On the Link Between Writing, Thinking, and Taking a Walk

From a post on lithub.com by Jeremy DeSilva headlined “On the Link Between Great Thinking and Obsessive Walking”:

Why does walking help us think?

You are undoubtedly familiar with this situation: You’re struggling with a problem—a tough work or school assignment, a complicated relationship, the prospects of a career change—and you cannot figure out what to do. So you decide to take a walk, and somewhere along that trek, the answer comes to you.

The nineteenth-century English poet William Wordsworth is said to have walked 180,000 miles in his life. Surely on one of those walks he discovered his dancing daffodils. French philosopher JeanJacques Rousseau once said, “There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts. When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to set my mind going.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s and Henry David Thoreau’s walks in the New England woods inspired their writing, including “Walking,” Thoreau’s treatise on the subject. John Muir, Jonathan Swift, Immanuel Kant, Beethoven, and Friedrich Nietzsche were obsessive walkers. Nietzsche, who walked with his notebook every day between 11 am and 1 pm, said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Charles Dickens preferred to take long walks though London at night. “The road was so lonely in the night, that I fell asleep to the monotonous sound of my own feet, doing their regular four miles an hour,” Dickens wrote. “Mile after mile I walked, without the slightest sense of exertion, dozing heavily and dreaming constantly.” More recently, walks became an important part of the creative process of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs.

It is important to pause and reflect on these famous walkers. They are all guys. Little has been written about famous women who regularly walked. Virginia Woolf is one exception. She apparently walked quite a bit. More recently, Robyn Davidson trekked with her dog and four camels across Australia and wrote about it in her book Tracks….

Historically, however, walking has been the privilege of white men. Black men were likely to be arrested, or worse. Women just out for a walk were harassed, or worse. And, of course, rarely in our evolutionary history was it safe for anyone to walk alone.

Perhaps it is a coincidence that so many great thinkers were obsessive walkers. There could be just as many brilliant thinkers who never walked. Did William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, or Toni Morrison walk every day? What about Frederick Douglass, Marie Curie, or Isaac Newton? Surely the astoundingly brilliant Stephen Hawking did not walk after ALS paralyzed him. So walking is not essential to thinking, but it certainly helps.

Excerpted from First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human by Jeremy DeSilva.

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