Take a Walk on the Inspirational Side

(September 9th, 2015) With a little practice, the next flash of wit is just around the corner. You just have to take a walk there, as a new study suggests.

Doing research requires a lot of thinking but the lab might not be the best place to don your thinking cap. Best ideas often come when you least expect it, perhaps while taking a shower or watching tv. Or while strolling around. “Walking helps us think,” is an old wisdom, also familiar to Mia Keinänen from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. “Anecdotal evidence from philosophers, writers, researchers, artists, business leaders and so forth testify to the powers of walking-for-thinking,” she writes in a recent article.

To get behind the secret of these inspirational wanderings, Keinänen interviewed nine Norwegian academics - four university professors, two research and development professionals, two researchers and a university president, three women and six men – who often go out to think and have been doing so for many years.

Some of the initial comments Keinänen collected from her research subjects were: “I found out that something interesting was happening in my head. This walking thinking, it is more deep or something”, or “I started walking and I felt that my thoughts were calmer and it was easier for me to concentrate” and “When walking, I felt like I am in the middle of my thoughts and you can call on thoughts. I think that is the feeling that I have been trying to cultivate through years of walking, this sort of symmetry between the bodily feeling and feeling of thinking. I think there are many different kinds of walking, and this is a very specific type of walking.”

And what makes it special? A steady rhythm at one’s “optimal speed” – that is not too fast and not too slow (around 5-6 km/h). Keinänen writes, “The stimulation of the rhythm of the walk seemed to work in two directions. Either the subjects found a certain rhythm to their thoughts and then their walking either sped up or slowed down to correspond to their thinking. Or they first found a walking rhythm that then stimulated the rhythm of their thoughts.” Effective walking-for-thinking, thus, needs some practice.

Physiologically, what might be happening is that aerobic activity, like a light walk, increases blood flow and neurotransmitter activity and decreases stress hormone levels in the brain, says Keinänen. Measuring oxygen intake, heart rate and analysing blood samples could confirm these suspicions.

“Walking-for-thinking has long roots in and high potential for scholarship. The results of this study indicate that (…) there is a specific type of walking-for-thinking that is separate from other types of walking. This walking has an optimal speed that synchronizes rhythms of the walk and body with thinking and vice versa. (…) Thus, walking-for-thinking in academia could be viewed as a potent work method that also has health benefits,” Keinänen concludes.

Anyone fancy a stroll around the block?

Kathleen Gransalke

Photo: www.publicdomainpictures.net/George Hodan

Last Changes: 12.01.2015