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“On the Link Between Great Thinking and Obsessive Walking”: From Thoreau

Darwin's walking path

Moreover, you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.

–Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” 1861

… some of the world’s best were walkers

At this time of year in the Nordic Upper Midwest, where the high temperature two times earlier this year was -2, walking is not possible.

And, consequently, I was unable to do my best thinking. Some people wonder why I walk after it is dark, but then again, I do some of my best thinking at that time.

Does that mean that I am in the same class as Charles Darwin?

Not at all, but studies have shown that some of the greatest writers and thinkers of the past few centuries have been obsessive walkers.


Charles Darwin

Some today do not consider Darwin to be a genius. They have demonized him to be the man believes that the forerunners of man were monkeys.

However, “The Origin of Species” is still considered to be one of the masterful works of the past two centuries. Nevertheless, Darwin was not an individual who was considered to be a “people person.”

Charles Darwin was an introvert. Granted, he spent almost five years traveling the world on the Beagle recording observations that produced some of the most important scientific insights ever made. But he was in his twenties then, embarking on a privileged, 19th-century naturalist’s version of backpacking around Europe during a gap year. After returning home in 1836, he never again stepped foot outside the British Isles.

He avoided conferences, parties, and large gatherings. They made him anxious and exacerbated an illness that plagued much of his adult life. Instead, he passed his days at Down House, his quiet home almost twenty miles southeast of London, doing most of his writing in the study …

Darwin’s best thinking, however, was not done in his study. It was done outside, on a lowercase d–shaped path on the edge of his property. Darwin called it the Sandwalk.

Jeremy DeSilva, “On the link between great thinking and obsessive walking,” The Literary Hub, April 19, 2021

His thinking evolved outside

Darwin’s theory of natural selection was indeed devised on his walking path,

As a businesslike man, he would pile up a mound of flints at the turn of the path and knock one away every time he passed to ensure he made a predetermined number of circuits without having to interrupt his train of thought. Five turns around the path amounted to half a mile or so. The Sandwalk was where he pondered. In this soothing routine, a sense of place became preeminent in Darwin’s science. It shaped his identity as a thinker.

Darwin circled the Sandwalk as he developed his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. He walked to ponder the mechanism of movement in climbing plants and to imagine what wonders pollinated the fantastically shaped and colorful orchids he described. He walked as he developed his theory of sexual selection and as he accumulated the evidence for human ancestry. His final walks were done with his wife Emma as he thought about earthworms and their role in gradually remodeling the soil.

Jeremy DeSilva, The Literary Hub, April 19, 2021

Contemporary studies

Scientists have tied these findings to the contemporary world. Researchers have noticed this in a number of studies,

Marilyn Oppezzo, a Stanford University psychologist, used to walk around campus with her Ph.D. advisor to discuss lab results and brainstorm new projects. One day they came up with an experiment to look at the effects of walking on creative thinking. Was there something to the age-old idea that walking and thinking are linked?

Oppezzo designed an elegant experiment. A group of Stanford students were asked to list as many creative uses for common objects as they could. A Frisbee, for example, can be used as a dog toy, but it can also be used as a hat, a plate, a bird bath, or a small shovel. The more novel uses a student listed, the higher the creativity score. Half the students sat for an hour before they were given their test. The others walked on a treadmill.

The results were staggering. Creativity scores improved by 60 percent after a walk.

Jeremy DeSilva, The Literary Hub, April 19, 2021

Walking and memory

Darwin’s experience can also be used with contemporary issues with dementia,

Walking changes our brains, and it impacts not only creativity, but also memory.

In 2004, Jennifer Weuve of Boston University’s School of Public Health studied the relationship between walking and cognitive decline in 18,766 women aged 70 to 81. Her team asked them to name as many animals as they could in one minute. Those who walked regularly recalled more penguins, pandas, and pangolins than the women who were less mobile.

Weuve then read a series of numbers and asked the women to repeat them in reverse order. Those who walked regularly performed the task much better than those who didn’t. Even walking as little as 90 minutes per week, Weuve found, reduced the rate at which cognition declined over time. Therefore, because cognitive decline is what occurs in the earliest stages of dementia, walking might ward off that neurodegenerative condition.

Jeremy DeSilva, The Literary Hub, April 19, 2021

Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau wrote about the joy of walking and how it helped them think.

Maybe we should start listening.

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