A Wandering Mind

The pace at which we walk naturally is an individual one. When we walk to the rhythm of our bodies, our minds, in tune and in time with our legs, wander also. Walking at your own pace seems to create a feedback loop between our mental state and our body’s rhythm. One recent paper, aptly named ‘Give Your Ideas Some Legs’, demonstrated the positive effect of walking on creative thinking in particular. It is not an uncommon observation that movement and thinking for are intertwined for many people. Jean-Jacques Rousseau once wrote, ‘I can only meditate when I am walking’, ‘when I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs’. Nietzsche stated with characteristic severity that ‘only those thoughts which come from walking have any value’ and even Einstein regularly took long walks around Princeton University, commenting that many of his Eureka moments came to him during these walks.

It is not just the action of moving by walking, where we walk matters too. Because walking is so natural to us, we don’t devote much conscious effort to it. Our mind is therefore free to wander. Our attention is a limited resource, so walking in a park, say, or a field, allows our minds to casually drift through sensory experiences of the scenery around us, overlaying the world around us with our own thoughts and mental images. Thus, while a healthy activity certainly, walking on a treadmill is unlikely to cut it if you’re looking for strokes of innovation and insight!

Perhaps it is the outdoor nature of walks and the openness of many landscapes that breeds a sense of openness in ourselves too? I’ve often found that the rambling and casual nature of walking is mirrored in conversation as discussion flows from topic to topic: religion, geography, nature, culture, politics with great ease. One minute the micro world of an egg in a nest, the next minute the dizzy heights of global power systems. The sight of a distant graveyard sparks a debate on longevity, a hill-top panoramic opens the topic of omniscient beings. I've found Claire Balding’s Ramblings on Radio 4 a wonderful collection of conversations held in nature, recollecting and discussing a wide range of topics, with the countryside as their backdrop, journeying with and talking to people all over Britain.

When jogging my emotions often dictate the pace at which I move, as well as where. On a calm day with plenty of time, comfortable and relaxed, I let my legs take me along paths and across fields, often as slow as when I walk, simply happy to be outside! If I’m stressed or find myself with excess energy, I run faster, often aiming to reach the peaks of hills, rather than to simply traverse them. My earphones go in, and I sail through the countryside with Eminem my shouting motivator, pushing me on. Most often I enjoy getting lost, exploring new places, finding new paths through places familiar to me, new routes, new viewpoints, connecting tracks, piecing the countryside together. I mull over past conversations and new ideas, sorting through them, both feet and mind making sense of the world around me.