When I am suffering from writer’s block, I usually try to solve the problem by going for a long walk. My habitual route takes me through an area of parkland in the center of my town, then up a steep hill, climbing through leafy residential streets to a sharp ridge that affords fine easterly views of New York City glimpsed through the trees. On the way up, I am in serious hiking mode, head down into wind or rain or snow, holding as best I can to a constant rhythmic stride. My thoughts become dulled, as if there is no room in my brain for anything beyond the physical mantra of placing one foot doggedly in front of the other.
Once I reach the top of the ridge, I pause only briefly to acknowledge my modest accomplishment before turning for home. As I set off down the hill at a more relaxed pace, I find that the meditative state is broken, and a special kind of satisfied calmness enters in. Ideas start drifting through my mind: not just random thoughts but concepts that are almost fully formed. Troublesome sentences begin to complete themselves in my head; possible resolutions to obscure plot challenges come clearly into view. How can I get my fictional version of Geoffrey of Monmouth, a famous medieval scholar, to a remote valley in Wales in the year 1154? How will my modern archaeological protagonist use his professional skills to prove that Geoffrey was there? As I lengthen my stride, cutting easily across the brow of the ridge on my way back down toward the park, the solution suddenly seems obvious.
Ideas start drifting through my mind: not just random thoughts but concepts that are almost fully formed.
Well, it sometimes works this way. I don’t want to give the impression that there is something magical in this process, that it is a foolproof cure for the common literary afflictions; but it does seem to be a real neuropsychological phenomenon. After all, the creative potential of a good walk has long been recognized. “It is solved by walking,” asserted St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD), perhaps borrowing the phrase from the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (c. 412–323 BC). Friedrich Nietzsche’s version of this axiom, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking,” does not quite achieve the perfect brevity of St. Augustine’s Latin formulation, but the sentiment is the same.
So, what is it about walking? In a brief survey of the prevailing popular psychology, I found an abundance of earnest hypotheses. Focus the mind on some vigorous, repetitive activity, and the “subconscious” will go to work to solve the more difficult problems (in other words, get yourself out for a good walk, stop thinking so hard, and the answer may just come to you). Walking exposes us to a constantly changing environment, provoking novel associations and connections. The natural rhythms of walking produce alpha waves in the brain, establishing a mental state that allows for deeper creative thinking. Exercise causes the brain to become awash with exotic chemicals — serotonin, endorphins, endocannabinoids — that elevate the happy walker to new creative heights.
Exercise causes the brain to become awash with exotic chemicals — serotonin, endorphins, endocannabinoids — that elevate the happy walker to new creative heights.
At some level, I suppose, these explanations have the ring of truth. But they are not quite satisfying in a scientific way; they do not seem to explain the detailed characteristics of the experience. Turning to the research literature, I found a few more clues, though not necessarily more clarity. The overall message seemed to be an appropriately guarded one, that the neural processes involved in the phenomenon we call creativity are highly complex, and science has not yet succeeded in properly elucidating them.
Then I noticed an intriguing comment tucked away in a research paper on the biochemistry of creativity: “EEG studies show that creative individuals exhibit transient hypofrontality when engaged in the solution of creative problems.” A bibliographic search duly led me to a review paper describing recent research on something called the “transient hypofrontality hypothesis.” Conceptually, this idea is relatively simple. Altered mental states arising from activities such as meditation and strenuous exercise are associated with a reduction in activity of the higher cognitive centers of the prefrontal cortex, a condition known as hypofrontality. In the case of meditation, the individual’s attention is self-controlled in such a way as to prevent the conscious processing of extraneous information. In sustained exercise, the demands of the physical workload force the redistribution of neural resources in the brain.
It all seems quite believable. My vigorous uphill walks are a kind of meditative exercise that sends me into a state of transient hypofrontality, which in turn assists the creative process.
I must confess, however, to a feeling that this is merely common sense dressed up as cutting-edge cognitive neuroscience. In plain English, I think the message goes something like this: get yourself out for a good walk, stop thinking so hard, and the answer may just come to you.
This essay was originally published on the Powell’s Books blog on Jan. 17, 2013. Re-published here courtesy of the author.