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Why Walking Helps Us Think (newyorker.com)
211 points by chippy on Sept 4, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments

This is an unusually verbose article even for the New Yorker. The TL;DR appears to be simply "increased heart rate," with no real citations to prove it. And it just sounds a bit absurd. Increased heart rates don't have a reliable correlation with creative thought. You can increase your heart rate by watching a scary movie or pornography, but nobody that I know of reports those being prime thinking times. Moreover, you can raise your heart rate even more by running, but people generally think of running as more exhausting and less intellectual than walking. Meanwhile lots of good creative thinking happens in a bathtub, which is sedentary.

I would have guessed that walking helps us think because it gets us to a position where our problem isn't directly in front of us, nor are our distractions. But I was really hoping to instead get some science about that sort of thing. I mean, I guess it's cool to know that there are some mental tests which some people are slightly worse at when walking, and the Nabokov quote at the beginning was quite interesting even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the article, but I'm just left... unsatisfied.

You objections seem to spring from an incorrect tl;dr. I quote:

"The way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa"

"Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander"

"Where we walk matters as well."

The validity of those claims might be up for debate too, but the article in no way claims that it is "simply" increased heart rate. The answer only "begins with changes to our chemistry".

The reason that I'm optimizing those sentences away is, they aren't pulled back into the central question. I take as my central question: why is walking better than sitting for some kinds of intellectual problems? That first quote doesn't connect to that question (it says that there may be differences between different sorts of locomotion), nor does the second quote (which doesn't distinguish walking from sitting), nor does the third (it tries to distinguish city-walking from garden-walking but not walking from sitting). Heart rate was the only thing I saw which actually seemed to answer that question of, "why does walking help us think?" as opposed to "how should I walk, so as to think better?"

But my point was more, "I was hoping for some science," really.

My personal hunch is that, at least for me, the benefit stems from constantly-changing scenery. I'm not actually paying attention to it most of the time, but little bits catch me here and there, and in any case I'm aware of it. This passive, non-urgent sensory stimulation doesn't make me forget what I'm thinking about, but constantly interrupts my inward fixation just enough that I don't get stuck on one thought -- so new ones have a crack to wedge themselves in through.

It could boil down to an instinctive awareness that I'm not in a place I know is absolutely safe, so I have to be ready to accept and react to external stimuli at any moment, even if I'm not currently feeling threatened; and creative thought, in this case, hijacks the "external" tag.

But yeah, science would be nice too.

A moot point. The scientific studies ruled out treadmills as an effective alternative. Your first post make it appear as if you hadn't even read the article. I'd argue that increased heart rate was demonstrated not to be a likely cause.

The connection between movement and the brain has recently been scientifically established . A good breakdown can be found in the book "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain Paperback – January 1, 2013 by John J. Ratey"

Basically movement, especially aerobic (walk, run, etc.) but also complex movement (sports, music playing , martial arts) as explained in the book

1 causes neurogenesis (release of brain stem cells ) 2 increases the size of your hippocampus and and improves memory 3 creates new brain circuits for the movement but these circuits are able to be recruited by different tasks 4 increases the production and balance of neurotransmitters and other hormones 5 increases and regulates executive function And a lot more complex processes in the brain. This occurs immediately but increases with more exercise . It's interesting stuff and ratey explains well.

Thanks for this info. It will be interesting to read about how new brain circuits are created with movement.

I originally suspected walking has more to do with psychology, specifically paradoxic intention, than it does with physiology. That being easily distracted allows your mind to drift, whereas aiming to solve a problem keeps your mind stuck in the same unfruitful paths of thought. It's great that there is some science behind it.

I'll definitely look into that book; thanks!

You are incorrect on Running. I know lots of runners that use the time to think things through, and I know personally that I have come up with numerous creative ideas while running.

It depends on your level of effort when running. I can only provider you anecdotal evidence for myself and from the author of the excellent: http://www.amazon.com/Lore-Running-Edition-Timothy-Noakes/dp...

Basically, if you are well adapted to running and it does not take a lot of mental effort to run, you aren't really draining your "bucket" of mental energy for the day very much, so you get the positive effects. However, if you go into a place where the training takes a high degree of concentration (say, running easy, but a lot), or by running very hard, this is a heavy cognitive load task that requires much concentration due to the pain, etc.

So, basically, its the same as walking for a lot of people. As long as you are in a reasonably comfortable zone where you can think, it works well.

Yes but people shouldn't be running much outside their bodies comfort zone so it should always be pretty efficient for getting your thoughts in order and think. It does for me at least but it only did once my spacial awareness was at a level that I could do things like get out of the way of people and increase or decrease my level on the pavement without much thought. It doesn't happen straight away but develops pretty quickly at least for me. I can do about 12km/hr for 1-2 hours without issue but sprints etc make me have to focus completely on the running so they're no good.

I have too; I just think that most people don't come up with as many ideas while running as do when walking. I'm not sure why exactly that is, but it is the stereotype, no?

I'd disagree that it can be summed up as "increased heart rate". As you rightly point out, increased heart rate can be achieved by other things that don't necessarily seem to be beneficial. Increased heart rate is just one side-effect of exercise, others being breathing more rapidly and perspiration. It seems like the mechanism of action is something else.

I thought the journal articles linked to do a good job of substantiating the author's claims.

Unlike many other similar outlets, New Yorker editors generally don't try to write a bunch about science that they don't understand (because why should they? they're trained to be write). If you want to understand the exact science behind it, your source should be a journal or actual scientist, not an editorial content house.

Watching porn or scary movies also provide distractions for your mind, in a way that walking doesn't. Intensive exercise is also quite painful which in itself is distracting in a way that a brisk walk or cycling at a moderate pace isn't.

I'm all for walking and find it does help my thinking, creative and otherwise, but the line in the article "On average, the students thought of between four and six more novel uses for the objects while they were walking than when they were seated" is an example of extremely bad faux-science writing.

There is no mention of how many uses either group thought of, so that number creates the impression of meaning while actually being completely meaningless. Was the average number 5? Then doubling it is probably meaningful. Was the average number 25? Then it's barely a one sigma effect.

It's also worth asking how representative the various tasks mentioned are. I have never personally been faced with a problem where thinking of many novel uses for an every-day object has come up, and I can't offhand think of any real-world creative task that such an exercise maps to (although maybe if I go for a walk one will come to me...)

Likewise, finding a word that unites a group of terms is something I've never done, even though I'm a published poet.

There's nothing in the article that suggests walking is particularly special, either. Canoeing and sailing are also things I find helpful for thinking. I can speculate as to why (something about engaging the body and mind in a way that is just distracting enough to free the mind and let it see alternative paths forward?) but on the other hand, my cat often wakes me up a bit before I'm quiet ready to get out of bed, and that ten or fifteen minutes of lying in bed not quite awake are also very productive, mentally.

Talking to people about such things, or even reading the comments here, these are not rare phenomena. So studies of this kind should not confine themselves to walking/not-walking but look at a wider range of activities and ideas.

I find walking incredibly useful when programming - for those moment where a bit of lateral thinking is required, to think outside the box a little box, or step out of the function and look at things anew.

As the article states, it's not very good at helping you solve a particular logic problem though.

Hey, the box is there for a reason. I like thinking inside of it. I feel safe in there.


Oh I spend most of my time thinking in the box. I find that when I'm out walking I can see that box more clearly - I think that's part of the "out of the box" thinking.

I agree. I can recall a few relevant instances when I was working on my OS (for a class). I would get stuck on a problem (sometimes design related but also sometimes debugging), give up for the evening and head home. By the time I'd walked halfway across the football field, the answer would come to me. Not sure if it was the walking or the fresh air, but this happened at least twice throughout the 7-week project.

You're a fire hazard. Do your thinking inside your box.

Edited to add: http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/1995-09-09/

There is a relationship between walking and EMDR http://www.emdr.com/general-information/what-is-emdr.html

Since walking involves alternate motion of opposite sides of the body, and was part of the activity someone was doing when EMDR was discovered.

Some think that alternately engaging the two sides of the brain causes an increased activity in the corpus callosum, or something along those lines.

It's been a summer for walking at The New Yorker -- the author mentions Adam Gopnik's piece, but David Sedaris also wrote in June about his obsession with FitBit: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/30/stepping-out-3

> 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.

As a keen cyclist I find the opposite I do my clearest thinking on a bike not while walking (with the proviso I'm on a quiet road).

If I get really stuck on a problem I'll whip out for a quick 15 mile bike ride then if I solve it great and if not at least I feel more relaxed when I get back.

soon google glass will ensure you can't think while walking neither.


Nassim Taleb of Black Swan book fame talks at length about being a flâneur and how long walks help him think through ideas. He wrote an essay on the topic also but it no longer appears to be available from his web site.

I walk daily at work, years ago my work published two different "hearth walks", quarter mile and full mile. The first is easy, walk through entry and do the full length of the deck. Having done this for years people comment when they don't see me. Its a quick little breather that serves two purposes, it lets me soak in nature - the deck is bordered by dense woods - and I get a reprieve from my desk.

throw in a good heartbeat app and I can push myself to 120+ beats for a good burst of morning and afternoon energy.

Any experiences with a walking-desk setup anyone would like to share ?

I've experimented a bit with a treadmill+laptop, but the first thing I tested was my spaced repetition performance, which went down while using the treadmill: http://www.gwern.net/Treadmill#treadmill-effect-on-spaced-re... So I'm not sure if I want to continue trying to use it or reserve the treadmill for winter when I can't take my usual daily walks.

Maybe some kind of AR workspace setup based on the new Samsung Gear VR would be feasible? Would look pretty crazy, and still might be a bit of a safety hazard, but it might work. I love standing desks but the closest I've been to a walking desk is trying to type while rolling the laptop cart through the datacenter. It kind of works.

I use one built out of an old treadmill and a plywood desk I made. Works fine enough though the motor overheats at about an hour, even when I use silicone spray on the track and a fan blowing on the motor. Treadmills aren't usually made to run for an hour at very slow speeds (1 MPH or less).

Totally unscientific, but my personal theory is that exposure to different visual / audio stimulation can make the brain jump to different paths when working on different problems, and taking a walk makes me experience more stuff than I will by sitting in the same chair all the time.

The brain doesn't seem to work well in a vacuum, so if you spend all day staring at the same four walls, it might let you focus, but there's not a lot of entropy coming in to make you think in different ways.

I love walking. I enjoy long purposeful walks, but I also often find myself pacing around the house when I hit a creative stump. That's when I get my best ideas.

I've been trying to find long, purposeless walks, but invariably I always end up walking a circuit, so the purpose becomes "finish the circle and get back to work". And I feel that takes something away from using a walk to get away from stress, instead it becomes one more task I have yet to finish.

There's an arboretum here in town but it's a drive to get there. I wish I lived next door to a forest.

Any coffee shops or bars that sell coffee on the way? Or perhaps a bus route where you walk to the bus stop and get the bus back?

There's an idea. I'll look into that, thanks.

If going on a nature walk with a coffee in hand, people need to be prepared to hold on to the empty cup until they get to a garbage can.

I think having no immediate stressors is what frees the mind. Part of our brain loves stimulation but to function with massive amounts of stimulation our brain has to work hard to surpress our impulses. Walking is just one way to do that. Another is to just know all the time that things are going to be fine.

I've found that this synergizes well with a standing desk: it becomes trivial to pace for a few moments while thinking, and then jump right back in.

I've tried out just about every chair/stool made for the purpose and none satisfactorily fit my body's construction. I keep thinking I might have to invent something that works for me.

Meanwhile I make do with an adjustable stool that's sorta OK at a desk height greater than usual office furniture. I don't sit too long, getting up to stand or move around pretty often.

Not sure how much this has to do with problem solving vs. dealing with malformed bones and warped body structure. Maybe it just shows seeking comfort is overrated.

Though I do like to walk and enjoy the scenery, the hectic crowds, or especially the wonderful companionship of my wife. If inspiration strikes, I'll try to hang on to it, though I rarely do. Amazing how often the idea recurs when I can at last recapture it.

The thing about standing desks is that you're supposed to stand at them.

Stand, of course, but manufacturers produce a number of seats or stools designed to make it easy to transition from standing to seated to standing.

Makes sense. For some tasks standing all day at one spot would be too tiring. This furniture is not cheap, obviously designed and sold for serious purposes. There is a market, so I imagine there's reason for it.

Walk farther, then all the ways that people can interrupt you go down.

Walking occupies the body and thus releases the mind.

Wow no wonder, I feel good and relaxed after the morning walk around the park, looking at the green plants and happy people.

It's funny that dogs love to go on a walk too. All the different smells are so stimulating for them.

Or just jump in the shower if I'm too lazy to walk

I bet if I had a treadmill in my shower I'd have twice as many good ideas.

And twice as many ER visits!

That sounds like an awesome challenge for a Japanese game show - soapy shower treadmill walk...

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