In Praise of Walking

OUR EXPERIENCE of time can vary widely between two poles. The experience of time passing ever so slowly is familiar to the walker tramping slowly and arduously uphill in the rain with a heavy backpack. In contrast, when the temperatures are moderate and the trail is downward-sloping, then occasionally the experience is such that huge areas of ground are covered for what feels like minimal effort and great enjoyment in comparatively short periods of time. This state is known as “flow,” and it can apply not only to walking but to a huge range of activities, to work, to sport, to specialized performance of all varieties. Sometimes referred to as the psychology of optimal experience, flow is a central psychological concept, first developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is the subjective experience of concentration and deep enjoyment accompanying or arising from skilled performance. Feelings of control, of oneness, of immersion, of being in the zone, are all characteristic of flow. The experience here is very different to the elation of overcoming difficult terrain and sitting down for a well-earned rest; rather, it is in the freeing of the mind and brain from the moment-to-moment control of walking, while at the same time covering considerable distance.

We humans are skilled, expert, accomplished walkers: walking is a prime means to experience flow, available to almost all of us. Walking can facilitate the flickering between differing states of mind, and it is this that makes creative cognition most possible, precisely because walking allows a peculiarly enjoyable mindlessness (not mindfulness). Walking, with the experience of no particular thought to engage you, is one of those opportunities when odd but creative associations might arise across differing parts of the brain’s semantic networks that process memory and meaning.

There has been an unusual and interesting study of walking and thinking among a small group of Norwegian academics. The participants were chosen because they all like to undertake extended walks, and to do so regularly. Moreover, they identified walking as an important aid to their thinking. It is difficult to generalize widely from such a small sample, but nonetheless, some instructive points emerge from the semi-structured interviews that were conducted. All of the interviewees thought that walking at a certain pace and rhythm was most conducive to thinking. All interviewees emphasized the word “rhythm” in different ways. The optimal speed which facilitates thinking varied, but by common consensus among the group it was “a speed when your body is engaged and stimulated, not overly taxed.” Another common theme was that they thought of thinking as being almost like “place.” One interviewee said:

I feel like I am in it, in this kind of weird abstract world of the things I have read, the things I have thought while reading. I think of it as a state, but I also think about it geographically, that you are in a place where all this knowledge surrounds you in these weird more or less solid shapes, so you can sort of summon this book and this argument and this thought, and this writing that you linked to that author, and it is all available to you. You are in the middle of it and you can call on thoughts.

What we see here, as we do throughout this book, is that walking brings us to a place of clearer thinking. We can think of ourselves as being able to walk away from a problem by getting to a place where a solution is possible. It is a peculiar and wonderful creative problem-solving state comparable in many ways to that which can arise on the edge of dreaming, and even during dreaming itself. The phrase “sleep on it” is an everyday testament to sleep’s generative and creative powers, and writers through the ages have attested to sleep’s great -problem-solving properties. John Steinbeck wrote that “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” Scientists have found the same: one famous example is August Kekulé having a dream of a snake eating its own tail, and realizing that the molecular structure of benzene must be a ring-shaped. Beyond anecdote, though, experimental studies support this connection. In one study participants were given a difficult cognitive task requiring the learning of stimulus-response sequences. Hidden within the task was a shortcut – an abstract rule that allowed quick solutions. Exposure to the problem followed by eight hours of sleep more than doubled the probability that participants would solve the task, underlining how emphatically sleep provides time for offline problem-solving and memory consolidation.

The challenge with dreaming is of course that the thoughts can be too fleeting to be captured, but the characteristics of dreaming, the loss of meaning of time, the experience of reverie, the free association involved between differing memories and thoughts, might still, in part, be created during walking. The regularity of the rhythm of walking itself, paced by the spinal cord’s pattern generators, coupled with a de-emphasis on time, and time itself, perhaps provide a good way to kick-start the kind of creative thinking we all need. So, the next time you have a difficult problem to solve, tell your boss you won’t be at your desk for who knows how long (after all, your time estimation will be affected); you’re going for a walk, and when you come back, the problem might have been solved. They may not be convinced, but urge them to try it themselves. Be sure to take some way of recording your thoughts. Bring some notes, scratched on a page. Perhaps go with someone who also cares about solving the problem – and chat in a focusedly unfocused, recurrent way, taking breaks to talk about other issues. You must, of course, have a well-stocked mind, with lots of information about the problem that you are going to solve. E = mc2, or i = j = k = ijk = 1, will not come unbidden to you, for these solutions require an intense period of preparation, reflection and focus. You should walk with the purpose of thinking about the problem. It doesn’t matter if you don’t solve it immediately. Walk without expectation of a solution. Instead, walk for the enjoyment of walking, and for the enjoyment of thinking about the problem.

There is a powerful lesson to be learned here: those charged with complex political, organizational and other problems should not be cooped up in conference rooms. They should get out and walk their way to better solutions, and to a better world.

Excerpted from In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration, by Shane O’Mara. Copyright © 2019 by Shane O’Mara. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Shane O’Mara is a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin. He is also the author of Why Torture Doesn’t Work and A Brain for Business — A Brain for Life. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.