Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, William Wordsworth, even Aristotle: The list of great minds that were also obsessive walkers is long. Why is the connection between wandering feet and a productive brain so strong and so long-lasting?
It's a topic I've come across several times before, noting individual studies or lines of research that give partial answers. Any form of exercise has been shown to light up the brain, for instance, so it's no surprise that walking would have a positive effect on thinking. Other studies confirm that walking is also a creativity booster.
But an in-depth article from Ferris Jabr in The New Yorker I stumbled on recently pulls all this science together, digging into not only the historical connection between long walks and great ideas, but also explaining just what happens in our heads when we head out for a wander. It's well worth a read if you want a deep dive into the subject, but here's a quick recap of Jabr's answer to the essential question--why is walking so good for thinking?
Jabr starts with the straightforward research demonstrating the link between an active mind and an active body. Not only does getting the heart pumping increase blood flow to the brain, but it also kicks off a host of positive changes inside our heads.
"Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them," he writes.
Beyond the benefits of any sort of mild exertion, walking has special charms for the thinker. One, apparently, is the easy rhythm of our steps. Just as the tempo of the music we're listening to can shape our mood, the pat, pat, pat of our feet can stimulate and shape our thoughts.
"Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we're jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down," claims Jabr.
Perhaps most powerful of all is how walking holds just some of our attention, leaving a large segment to meander and observe. It's this doing-something-but-not-really-thinking-about-it aspect of walking that might be most directly behind the ability of a good walk to stir up creative, new ideas.
"Because we don't have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander--to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind's theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight," he notes.