History Proves That Walking Makes You a Better Thinker

man reading and walking - history proves that walking makes you a better thinker

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Do you walk when you need to think? You’re in excellent company, if you do. Many of the world’s great thinkers took a stroll when they needed inspiration. Luminaries as diverse as Mahatma Gandhi, Virginia Woolf, Ludwig van Beethoven, Charles Darwin and Steve Jobs believed in the power of walking to clear the mind, allow the walker to reconnect with themselves and their principles and parse out humanity’s problems.

Walking and Thinking, a Very Partial History

The connection between walking and thinking great thoughts has existed since ancient times. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit explains that in ancient Greece, philosophers gave lectures in the colonnade (or peripatos) of the school in Athens. It could have been that architectural feature, she posits, or it could have been the teachers’ habits of walking up and down it while lecturing that gave the name to the philosophers that emerged under Aristotle, but they were called the peripatetic philosophers.

Whether walking helped them to teach better is unclear but walking was linked to superior reasoning in Grecian culture. In fact, the incomparable Cynic philosopher Diogenes solved one of Zeno’s paradoxes by walking. He proved that motion does, in fact, exist, by walking away from the people explaining the paradox to him.

In the Middle Ages, the figure of the itinerant scholar was a common one, wandering from place to place in search of a steady income, be it from pupils or patronage. While these wandering scholars were often better known for their bad behaviour at roadside taverns than for the quality of their ideas, the link between philosophy and mobility continued.

The 18th and 19th centuries were a golden age for thinkers who walked. 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant famously walked every day at exactly five in the afternoon and always took the exact same route. In A Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros says that according to rumour, “he only ever altered the route of this daily constitutional twice in his life,” once to get a book and once to get the news when the French Revolution started.

For Gros, this regularity is a sign of Kant’s discipline – a discipline that allowed him to create his great works not “in a flash of inspiration,” but “stone by stone,” step by step. Walking, to Gros, is the mechanism by which Kant’s discipline could fuel the expression of new ideas because the rote, monotonous nature of walking frees up the mind. “During that continuous but automatic effort of the body,” Gros writes, “the mind is placed at one’s disposal. It is then that thoughts can arise, surface or take shape.” The more boring the walk, the freer one’s attention can be.

By contrast, Henry David Thoreau, one of the 19th century’s keenest advocates of walking to develop one’s thinking, wanted something much more dramatic: the bursts of genius he thought only a good, adventurous ramble could bring. “I have met with one or two persons in the course of my life,” says Thoreau in his essay “Walking,” “who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks.” For him, walking in the natural world “is a sort of crusade,” in which the walker reconnects with the wilderness around and inside of themselves and thereby creates freer and more daring ideas. It’s one of the reasons he wrote so passionately about protecting wild spaces – for him it was the American wilderness that would sustain “poets and philosophers for the coming ages.”

Thoreau’s belief in nature walks as the best way to generate ideas has close affiliations with the English Romantic poets, who generally held that wandering the natural world gave one all the inspiration one needed to create one’s art. Those who love walking but aren’t as keen on trees and swamps as Thoreau was can take heart, though. This is also the century in which poet and essayist Charles Baudelaire gave us the figure of the flâneur, the artist of the modern age who wanders the streets of the new urban metropolis, watching and taking notes on the world around them, one with the crowd but not of it.

Charles Dickens was a prolific urban walker, sometimes distressing his dinner guests by suggesting a pre-dinner walk that often turned into an excursion of many miles. If “I couldn’t walk fast and far,” Dickens told his friend John Forster, “I should just explode and perish.” He was known to walk the streets of London all night to calm his restlessness and the details of the people and places he met with in his nighttime strolls permeate each of his novels.

The Science Behind Thinking and Walking

purple drawing of brain on black background - history proves that walking makes you a better thinker

Did walking really help these great thinkers? There’s some evidence to suggest that it did. A 2014 Stanford study tested creative divergent thinking and convergent thinking while participants were seated and while they walked. The study’s authors, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz, state that the results showed that “walking boosts creative ideation in real time and shortly after.” Those who walked rated higher on tests of creative thinking. Even after completing a walk and sitting back down, participants still benefitted from “a residual creative boost.”

You should know that while creative, divergent thinking was boosted, convergent, focused thinking actually got a little worse, so maybe save your strolls for times when you need to think laterally and not for when you need an exact right answer to a pressing question.

In 2018, a review in Frontiers in Neuroscience theorized that the “numerous protective and cognitive benefits” of exercise result from neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons in the brain. Neurogenesis is a key element of brain plasticity, the brain’s ability to grow, change, learn and remember things. One of the proteins that regulates this process is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that research has shown to be activated during exercise.

Review authors Patrick Liu and Robin Nusslock state that “higher levels of BDNF expression are associated with enhanced spatial and verbal memory and recognition capabilities, and may also counteract the effects of chronic stress and cognitive decline.” A 2018 study on stroke patients found that 30 minutes of moderate intensity walking was enough to boost BDNF levels in the brain. So getting your steps in is building your brain as much as it’s building your body.

If you feel yourself getting stuck in your thinking, a walk is probably exactly what you need to clear your mind so you can get back to creating your next great work.

feature image: Yogendra Singh; image 1: SciTechTrend

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