Aristotle taught while doing it, Bertrand Russell did it for an hour every morning, and Nietzsche was at it all day long: walking has long been associated with intellectual pursuits.
A new study, however, argues that there is something very special about the act of taking your mind for a stroll, which is distinct from other types of walking.
Mia Keinänen, of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, interviewed researchers in her country who are also keen walkers, and found that all of them believed that they got their best ideas while they were stretching their legs.
In an article in the journal Higher Education, Dr Keinänen sets out what she has identified as the unique characteristics of walking for thinking.
All of the nine interviewees identified the speed of their walking and the maintaining of a steady rhythm as being key to their ability to think, with a pace of between three and four miles per hour preferred in order to stimulate the body but not overly tax it.
Dr Keinänen says that aerobic activity such as moderate walking helps to increase blood flow and neurotransmitter activity, and can decrease stress hormones, all of which can be beneficial for cognition. In addition, there is evidence that simple repetitive movement can help to focus attention, in a world which is becoming increasingly characterised by multitasking and distractions, she writes.
The interviewees suggested that walking allowed them to access a “place” where they are able to immerse themselves in their thoughts and access inner perspectives that were previously unknown.
Dr Keinänen highlights how people often reference space when discussing problem-solving, for example, by talking about “seeing from a new perspective”. Literally moving through a landscape may assist this process, she says.
The interviewees also suggested that walking helped them to remember things more easily. What Dr Keinänen’s subjects may implicitly be doing, she suggests, is using the loci memorisation technique, in which individuals remember items by imagining them in a physical space, such as a house.
Dr Keinänen, a keen walker, concludes that walking for thinking is a “potent work method that also has health benefits” for academics, and is accessible to almost everyone.
“The interesting thing is that, if you ask anybody what happens when they walk, they say that they suddenly get these thoughts,” Dr Keinänen told Times Higher Education. “It is happening already without even cultivating it. If you want to focus it, you can tweak it and make it more purposeful.”