By Niall McArdle
“Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, and now research has proved what for years many have known or suspected: walking helps you think.
The U.S National Institute of Health reports that memory and cognitive ability are improved after physical exercise, and that “that exercise can positively impact cognitive functioning and may represent an effective strategy to improve memory in those who have begun to experience cognitive decline.”
The reason, when you think about it, is obvious: walking makes your heart work that bit harder, pumping blood faster, and delivering more oxygen to your brain.
An article in The New Yorker points out that “walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.”
The connection between walking and thinking is nothing new, and writers know this. Wordsworth, “wandered lonely as a cloud” and composed several of his poems while moving around, as did Japanese poet Basho. Thomas De Quincey thought that for Wordsworth, “walking was a mode not of traveling, but of being.”
The Romantic poet favoured the countryside, but walking is generally considered an urbane pursuit. The French coined the term flâneur for the elegant Parisian gentleman who “strolls to pass the time that his wealth affords him, treating the people who pass and the objects he sees as texts for his own pleasure. An anonymous face in the multitude, the flâneur is free to probe his surroundings for clues and hints that may go unnoticed by the others.”
Philosopher Walter Benjamin made an art of being and walking and thinking in the City:
Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley. This art I acquired rather late in life; it fulfilled a dream, of which the first traces were labyrinths on the blotting papers in my school notebooks.
In James Joyce’s stream of consciousness novel Ulysses Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus are famous for walking around and thinking, and visitors to Dublin can re-enact their peregrinations with this handy guide.
Walking is a civilized act, and at one point was considered a spectator sport. The scientific confirmation that walking is good for the brain is good news for New Yorkers, bad news for residents of Fayetteville, North Carolina, the least walkable city in America.
A shorter version of this article appeared in 2Paragraphs.com