Is Walking the Secret to Original and Creative Ideas?

Public Domain. Timothy Perry / Unsplash

We should follow in the footsteps of many great thinkers and implement regular rambles into our lives.

Walking has been a hot topic on TreeHugger since its beginning fifteen years ago. Lloyd advocates for walking as a healthy, green alternative to driving cars and a crucial consideration in urban design; he even calls it climate action. Melissa writes about its health benefits, how it promotes longevity, offers valuable exercise, and improves one's quality of life. Now it's my turn, and I am newly fascinated by the way in which walking seems to promote creative thinking and original ideas.

I was always vaguely aware that certain famous thinkers such as Henry Thoreau, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Charles Darwin spent significant amounts of time walking, but until I began reading Cal Newport's book, Digital Minimalism, I wasn't aware of just how connected their walking habits were to their creative output.

While Newport says that "these historical walkers embraced the activity for different reasons," the walks allowed for the solitude that the human brain requires to thrive. He defines solitude as "freedom from input from other minds, as it's exactly this absence of reaction to the clatter of civilization that supports all these benefits."

These men were far from the only ones who valued their walks. Abraham Lincoln sought solitude at his 'cottage', now the site of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, and spent time wandering the grounds when preparing his thoughts and addresses. Wendell Berry walked for prolonged periods of time to clarify his thoughts. French Poet Arthur Rimbaud took many pilgrimages, and T.S. Eliot composed poetry while wandering on foot. Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said, "I never do anything but when walking; the countryside is my study." Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton walked daily for seven years, pondering the same math problem, until he came up with a number system called quaternions, which has been crucial in the development of mobile phones. Aristotle delivered lectures while walking, and Darwin was said to walk for the equivalent number of hours that he worked.

It is fitting, then, that the Guardian published an article called "It's a superpower: how walking makes us healthier, happier and brainier" during the same week that I am devouring Newport's book. It delves into the work of neuroscientist Shane O'Mara who believes that the human brain is 'moto-centric' and requires movement in order to work optimally. O'Mara told Amy Fleming (while walking, of course),

"[We know] from the scientific literature, that getting people to engage in physical activity before they engage in a creative act is very powerful. My notion – and we need to test this – is that the activation that occurs across the whole of the brain during problem-solving becomes much greater almost as an accident of walking demanding lots of neural resources."

The article is full of other fascinating facts, such as walking's impact on personality traits over decades ("those who moved the least showed malign personality changes, scoring lower in the positive traits: openness, extraversion and agreeableness"); reducing depression rates; promoting brain healing after injury; improving memory retention and learning. O'Mara says,

"One of the great overlooked superpowers we have is that, when we get up and walk, our senses are sharpened. Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes."

It sounds like walking is the closest thing to a magic bullet solution to all sorts of life's problems – from greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, to urban safety and traffic congestion, to personal health and fitness, and now to mental ability, capacity, even brilliance and originality. We should follow the example of these impressive predecessors, tie up our shoes, and "embrace walking as a high-quality source of solitude." Just do as Newport says and leave the phone behind.