Have you ever been stuck on a problem and went for a walk – and a solution appears?
I’ve been reading a book that explains why this happens: In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration by Shane O’Mara, Professor of Brain Research at Trinity College, Dublin. A firm believer in the power of walking in helping us find creative solutions to various issues, he gives a scientific account of why taking walks can be so valuable.
Here are some key points:
“…the brain has two essential work modes: an active, executive mode, and a default mode. The active mode involves focused attention and processing details. The default mode involves mind-wandering, the repeated interrogation of autobiographical memory, and a focus of attention away from the immediate environment.”[i]
The “executive mode” is active when we are focusing on something that has a logical, straight-forward solution. How about doing taxes? My W-2 and 1099 forms have specific numbers that I need to enter into specific boxes on the 1040 – no room for creativity.
The “default” or “mind-wandering mode” is useful when there may be more than one solution to a problem, and we may need to engage a variety of mental and imaginative processes to find what we need.
If we are sitting at a desk, our brain is limited to just one area of processing. But if we go for out for a walk, our circulation increases to other areas of the brain, and they begin to combine their efforts. In technical language, it’s a way to experience “extended hippocampal function” in which we can access personal memory and imagination while navigating our walk. This gives us a chance to “combine ideas in some form of novel association.”[ii]
We need both modes: “Mind-wandering allows the collision of ideas, whilst mind focusing allows you to test whether it’s nonsensical or interesting and new.”[iii]
In 1843, Sir William Rowan Hamilton found himself stuck as he “…grappled with devising a new mathematical theory – ‘quaternions’, which extend the mathematical theory of complex numbers to three-dimensional space.”[iv] He was an avid walker, and on one of those walks the solution appeared to him. He took a penknife and inscribed this message into the Broom Bridge:
I haven’t studied math since Led Zeppelin’s first album was released. I have no clue why this formula is important, but apparently, it’s a big deal: it has “…many contemporary uses in physics as well as in computer gaming, animation, and graphics, and even in the design of electric toothbrushes.”[v] Mathematicians from around the world gather on the bridge every October 16th to celebrate this discovery. And it did not come to Mr. Hamilton until he was immersed in a two-hour walk.
Without knowing any of the science, I found taking walks to be essential to my work. If I had a sermon to create, I would first choose, analyze, and study a passage, gathering as many facts as possible to understand what I was reading. But I wouldn’t know what to focus on, or how to describe it, or what stories could illustrate it. So, I’d get up and walk in the neighborhood for an hour or so. Almost every time, I’d have an “aha” moment and know what direction to take, words to use, or examples to give. I’d go back to my desk with fresh energy.
What is true for walking on our own is also true for walking with a friend — that “extended hippocampal function” is working for both of us.
All this brings to mind the fascinating New Testament story known as “The Road to Emmaus” (Luke 24: 13 – 35). The story begins on Easter afternoon. “Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.” As they walk, they are deep in conversation. A third person joins them and asks what they are discussing. They tell him it’s about a prophet who has appeared recently, raising their hopes that something new and life-changing is happening in the world. But the prophet has been executed by the Romans, leaving them in despair. Some women reported earlier in the day they had an experience that led them to believe he is alive after all. But these two friends don’t know what to believe. The stranger begins to explain how all this might be true and they begin a long discussion. They arrive at Emmaus and invite the stranger to stay with them for dinner. He accepts. As they sit at table, the stranger takes the bread, blesses, and breaks it, and they suddenly realize the stranger is the risen Jesus. He disappears. Looking back on their conversation, they realize this person was indeed helping them see everything in a new way, leading them from despair to excitement and new hope. They go back to Jerusalem to share their story.
I can affirm it only takes one experience of feeling someone’s unexpected “presence” in the room with us to open our mind to such new possibilities.
Cynthia Bourgeault writes this about the Emmaus story: “…the decisive breakthrough is not what they see but how they see. They have come to understand that their attuned hearts are the instruments of recognition and these same attuned hearts will bind them to their Risen Lord moment by moment forever. They have finally located their inner homing beacon.”
From Jerusalem to Emmaus is seven miles, and it takes about two hours to walk seven miles – the same amount of time it took Mr. Hamilton to find the solution to his perplexing problem. This time the problem is not mathematical, but spiritual. Just sitting in a chair worrying about it was not going to solve it, because the usual ways of rational thinking are too limiting. But on long walks, portals within us can open and expand our understanding of what’s real and what’s possible, allowing new and unexpected light to shine.
Want to go for a walk?
[i] O’Mara, pg. 148
[ii] Ibid., pg. 150
[iii]Ibid., pg. 150
[iv] Ibid., pg. 152
[v] Ibid., pg. 152
Lead image source: pixabay