read::zebra's

When the feet roam, so do our minds

In Excerpts, Thoughts on January 1, 2011 at 12:31 am

Wendell Berry, Steven Johnson, Will Self, and Geoff Nicholson inhabit very different spheres.

(The first is a Christian and agrarian thinker born in 1934, the second a Wired contributor and ideas expert born in 1968, the third and fourth Brits who were born 8 years apart in the late fifties/early sixties and have made names for themselves as writers.)

Yet they all agree on the value of walking.

Nicholson, in the introduction to his correspondence with Self in The Believer, writes:

While living in London and New York, two of the great walking cities, I’d walked every day as a way of getting around, and as a means of urban exploration. Later, when I settled in L.A., a city where nobody walks, I continued to walk as best I could, but it was an effort, a deliberate decision to go against the prevailing culture. It seemed unnatural, an act of protest or eccentricity, but I wasn’t protesting anything and didn’t want to be willfully eccentric. I just wanted to walk.

Berry uses walking as an example of how enormous problems require small, simple solutions, which are often wondrously pragmatic:

“If a city-dweller walks…to work, he has found the simplest solution to his transportation problem—and at the same time he is reducing pollution, reducing the waste of natural resources, reducing the public expenditure for traffic control, saving his money, and improving his health.”

The body is not the only thing improved by a long walk. Johnson, in his 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, explains a less noticeable benefit to regular walks. His main idea rests on the fact that ideas come when the brain is allowed to put things together in novel ways. And how do you do this?

“One way is to go for a walk. The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. The…stroll removes you from the task-based focus of modern life—paying bills, answering e-mail, helping kids with homework—and deposits you in a more associate state.”

And then Self, responding to Nicholson’s questions about whether walking can be addicting, like drugs (with which Self has significant experience), offers perhaps the most intriguing view of the pedestrian way:

“I have to concede that the 4/4 rhythm, the sense I have on long walks—both urban and rural—of being rather disembodied: a head floating above the ground; the meditational aspect, whereby I allow my mind to “slip its gears”—all of these do seem akin to the kind of altered experience I sought in drugs. The bizarre thing is that while walking can produce these effects more reliably, I don’t feel driven to it too compulsively… yet.”

Tellingly, Self’s description alludes to Johnson’s assertion that our mind “slips its gears” while out walking, is allowed to roam as we ourselves roam.

Unfortunately, I’m currently in Hawaii, and unable to walk to my next destination: Chicago. But rest assured, though winter is in full force there, I’ll be out for a stroll soon.

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  1. […] Jan. 1 When the feet roam, so do our minds :: Four great minds on the surprising power of walking […]

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