For as long as I can remember, I have always enjoyed walks. From brief strolls through my neighborhood, to long forays across several blocks, my mind and mood noticeably improves thereafter. Indeed, whether it is sadness, stress, or writer’s block, there seems to be nothing that a walk can’t alleviate (I am forever grateful that my writing job allows me to step out and walk periodically to recharge my brain).
As it turns out, I am hardly alone in this experience. A recent piece in The New Yorker by Ferris Jabr notes that all sorts of people throughout history — including prominent writers, thinkers, and other creatives — have attested to the positive benefits of moving one’s feet:
Since at least the time of peripatetic Greek philosophers, many other writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing. (In fact, Adam Gopnik wrote about walking in The New Yorker just two weeks ago.) “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” Henry David Thoreau penned in his journal. “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Thomas DeQuincey has calculated that William Wordsworth—whose poetry is filled with tramps up mountains, through forests, and along public roads—walked as many as a hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime, which comes to an average of six and a half miles a day starting from age five.
Funny enough, as I write this, I happen to be listening to Johannes Brahms, another accomplished figure known for his love of walks. Of course, one does not have to be an especially ingenious character to know the joys and advantages of walks. Humans in general benefit from physical activity of all manner and degree, especially amid the prevalent sedentary and insular lifestyles of the modern world. There is quite a lot of research to back it up, as the following article excerpt explores:
When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. 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.
The way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa. Psychologists who specialize in exercise music have quantified what many of us already know: listening to songs with high tempos motivates us to run faster, and the swifter we move, the quicker we prefer our music. Likewise, when drivers hear loud, fast music, they unconsciously step a bit harder on the gas pedal. 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.
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.
The piece goes on to cite what may be the first set of studies to more closely measure how walking immediately influences creativity. The four experiments, which altogether involved 76 Stanford students, yielded some interesting results:
In a series of four experiments, Oppezzo and Schwartz asked a hundred and seventy-six college students to complete different tests of creative thinking while either sitting, walking on a treadmill, or sauntering through Stanford’s campus. In one test, for example, volunteers had to come up with atypical uses for everyday objects, such as a button or a tire. On average, the students thought of between four and six more novel uses for the objects while they were walking than when they were seated. Another experiment required volunteers to contemplate a metaphor, such as “a budding cocoon,” and generate a unique but equivalent metaphor, such as “an egg hatching.” Ninety-five per cent of students who went for a walk were able to do so, compared to only fifty per cent of those who never stood up. But walking actually worsened people’s performance on a different type of test, in which students had to find the one word that united a set of three, like “cheese” for “cottage, cream, and cake.” Oppezzo speculates that, by setting the mind adrift on a frothing sea of thought, walking is counterproductive to such laser-focussed thinking: “If you’re looking for a single correct answer to a question, you probably don’t want all of these different ideas bubbling up.”
In short, walking helps with certain kinds of thought, the kind we’d consider to be more “out of the box”. A further study discovered that where one walks has an impact as well: generally, spending time in green spaces like parks and forests is more effective than doing so in urban settings, which are often rowdier and more distracting. Nevertheless, walking in one’s neighborhood or city can still offer some form of relief, especially if you’re looking for greater sensory stimulation (the article suggests that a bit of both is ideal depending on the circumstances).
What is most interesting to me is just how complementary these two seemingly distinct activities (walking and thinking) are:
Perhaps the most profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing reveals itself at the end of a stroll, back at the desk. There, it becomes apparent that writing and walking are extremely similar feats, equal parts physical and mental. When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps. Likewise, writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands. Walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts.
All I can say is that walks have been keeping me sane for as long as I can remember, and I cannot imagine how much more severe and frequent my bouts of anxiety and depression would be without those brief forwards outside and into my own mind.