The Science of Traffic and How it Could End

The Science of Traffic and How it Could End

Sitting in traffic is an unavoidable part of life. Even if you live out in the country, commute during odd hours in the day, or opt to take the bus, you’re still bound to find yourself stuck in commuter traffic sooner or later. Some estimates report the modern driver will spend up to three months of their lives sitting in traffic. That means you likely have plenty of time to sit and think about traffic.

A common thought during these times of boredom and frustration is: if only everyone drove just like me, then we wouldn’t have these issues. While that’s not exactly the truth, it’s not exactly far off either. Dr. Eddie Wilson of Bristol University cracked the code after becoming increasingly fascinated with the traffic jams he was subjected to on his daily drive home from work. Wilson’s research found that indeed if we all drove at a uniform pace, the common traffic jam would simply not exist.


In part, it’s the speed demons weaving out in and out of traffic that are to blame. But they share the blame equally with the timid drivers that are too quick to tap the brakes at the slightest of surprises. Some research suggests that one vehicle’s sudden braking on a moderately populated highway can send waves of slow traffic as far back as twenty miles. So now we know the secret to traffic-free highways, and yet it seems like heavy congestion on roadways is here to stay. There’s just no realistic way to ensure every motorist will keep the same constant speed.

One of Dr. Wilson’s experiments involved 15 cars driving around in one connected circle with the instructions of keeping a pace of 15 MPH. He found that even in this controlled environment some drivers would inevitably go a mile or two over the “limit”, and then compensate by hitting the brakes. After just a few minutes, one side of the circle had cars coming to a complete stop while they waited for the vehicles ahead to catch up. To see it in action, it almost defies logic. It’s human nature, and human nature doesn’t always make sense.


So what can you do to reduce the risk of traffic jamming? Don’t hit the brakes prematurely, and try to keep yourself moving at a standard pace. The easiest way to do this is by staying in the right lane until you’re ready to pass people on the left. Once you’ve passed, simply pull right back into the right lane until the time comes for you to pass again. Unfortunately, that’s the best you can do as an individual. Otherwise we have to rely on the tactics of other drivers to keep things moving, which to many feels like a long shot.

And yet, life without congested roadways may be possible someday. If self-driving vehicles become the standard, freeways that look like parking lots could quickly become a relic of the past. Many researchers agree that if every car were self-driving, even stop lights would become unnecessary. Instead, slight variations in speed could allow every car on the roadway to sail through intersections at the same time, whizzing right by each other without ever touching.


Beyond relieving the annoyance and tediousness of rush hour commutes and construction back-ups, a world without traffic congestion would drastically reduce emissions. In addition, it would also reduce individual fuel consumption. Without any significant difference between ‘highway miles’ and ‘city miles’ vehicle lifetimes would likely see radical improvements. Traffic-free cities would also allow firetrucks, ambulances, and other emergency vehicles to ride easy without ever facing the risk of an unclearable congested road.

While the implementation of a regulated speed for every driver is impractical and unfeasible, the resulting un-jammed roads are likely coming regardless. Most experts and futurists agree self-driving cars are the wave of the future, and in my state of Illinois, so-called “Smart Highways” (which communicate traffic information to smart phones and vehicles) are already being implemented. So to many, it’s not a question of if we’ll see the end of traffic, it’s just a question of when.


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Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board ran a campaign that used silence as a marketing ‘product’. They sought to entice people to visit Finland and experience the beauty of this silent land. They released a series of photographs of single figures in the nature and used the slogan “Silence, Please”. A tag line was added by Simon Anholt, an international country branding consultant, “No talking, but action.”

Eva Kiviranta the manager of the social media for said: “We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing”.

Finland may be on to something very big. You could be seeing the very beginnings of using silence as a selling point as silence may be becoming more and more attractive. As the world around becomes increasingly loud and cluttered you may find yourself seeking out the reprieve that silent places and silence have to offer. This may be a wise move as studies are showing that silence is much more important to your brains than you might think.

Regenerated brain cells may be just a matter of silence.


     A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice.[1] The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.


    The growth of new cells in the brain does not necessarily translate to tangible health benefits. However, in this instance, researcher Imke Kirste says that the cells appeared to become functioning neurons.

    “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”

    In this sense silence can quite literally grow your brain.

    The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence


      A 2001 study defined a “default mode” of brain function that showed that even when the brain was “resting” it was perpetually active internalizing and evaluating information.


      Follow-up research found that the default mode is also used during the process of self-reflection. In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran et al. wrote, the brain’s default mode network “is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.

      “When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into “a conscious workspace,” said Moran and colleagues.

      When you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious workspace to process things. During these periods of silence, your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world.

      The default mode helps you think about profound things in an imaginative way.

      As Herman Melville once wrote,[2]


      “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

      Silence relieves stress and tension.


        It has been found that noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. It is thought that the amygdalae (located in the temporal lobes of the brain) which is associated with memory formation and emotion is activated and this causes a release of stress hormones. If you live in a consistently noisy environment that you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

        A study that was published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects that the relocation of Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University notes that children who are exposed to noise develop a stress response that causes them to ignore the noise. What is of interest is that these children not only ignored harmful stimuli they also ignored stimuli that they should be paying attention to such as speech. 

        “This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans,” Evans says.[3]

        Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.[4]

        Silence replenishes our cognitive resources.


          The effect that noise pollution can have on cognitive task performance has been extensively studied. It has been found that noise harms task performance at work and school. It can also be the cause of decreased motivation and an increase in error making.  The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving.

          Studies have also concluded that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills.

          But it is not all bad news. It is possible for the brain to restore its finite cognitive resources. According to the attention restoration theory when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. In silence the brain is able to let down its sensory guard and restore some of what has been ‘lost’ through excess noise.[5]



          Traveling to Finland may just well be on your list of things to do. There you may find the silence you need to help your brain. Or, if Finland is a bit out of reach for now, you could simply take a quiet walk in a peaceful place in your neighborhood. This might prove to do you and your brain a world of good.

          Featured photo credit: Angelina Litvin via


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