Why Walking Helps Us Think (Rilke + Ferris Jabr)

If we made a map of what we think about as we walk around the city or the park across the way —a respite from out daily life of writing and working on various projects— it would look like Richard Tuvey’s painting Taking a Line for a Walk.  It’s a fine expression of the nexus between walking and creative thinking, the scientific whys of which we learned about in a New Yorker article by Ferris Jabr:

What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. 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.

…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. 

Where we walk matters as well…A small but growing collection of studies suggests that spending time in green spaces—gardens, parks, forests—can rejuvenate the mental resources than man-made environments deplete.

Scans done by Dr. Chuck Hillman from University of Illinois Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory show just what happens to your brain after 20 minutes of walking: More red in the walking scan shows more connections in the brain and more ability to concentrate.

We take a walk daily because it never fails to refresh our thinking, change our view of things, calm us. We find our mind shifting, ideas sparking, problems beginning to yield in ways we never expect. Rilke nailed it in A Walk

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

—Translated by Robert Bly

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