting back to merging for a second, so you're saying that
engineers say if we all merged at the same point, traffic would flow more
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yes. If people were told exactly to not leave that lane
that was closing until the very point when it actually did close, and then we
did a kind of nice alternating merge, it would be faster. And another benefit
would be the queue of vehicles stretching back from the construction site
would be smaller. And the problem with those queues is that often you're
coming along the highway at 75 miles an hour and suddenly there's a queue of
stopped vehicles, and you are really not expecting that, so that just another
strange benefit by what they call this dynamic late merge system. And of
course, people do have to still do the right thing at the merge point and
allow the other person to do an alternating--you have to let one person in,
then go, and the same sort of thing we do, you know, in our normal life in
getting onto an airplane or any situation where you're queueing.
GROSS: Now, something else I experience that I didn't realize everyone else
experiences too, and it even has a name. The name is called "the dilemma
zone." What is the dilemma zone?
Mr. VANDERBILT: The dilemma zone is when you're approaching a traffic
signal, and the light turns yellow, and you're in that sort of strange moment
where you're not sure if you should stop or it may in fact be too late to
stop. When they've installed red light cameras, for example, at
intersections, which is, you know, something--intersections are quite
dangerous. A lot of people are killed and injured at intersections, and one
of the reasons is going through red lights. So responded by putting up red
light cameras to try to get people to stop. But people then try to stop
sooner than they might if they knew they weren't going to get the ticket, and
that sort of leads to an increase in rear-end collisions, which some people
argue is still a better outcome than the more dangerous side collision if
someone is going through the red light. So just one of these little moments
on the road where we have to make decisions on the fly based on, you know,
kind of a lot of inexact information. We're not robots that can process, you
know, distances and time in kind of this mechanistic way. So the dilemma zone
is aptly named, I would say.
GROSS: I'm always afraid, in the dilemma zone, that if I slam on my brakes,
I'll get rear-ended, but if I speed up and try to go through, I not only risk
a collision if the light turns green for the traffic going across the other
end of the intersection...
Mr. VANDERBILT: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: But I'm also afraid I'm going to get a ticket. So I'm always
preparing my explanation to the cop, who I'm sure is going to stop me, and
say, `Well, officer, honestly, I thought that if I stopped, I would be in
danger of getting into an accident, so I really thought I was being a good
Samaritan by speeding up and going through the light.' I always have that
little speech prepared.
Mr. VANDERBILT: They've probably heard a few of those speeches.
GROSS: I bet. Yes, I bet. So is this something that engineers have tried to
deal with in the traffic light, of timing it so that you have the maximum
amount of warning before entering the dilemma zone?
Mr. VANDERBILT: Yeah, but there's all sorts of, you know, sort of algorithms
and experiments that've been done to sort of extend the dilemma zone; and, I
mean, some people argue that, you know, really we should be thinking about,
where possible, just getting rid of traffic lights in general and replacing it
with something like a roundabout, which is a scary word, I realize, to a lot
of Americans. But if you think about a traffic light, you know...
GROSS: Describe what a roundabout is.
Mr. VANDERBILT: We as Americans tend to get a little hung up on this old
idea of the traffic circle, which the first one was Columbus Circle in New
York City, and it was kind of this big--and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris has
this situation, too. And there's a sort of a bad movie, "European Vacation,"
National Lampoon, which shows Chevy Chase and family kind of stuck in this
endless traffic circle until the night falls, and he's babbling
uncontrollably. But a modern roundabout is just, it tends to be no more than
two lanes; and, you know, you sort of go in and you, instead of an
intersection, you have sort of a circle in the middle, and you kind of drive
around, and then you exit at the little spoke coming off of the roundabout.
And, I mean, the reason they're safer than an intersection--which a lot of
people don't want to, you know, sort of challenges their notion--is that
there's a number of what they call conflict points in an intersection, places
where cars can physically hit another car, or a pedestrian. And in a standard
four-way intersection it's something like 32 of these points. But in a
roundabout, it's cut to 16. There's just fewer chances to hit someone.
You're not crossing streams of traffic, in a way. And it eliminates the most
dangerous move in an intersection, which is a left turn on the green, which
I'm sure you've experienced. You do have to, you know, rely a bit more on
your own wits and kind of navigate it, and there's an argument that that's
what actually helps make it safer, is that you're kind of having to judge
other cars rather than just letting the signs do all the work.
GROSS: My guest is Tom Vanderbilt. He's the author of the new book "Traffic:
Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says about Us)."
Tom, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about
"Traffic." This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Tom Vanderbilt, and we're talking about his new book,
"Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says about Us)."
There's a lot of places that are putting cell phone laws into effect, where
either you can't use a cell phone in a car or you can only use a cell phone if
you have an earpiece and you're not holding it. And I'm of two minds about
this. Like, I know there's been plenty of times I've been crossing the street
and looking at the driver in the oncoming car or the driver coming out of the
parking spot, and they're on the phone, they are not looking at me, they're
barely looking at the road, I know they're completely distracted, and I'm not
moving till they pass by. But I confess that I'll speak on the cell phone in
my car--although I have an earpiece, so at least my hands are free--but I will
dial when stopped at a red light. Like, what are the most dangerous parts of
using a cell phone in the car?
Mr. VANDERBILT: Well, you know--and obviously I can't say that, `Don't use a
cell phone or you will crash,' because we all know we've all done it and we've
not crashed. So on the other hand, pilots are particularly trained to, you
know, sort of only use their radios for, you know, mission critical kind of
communication. During a landing, they're not calling their wife to see if
they need to stop and get milk on the way home, you know, so that just this
idea that we don't often know how distracted--and this is another feedback
issue--we sometimes don't even know how distracted we are when we're on the
phone. We're sort of the worst judge of that.
And I did an experiment in a driving simulator in Massachusetts in which I was
read a number of statements and I had to kind of read back what had been said
to me. You know, standard psychological sort of stuff. And I had a wireless
earpiece cell phone, and I was driving on a highway, and lo and behold, I
smacked into the back of a truck. And when you--simulated truck, of
course--and when you go back and look at this--they have eye tracking software
that follows where your eyes are looking, kind of pinpoint. When I was on the
phone, my eyes were locked just into a laser beam focus on this truck. So,
you know, by all intents and purposes, I was, quote, unquote, my eyes were on
the road, but my mind was clearly elsewhere. And this seems to be something
Scientists have argued to me, you know, it's not about keeping your eyes on
the road, it's keeping your mind on the road. And we would be amazed, I
think, if any listeners have seen a sort of now famous video that shows a team
of people in white T-shirts passing a basketball, and you're asked to count
the number of passes that are made. And as this is going on, someone in a
gorilla suit strolls right through the group, plain as day, and more than 50
percent of people do not see the gorilla. And I was one of those people. So,
you know, just sort of reminds you of vision and perception are sort of two
different things going on, and we really, if you think about the complicated
traffic environment and how many things we're trying to track. And then
talking on a cell phone is a bit like counting those passes. You might be
having an intense conversation where you're trying to remember something or
describe where something is to someone, and that just really uses a lot of
what they call workload. It's hard for us to judge exactly how distracted we
GROSS: For your research on your book "Traffic," you went to a bunch of
different countries to see what traffic patterns were like there and what the
traffic problems were there. One of the countries you went to is the
Netherlands, which is interesting to me in part because there's so many people
who ride bikes there. And I know in Philadelphia, where I live, where the
streets are very narrow, I often feel very nervous when I'm sharing a street
with a bicycle just because I'll often be like, `There's really not enough
room. There's not enough room for us comfortably to drive at the same time.'
And then, of course, a lot of bicyclists in the United States, with all due
respect, don't obey the traffic rules. So sometimes a bicycle shows up where
you least expect it. So how does the Netherlands deal with bicycle traffic?
Mr. VANDERBILT: It's a really interesting question, and it's so complicated
that I really should write a bicycle sequel, I think. But, you know, the
funny thing about the Netherlands is that it has something like 30-odd percent
of people use the bike as their everyday means of transportation to work, and
some cities it's even higher in the Netherlands. And, you know, in the US, I
think Portland has about a 3 to 5 percent statistics, and then Portland is the
most bicycle-intensive US city.
And the Netherlands is funny, though, because people really don't wear helmets
very often. They have some of the lowest helmet-wearing rates in the world,
yet it's also one of the most safest places to ride a bicycle in the world.
So you talk about narrow streets, you know, the Netherlands, you know, place
like Amsterdam, we're not talking, you know, large boulevards. We're talking
about very tight, urban streets which have a lot of bikes and often--in some
cases, not bike lanes, per se. And so I really think there is something to
just--Dutch drivers really have become familiar with the ins and outs of
cyclists, and just by dint of seeing them so often have become used to it,
almost a kind of a cultural acclimation. And of course cycling is so
universal in the Netherlands, you don't just see sort of people on, you know,
in Spandex and racing bikes, you know, it's mothers with, you know, toting
three children and groceries in the front. And so maybe even in that way,
it's just so much more a part of the culture that I think people just sort of
look out for one another.
And, you know, even in Portland, which is a very bicycle-friendly city, there
have recently been some road rage cases, to use that phrase, in which
bicyclists and cars have kind of gone after each other. And these are ancient
issues of just to share the road; and you would think it might be a new
phenomenon, but when the bike entered New York City in the 19th century, it
was an incredibly controversial device. People who rode horses and carriages
hated it. They thought it spooked the horses. Pedestrians didn't want it.
Where do you put the bike? Is it on the road? Is it on the sidewalk? So,
you know, these have been with us almost since we began to do anything but
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Vanderbilt. He's the
author of the new book "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says
We all have these things that other drivers do that drive us crazy. What's
yours? What drives you crazy about other drivers?
Mr. VANDERBILT: I have one that is just a weird thing about being in the
left lane and someone behind me wants to pass. They're tailgating me,
indicating that they want me to get over. So I dutifully get over and let
them pass, and then they move in front of me and then don't maintain the speed
they had, and then they end up going slower than I did. So I often find
myself in these weird games of passing and being passed by the same driver,
you know, dozens of times. And this is what you do on a long, boring drive, I
guess, you just sort of play these games with yourself. That's my pet peeve.
I'm sure everyone has their own. Do you have one, by chance?
GROSS: Let me think.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Any particular type of driver, or...
GROSS: Well, while you're on the subject of that, it really annoys me when
I'm basically going at or slightly above the speed limit. I'm in the left
lane because I have to exit left in a couple of minutes, and then there's
somebody right on my tail honking the horn. You know? And it's like, `Quiet
down, you know, I'm here because I have to exit. I can't move. And I really
can't go any faster, not only because I don't want to, but there's a car ahead
of me. So just calm down.'
Mr. VANDERBILT: Exactly. If you sort of surveyed American public driver
opinion, I mean, getting people out of the left lane who aren't going as fast
as you is sort of one of the obsessions of the American driver, I think. But
it's complicated, because, like you said, you might have to exit, you might
want to try to get past a block of vehicles that you don't want to get right
into that right lane. And someone's always going to want to go faster than
you, so, you know, the left lane is reserved for faster traffic is not as
clear cut as it sounds. It's a kind of an ambiguous thing that, of course,
leads to all sorts of aggravation out on the road.
GROSS: Here's another pet peeve of mine. The person who thinks that they're
really saving a whole lot of time because they're on the highway and they're
darting in and out, the left lane, the right lane, you know, they're
just--they're moving ahead, and they're doing it really quickly, too, and
maybe not even signaling as they do it. And you have this great statistic in
your book about how little time you save, how very little time you save
through that kind of driving.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Exactly. Both on the highway and even in cities, you know,
where there's so many traffic lights you find yourself being passed by someone
and then just rejoining them at the next light. It's so random. And I think
a good rule of thumb that's been proposed is the more congested a highway is,
the less chance you have to gain by changing lanes. It's just--it's--every
lane is filled. There's kind of what they call an equilibrium. You're not
really going to benefit. If this helps keep you awake and keeps you from, you
know, if there's a benefit there, it's a good thing, but the moment you change
into what you think is the faster lane, you're probably already slowing it
down by adding to it, and you might force the person that you've cut in front
of to slow down. So it's sort of chasing rainbows, if you will, and, you
know, fighting a losing battle. And the time saved is often very small
compared to the added risk you're taking on just by making all these changes.
GROSS: Well, Tom Vanderbilt, thanks so much for talking with us, and good
travels on the road.
Mr. VANDERBILT: Thank you.
GROSS: Tom Vanderbilt's new book is called "Traffic."
Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews the new ballet "Romeo & Juliet" with
choreography by Mark Morris and restored passages of Prokofiev's score. This
is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Lloyd Schwartz on the new ballet production of "Romeo &
Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare"
TERRY GROSS, host:
A few years ago, an American musicologist was looking through forgotten
manuscripts in Russia and found the original 1935 piano score to Prokofiev's
famous ballet "Romeo & Juliet." His discovery revealed significant differences
from the more familiar version. The restored score has been choreographed by
Mark Morris, and was given its world premiere at Bard College earlier this
month. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz was there and has a review.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Here's a story with a happy ending. Sergei Prokofiev's
most popular ballet, "Romeo & Juliet," was first performed in 1940 and has
gone through many different productions, the best-known of which is probably
the one Kenneth MacMillan choreographed in 1965 for England's Royal Ballet
with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev as the star-crossed lovers. The score
is a mixture of memorable tunes, swooning romanticism, savage rhythms and
twinkling wit. At times, the orchestration is also heavy-handed, and there
are some dull stretches.
But this isn't the music as Prokofiev first conceived it. Princeton
musicologist Simon Morrison, going through a neglected archive in Russia,
discovered the full piano score to Prokofiev's original version. This
includes passages the composer later dropped, and has detailed instructions
for a lighter, edgier orchestration, more dissonant and more sparkling than
his revision. Even more startling was the happy ending, in which Juliet
revives from her sleeping potion before Romeo kills himself, and the two rush
away to live blissfully ever after in a heavenly musical paradise.
All of this was unacceptable to the conservative Soviet censors, who regarded
Prokofiev's departures from tradition as decadent. They canceled the ballet
and warned Prokofiev it would never be performed unless he changed his plan.
And so he did.
Musicologist Morrison, a scholar in residence at Bard College in upstate New
York, and Leon Botstein, the president of Bard, who is also a conductor,
wanted to do a new dance piece to this never-performed score. So Bard
commissioned America's most celebrated choreographer, Mark Morris, to do a
new, full-length dance work that would finally follow Prokofiev's original
Now, with Prokofiev's original title, "Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of
Shakespeare" had its world premiere at a gala performance at Bard on July 4th.
And it's a wonderful new addition to the dance repertoire. Prokofiev's
original score sounds fresh and vibrant, without the labored stretches of the
familiar version. One reinstated passage is an amusing series of Middle
Eastern dances, the gift Juliet's suitor, Paris, presents her with when he
thinks she's accepted his proposal.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SCHWARTZ: The happy ending brings together some of the most beautiful
music in the score, tender and ethereal. Morris creates a ravishing pas de
deux for the reunited lovers. Set against a starry night sky, you wonder if
they are, after all, literally in heaven.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SCHWARTZ: The entire ballet is gripping, and much earthier than previous
versions. The opening night lovers, David Leventhal and Rita Donahue, were
endearingly passionate. Their first post-coital pas de deux was both sexy and
teasing. Mark Morris is famous for breaking the gender barrier in his
casting. In "Romeo & Juliet," the villainous Tybalt, Juliet's cousin, and
Romeo's witty friend Mercutio are both danced by women with especially
dazzling, mercurial choreography for Mercutio, danced by the dazzling and
mercurial Amber Darragh.
Both the choreography and the costumes suggest that there is little difference
between the Montagues and the Capulets. The warring families dress the same
and go through identical expressions of grief.
Opening night, the musical performance was a little rough, but Leon Botstein
led the American Symphony Orchestra with both vigor and earnestness. He
clearly believes in this score, and made me believe in it, too.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical musical editor of the Boston Phoenix. He
teaches English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. "Romeo & Juliet,
On Motifs of Shakespeare" will go on tour beginning in September.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.