A recent study out of Stanford shows that walking even as little as 10 minutes a day can enhance an individual’s creativity. In a WBUR interview with writer/psychiatrist John Ratey, Here and Now’s Jeremy Hobson discovered that walking, especially mindless walking, has benefits that go well beyond reducing stress, losing weight, maintaining musculature, or helping overcome depression. According to Ratey, our creativity is enhanced, too, because we actually grow new brain cells and stimulate the development of new neural connections. Our focus improves, our mood changes, and suddenly we see familiar things in new ways.
For the hundreds of visitors who regularly come to Stony Brook for just this purpose, this is probably old news. But for most of us whose lives are too fast-paced and cluttered, our time seemingly too precious, our workload ever increasing, this is welcome information. We can actually justify goofing off as being productive in a hidden sort of way.
My wife and I walk about 3 miles most every day. Originally I came to walking as a substitute form of exercise. My knees were giving out after years of playing soccer and basketball, running on the pavement or playing tennis on everything but grass or clay. So I walked, begrudgingly. Now I can’t do without it. It’s time to talk, time to speculate, time to breathe, time to imagine or dream.
I walked everywhere when I was young. In those days it was not customary to have 2 or 3 cars in a family, and it never occurred to my parents that they should have to shuttle me to every playground or activity I was wont to attend. I walked to school and back. I walked to the grocery store, the bakery, the 5 & 10. I was encouraged to roam, to make my own way: through the woods, down back roads, across short-cuts, in and out of back alleys or neighbors’ back yards. Sometimes I did so with a purpose, but more often than not I simply wandered. For a time, in fact, I remember consciously thinking that I should deliberately follow a different path or choose a street unfamiliar to me, simply for the adventure. I was never disappointed.
Always I discovered something new, or met someone I wouldn’t have otherwise. At times I would get lost, but in every case I would find my way back, sometimes breathlessly. There’s excitement in that kind of walking which, even now, I miss. It’s more than brain cells that I was building. It was confidence and adaptability, independence and trust. It was the skill of improvisation and the capacity to think on my toes. I learned to see on those walks because I had to pay attention; I was on foreign soil.
Ratey equates walking aimlessly to “taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin… because it does the same thing. It increases our neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, just as our psychiatric drugs do, as well as having a whole host of other effects that drugs can’t do.” It’s those other effects that I covet so much, the ones that are difficult to name and hard to forget.
Things like yielding to getting caught in a blinding rain or a sudden snow. Seeing for the first time a fog roll in or hearing a crack of lightning that goes right to your bones. Smelling the earth when it’s wet or seeing the pavement steam. It’s overcoming the uncertainty of the unknown, of being alone. Learning to recognize the flow of a neighborhood, the currency of its people, the chatter of neighbors at work or play. When walking, we carve out such paths both interior and actual.
Walking is not just for the old. It’s equally important for the young. The natural world is revealed to us in walks, as is our connection to the people who live all around us. Our minds are given time and space to flourish, to discover the substance and timbre of what it means to be human. A kind of magic happens when we walk. Those who come to Stony Brook know this, but there’s no need to drive somewhere else to walk. Every place has something worthwhile to offer, even our own back yards .