[‘Did You Know That with Alan Walter’] Ludwig van Beethoven, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin and Steven Jobs, all geniuses in their own fields, relied on regular walking to stimulate their thinking processes when they had difficult or complicated issues to deal with.
Beethoven, though totally deaf later in life, would stroll through the Viennese woods for hours finding inspiration in the surroundings, and scribbling his musical ideas on a notepad.
Charles Dickens, the prolific author of David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, would walk at least a dozen miles per day, usually around night-time London when he couldn’t sleep, and work out storylines.
Charles Darwin, perhaps one of the world’s greatest scientists, refined his ideas on evolution and natural selection during frequent walks along a gravel path that was laid down for him in the spacious wooded grounds of his home in England.
Steven Jobs, the co-founder of Apple and inventor of the first smartphone, was a believer in walking, and what he called the “mobile meeting.” Taking a long walk with someone was his preferred way to have a serious conversation, especially if it was a first meeting.
In a recent report, a female manager influenced by Steven Job’s ideas was not able to fit a meeting with a colleague into her schedule. So, she asked him if he could come along with her on her regular dog walk instead. It was unusual, but it worked just fine for both people; they reached a creative solution to the issue in question, and the dog got its exercise. So instead of always meeting in offices or conference rooms she will often invite people to go on walking meetings. “It’s changed my life” she says.
Most of us can walk and chew gum at the same time. But what is it about walking that boosts our creative thinking and problem-solving skills?
And what is creative thinking all about anyway? It’s been defined as “the process of producing something that is both original and worthwhile.” This “something” can be a problem solved or the creation of an amazing new idea.
What is it about walking that gives such a boost to creative thinking? Part of the answer lies in the fact that 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.
Experiments have shown that during walking exercise, people perform better in tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the withering of brain tissue that comes with age, and increases the size of the region of the brain crucial for memory.
Also, because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking – our feet know what to do – our attention is free to wander; and it is this relaxed mental state that studies have linked to the development of innovative ideas and flashes of insight. Some also say that walking provokes thought because we think at a walking pace, not at a running pace or at a standstill; that makes some sense.
Unfortunately, walking as a recreation is in decline, at least in the developed world. In the U.K., based on the trend of the average citizen’s frequency and distance of walking, it is estimated that by 2040 hardly anybody will be walking!
One perverse form of walking can be seen in fitness clubs and home gyms, and that is the treadmill. In previous centuries, treadmills existed as a form of punishment. Some depend on them today to stay fit, but their eyes are generally glued to a video screen at the same time, instead of a pleasing landscape or an interesting townscape that we walkers get to enjoy.
Alan Walter is a retired professional engineer living in Oxford. He was born in Wales and worked in Halifax. He spends much of his time in Oxford, where he operates a small farm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.