By Linda Berman – Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
‘Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.’ – Henry David Thoreau
In this post we will work towards an understanding of the inspirational effects of walking outside and why they occur. What is the connection between Thoreau’s legs moving and his flowing thoughts?
Recent scientific research directly supports Thoreau’s perception. In 2017, scientists at New Mexico Highlands University discovered that
‘…relatively low foot impacts during walking significantly affect carotid blood flow.’
They thus found a direct link between brain and foot during walking.
‘New data strongly suggests that brain blood flow is very dynamic and depends directly on cyclic aortic pressures that interact with retrograde pressure pulses from foot impacts. There is an optimising rhythm between brain blood flow and ambulating. Stride rates and their foot impacts are within the range of our normal heart rates (about 120/minute) when we are briskly moving along.’
In a paper entitled ‘Give Your ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effects of Walking on Creative Thinking,’ researchers Oppezzo and Schwartz used scientific experiments to show how walking and creative thinking are linked. Some of their participants walked indoors on a treadmill, yet the benefits to their creative thinking were still apparent. The writers also commented on the mood-boosting potential of physical exercise, which might also enhance creativity.
The researchers found, however, that it is the brainstorming, free kind of thinking that is enhanced by walking, not the more focussed thinking that requires single, correct responses. It is that divergent, multiple-aspect kind of thinking, characteristic of those who explore options and possibilities that walking facilitates.
Effects on thinking
This is the kind of thinking that Gros describes in his book A Philosophy of Walking. He explains how writing that is done whilst walking is lighter in tone, its thinking freer, and more original, away from the stuffiness of an enclosed study.
‘An author who composes while walking, on the other hand, is free from such bonds; his thought is not the slave of other volumes, not swollen with verifications, nor weighted with the thought of others. It contains no explanation owed to anyone: just thought, judgement, decision. It is thought born of a movement, an impulse. In it we can feel the body’s elasticity, the rhythm of a dance. It retains and expresses the energy, the springiness of the body. Here is a thought about the thing itself, without the scrambling, the fogginess, the barriers, the customs clearances of culture and tradition. The result will not be long and meticulous exegesis, but thoughts that are light and profound. That is really the challenge: the lighter a thought, the more it rises, and becomes profound by rising – vertiginously – above the thick marshes of conviction, opinion, established thought.’
The ‘light’ and ‘profound’ ways of thinking that walking promotes, the freedom from the constraints of the indoors and the escape from societal pressures of which Gros speaks, are well recognised and reported by many walkers.
Peace, anonymity, movement and a sense of well-being are all part of the walking experience that contribute to creative thinking. Whilst we may choose to walk with others and gain from their companionship, solitude is most often conducive to deep thought.
The psychotherapist Anthony Storr speaks of the importance of such solitude and regards it as a crucial factor in terms of personal growth and change. In his book of The School of Genius, he describes the ‘oceanic feeling’ of being ‘totally at one with the universe.’ Such feelings may occur on ‘solitary journeys.’
A psychoanalytical perspective
Looked at from a psychoanalytical perspective, these powerful emotions may be connected with ‘early infantile experience of unity with the mother.’ This is not difficult to imagine, when one sometimes looks at the peace and contentment of a feeding baby. At this stage, the baby is merged, at one with the mother.
In the words of psychoanalyst Mary Ayres;
‘During the initial stage of emotional development, the environment is “not yet separated off from the infant by the infant.” (Winnicott, 1971:111). This phase is marked by the infant’s absolute dependence on the mother that exists in a psychological as well as a physical sense……The infant is in a “facilitating environment,” relating to the mother in a merged state. In this state, “the environment is holding the individual, and at the same time the individual knows no environment and is at one with it.”’
At some level, for those who experience such ecstatic feelings of oneness whilst walking, there may be a connection with a deeply unconscious memory of a sense of unity with the mother. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau captured the essence of such an experience; “I feel an indescribable ecstasy and delirium in melting, as it were, into the system of being, in identifying myself with the whole of nature.”
It is this ‘oceanic feeling’ which opens up our minds when we walk in nature, helping us think differently. There is a sense of personal power, a feeling of unity within the self and with the outside world. This frees us to contemplate ourselves and the world around us in a larger and more productive way.
© Linda Berman 2019
Dr Linda Berman is a retired psychoanalytic psychotherapist, an artist and writer. She is the author of ‘Beyond the Smile: The Therapeutic Use of the Photograph.’ (Routledge.) She also writes a weekly blog, waysofthinking.co.uk – exploring thought for the mindful. She writes principally about therapy and related issues.