Time to walk the walk, not talk the talk

sp_ok ss_9192A 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 .

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Thoughts on a spring day when the earth is saying “green”

2014 Goslings“The thing we should worry about is that we’re not worried.” So says Max Tegmark, MIT physics professor and founder of The Future of Life Institute. Tegmark and Stephen Hawking made news this month with a controversial op-ed in The Huffington Post declaring that computers are an imminent threat to civilization, more dangerous than global warming, a nuclear holocaust, or any number of cosmological events that will eventually swallow up the earth in four billion years.

Together with Hawking, Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek, and Berkeley computer science professor Stuart Russell, Tegmark  recently characterized the existential threat for The Atlantic in terms of decades, a few hundred years at most, when artificial intelligence will become so sophisticated that machines can replicate themselves, improve upon their own design, and ultimately rise above human control and understanding. In effect machines will do everything better than we do and, in the process, throw into question our relevance as a species. We will have become “tools of our tools,” as Thoreau predicted over a century ago.

To make matters worse, says Tegmark, it’s nearly impossible to predict the consequences of these developments, especially since most people are not educated about the possibilities and don’t really care. The biggest threat to humanity, Tegmark laments, is our own stupidity. We don’t think long term. We don’t see the big picture. And so we do not take appropriate action.

A case in point: there’s general agreement that the effects of global warming are already upon us and yet we don’t seem to have the political will or the international cooperation to respond accordingly, even if the long-term implications could be catastrophic. In that same vein, our stock markets and trading are already subject to decision-making by machines, as are our power grids, our transportation, manufacturing and communication systems. Increasingly the same is true for warfare where drones and robots are becoming more of a presence than anyone would have predicted.

What worries Tegmark and his associates is the inadvertent mistake, the unintended consequence. 99% of the species that have lived on this earth have become extinct. It would be foolish, Tegmark argues, to think that we are immune from a similar fate.

All this, of course, is heady stuff, depressing even if not entirely convincing. What’s worse, the individual feels powerless in the face of such overwhelming forces and such abstract and arcane ideas. The tendency is either to withdraw, go into denial, or escape: succumb to the pleasures of the immediate moment; indulge the senses rather than fall into despair. But Temark’s purpose is not to worry or anger us. It is, instead, to prod us into thinking long-term and, when the occasion arises, to move us to take action. The Institute looks to the future of life, not to its demise. It celebrates the enormous potential we have to harness the resources of the cosmos. It acknowledges the fragility of life in the Universe and asks us to cherish each day.

What’s all this have to do with Stony Brook? As we transition from spring into summer, and life bursts forth into color once again, is there no better place to remind us of what’s important? Stony Brook can be a haven, can offer space and time to reflect, can forge connections to Nature that have been forgotten. But more importantly Stony Brook can remind us of what’s at stake when we take life for granted and place it in the hands of someone or some ”thing” else.

We have a responsibility to be aware, to become educated, and to participate in creating the world we want to live in. Stony Brook is only as good as it is transferable to everyday life. It’s not a place really, so much as it is a state of mind or a way of being. We need to live and love in the now, certainly, but to do so with an eye to the generations who will follow.

Photo courtesy of Colleen Bruso