Two millennia ago, if you happened to be in Athens, you might have spotted a middle-aged man pacing around the Lyceum, a place used for a range of activities, among which was education.
We know him today as Aristotle. And it’s no coincidence that his philosophy is called “peripatetic”, which is translated from Greek as “of walking”. As other great thinkers after him, such as Darwin and Nietzsche, Aristotle found his best ideas while walking.
Why are walks so conductive to untangling ideas?
It’s not uncommon to wrestle with a problem — whether a difficult choice you have to make or a work project — and no matter how much you mull over it, you seem to make no headway whatsoever. It’s only after you leave your house or your office for a little stroll that ideas and solutions seem to reveal themselves to you.
We see the relationship between great thinkers and obsessive walking throughout history. Nietzsche famously said “do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement.” He is thought to have walked up to eight hours a day sometimes. For him, walking was not an escape from work, but a prerequisite for it.
Aristotle and his colleagues were thought to go together on long walks, while discussing deep philosophical concepts and pondering the nature of reality. Charles Darwin had a walking routine on a small path near his home, where he would think about the findings from his travels and developed the theory of evolution, one step at a time.
We should think of walking as an exercise of the mind, not only for the body.
Walking can set in motion a kinetic energy synchronized between mind and body, serving as a catalyst for insight. With each next step, we compel our minds to keep up with the pace of our feet. The movement of our bodies carries our ideas forward, leaving behind the trivial ones and entertaining the valuable ones. It’s a constant dance between mind and body and the ideas that result from it are usually of a different quality than if we were to be sitting at a desk.
Thoughts born of movement can be sensed in the author’s writing. There’s a cadence of ideas, a natural rhythm that speaks to the freshness and dynamism of his thinking.
The walking body is unfolded and tensed like a bow: opened to wide spaces like a flower to the sun, exposed torso, tensed legs, lean arms.
Walking is literally your mind wandering. Although we glorify focus and unwavering attention (which have their place in many situations), we shouldn’t overlook the powerful effects of taking our mind for a walk. Done in a controlled manner, moderate amounts of distraction actually enhance cognitive flexibility and lead to insights. How can walking account for this?
The most important concept that can explain this is frame-breaking. Let me explain. When we’re stuck on a problem, it’s usually because we’ve run out of angels from which to approach it. Nothing seems to lead anywhere. The solution keeps evading you. Your framing of the problem is a dead end.
By frame I mean your outlook on the world. The patterns and connections you instinctively see. Now here is where walking comes in. We can think of it as a disruptive strategy. When you walk, you’re changing your environment so you’re giving your mind a chance to break your old frame and piece together a new one. It’s a simple yet powerful tool for any creative endeavor.
There’s a correlation between the environment we’re in and the kind of thinking we’re prone to. This is known as the Cathedral effect.
A small room with a low ceiling leads to analytical reasoning. This setting shrinks our perspective and biases us to consider a more systematic approach. Ideas are more rigid and constrained.
On the other hand, a high ceiling environment was observed to afford more expansive thinking. Your ideas would be more creative and abstract in such a place.
I’d argue that we can take this a step forward and propose a third kind of thinking, the one that results from open environments. The open space affords more innovative ideas. The wandering mind can go anywhere, entertain any thought and it’s not afraid to “go out on a limb” (pun very much intended). A wandering mind is open and nimble.
Walking supports both dimensions of thought: depth and breadth. On a walking journey, you can start with one single idea that you wish to explore and grow as you go along your path, or you can switch between numerous ideas and invite even more.
To paraphrase Nietzsche, “while writing only happens with the hand, thinking benefits from the wisdom of our moving feet.”
So, keep walking.