Walking: A Thought Laboratory

We’ve known it for centuries, but now it has been demonstrated by science and so seems to be even more certain than before. Walking stimulates creativity and thinking.

Two men walking towards Los Angeles, 1937

Two men walking towards Los Angeles, 1937 | Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress | No known copyright restrictions

Walking stimulates creativity and thinking. Although the myth of the eureka moment par excellence, the apple falling on Newton’s head, offers a stationary image, what is most likely is that the slow sedimentation of reflections and ideas that led to the definitive idea took place in the mind of the English scientist, parliamentarian, inventor, alchemist, and farmer’s son, during his travels. In fact many of his experiments on light and electricity were undertaken in movement – often at full speed. If the scientific systems of Darwin or Humboldt cannot be understood without their respective nervous journeys around the world, as recalled by Frédéric Gros in A Philosophy of Walking (Verso, 2014), then nor can the philosophical systems of Nietzsche, Kant or Rousseau be understood without their daily walks.

Ideas are networks. We have been reminded of this in recent years by authors as different as popular science communicator Steven Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From, Riverhead Books, 2010) and scientific thinker Jorge Wagensberg (Teoría de la creatividad, Tusquets, 2017). They are dynamic networks. Neuronal networks. Moving connections, expansion, feedback between nodes and bioelectrical circulation all have their correlate in the wondering that is inseparable from wandering, the digression that leads to analogy (poetic connection), the alternation between the observation of current reality and the memories that succeed each other at the pace of our steps, which matches that of our heart. The correlate is not only symbolic, but also one of cause and effect: when walking, we generate more synapses than when we are stationary.

We still find examples of walking as magical thinking today, in chronicles and fiction alike. In both Of Walking In Ice (Free Association, New York, 2007), by Werner Herzog, the diary of a long walk to forestall the possible death of his friend who was ill in hospital and To the End of the Land (Knopf, 2010), by David Grossman, where the protagonist starts walking because she doesn’t want to be home on the day a soldier turns up to tell her that her son has died on the front line. But in reality, over the course of the 20th century, the romantic view of strolling or walking gradually lost ground to its sporting, rational, sociological and political version.

Francesco Careri, the author of that reference volume on walking and thinking titled Walkscapes (Editorial Gustavo Gili, 2005),  sustains in his new book (the anthology of articles Pasear, detenerse, published in Spanish by Gustavo Gili) that the urban walk must continue investigating in peripheral and undefined areas of the city to find gateways to “a parallel city with its own dynamics and structures, with its own formal identity, uneasy and pulsating with pluralities, equipped with relational networks, inhabitants, places, monuments, and that should be understood before it becomes saturated or, in the best case scenario, reclassified.” Following the logic of surrealism and of situationism, Stalker/Osservatorio Nomade maps the vague areas of contemporary metropolises seeking therein strategies to change the meaning of the public and the private, of the countryside and the metropolis, of citizens and refugees.

In 2017, year of the centenary of Robert Walser and the bicentenary of Thoreau, walking not only defends its by no means romantic status as a creative and intellectual laboratory, it also reminds us of its ideological nature. From the pilgrimages of ancient saints and holy men to the individual and collective protests of today, in the form of an itinerary or a march, the political history of humanity can be read in terms of movement. Both Rebecca Solnit (in Wanderlust, University of Chicago Press, 2000) and Matthew Beaumont (in Night Walking, Verso Books, 2015) think of travelling above all as a body in movement, which with its steps – be they diurnal or nocturnal, male or female – rebels against a system.

However, the truth is that our walks are no longer just physical and mental, but also virtual. Our mobile phone tracks all our steps. It is very simple to convert them into a digital map. Not only that, our everyday navigation around the Internet is very similar to a succession of walks with forks and diversions and destinations found and lost. In the future we will be able to reconstruct each and every one of our physical (recorded in GPS formats) and interior (registered by search engines and social networks) movements; but even more interesting will be the mapping of the circulation of communities. In Pasear, detenerse, Careri evokes a collective experience in Bogotá, led by guide Hernando Gómez, who invites people to “make love with the city” on his night walks. Careri says: “His walk is a political one, a public act: he knows the city with all its contradictions, he knows in which folds they nest, where they are made patent, where they become more evident “. The night walk, therefore, is similar to the process of photographic film development. What is a negative image will gradually emerge, turning into light. What is prohibited, what is dangerous if you go alone, what is hidden, is neutralised by the collective action: “It is a democratic act of re-appropriation of the public space; to a certain extent it is a revolutionary act.” When Careri counts those on the walk, there are 160 people. But mobile phones soon spread the word and the group ends up numbering over 200 people, all walking together, a physical and virtual critical mass, in motion.

Perhaps that is the great historical metamorphosis of walking: increasingly less romantic and less individual, it increasingly involves more thinking together, more reformulating as a group, more searching in a network.

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Walking: A Thought Laboratory