Walking, Thinking, and Attention

Saw a posting (via Brain Pickings) about Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000) a few weeks back, and just got around to buying the e-book. Walking, as a basic, mundane, yet profound way of being in the world, is its theme.

For me, walking has been essential to knowing and remembering, to processing and understanding both the world of things and the abstractions of thinking. Some of my earliest memories involve it: I remember the side street of our block on Ismaningerstraße in central Munich, Wehrlestraße, walking with my older brother holding my hand; I was less than 2, maybe even younger; we moved out to the inner suburb Solln very shortly thereafter. We left Germany when I was four and a half. But when we went back to visit when I was 19, I was surprised at how accurate my memories of the places I’d walked were; sharper than the vague ones of our apartment and then our house in Solln. The buildings, the church whose tower we could see from our building’s back courtyard, everything on Wehrlestraße. In Solln there was a patch of woods (which is still there, as are the farmers’ fields nearby) at the end of our street with a path that led to a commercial strip on the main road (Wolfratshauserstraße) where my grandmother would take me to the local Konditerei for pastries and gummi-baerlien. Again, my 19-year-old self, retracing my 3-year-old self’s steps, found it just as I’d remembered it.

I’ve written before of how whenever I’m in a new place and want to really know it, I walk. Driving through a place is like skimming the Cliff Notes of “War and Peace”; even a bicycle is still a machine which mediates one’s experience, which takes a piece of one’s attention away from one’s surroundings. Walking is so automatic that it barely registers on one’s awareness, leaving it free to contemplate one’s surroundings; when it does impinge upon it, when we stumble over some obstacle, for instance, that is still a direct engagement with those surroundings. There is no more intimate way of being in the wider world. We’re animals. Moving under our own power is what we do and how we have known the world for far longer than any other means.

It is also why we can feel a loss of mobility, whether our own or another’s, so keenly: Tom, a First Nations guy who’s been one of the two guys who do the garbage, yard work, and snow removal around our building, and who has cheerfully dug out my car every winter (I pay him) with his snowblower, got cancer a few months ago, lost the ability to walk, may have only six more months to live, is bald from chemo, and is getting around in a motorized wheelchair. I saw him yesterday as I was out shopping and told him I was glad to see he could still get out and about, all over the wider neighbourhood; he laughed and said, yeah, it’s nice. But it’s still heartbreaking to see him not walking and riding his bike around, to say nothing of not having long to live.

Like fellow Concordia grad and flâneur Chris Erb, I’m baffled by people who are perfectly able to walk (and whose local environment lacks any major impediments to it – an objection raised in earlier discussions of this piece) but who dislike it, who prefer to minimize it by using their cars or other means. (Chris once described a visit with some Fredericton friends: he wanted to show them some place that was a ways away, and thought nothing of walking there, but as they proceeded and realized that it was going to be more than a couple of blocks, they became anxious and balked.) It makes me wonder whether rigidity of thought goes with a lack of significantly frequent walking – and I don’t just mean the lack of exercise which can also impair blood-flow and thus cognitive function.

Walking as a meditative activity can be in familiar surroundings, where that familiarity facilitates the automaticity of it, so that one’s thoughts can wander abstract pathways; or it can be in novel surroundings which trigger new associative thinking – free wandering parallels free association. In either case, something about the act of moving on our feet seems to set our thoughts in motion in a way that doesn’t happen as much when we’re sedentary. (There’s an image of philosophers as armchair thinkers, but I think a look at the lives of various thinkers throughout the ages would reveal that many of them engaged in perambulatory meditations much of the time.)

Why should moving about on our two feet be so intimately involved in our cognitive engagement with the world? A folk/evolutionary psychology explanation would probably cite the fact that we’ve been walking for several million years, and in a world where paying acute attention while walking was essential to survival. Possibly, but that’s only the bare bones of an hypothesis.

I’m looking forward to reading what Solnit has to say about it and much else.

—Kaï Matthews

Postscript, after a fair amount of Facebook feedback; I reproduce here my most recent comments: 

It’s interesting that the comments on my piece should so quickly turn to the practical impediments to walking in our built environments. While one quite valid response to my piece could be to focus on the potential elitism of extolling the singular virtues (for the able-bodied, to be sure) of walking – “Well, aren’t you just so fortunate to have places to walk! Bit of a luxury, innit?! Ain’t no sidewalks where I live!” – I focused on its relationship to our grasp of the world for a quite practical reason.

If walking did not have such a unique beneficial quality to it, one that is lost when other modes of transport are substituted for it, then there would be far less reason to fight for its existence as an everyday and primary means of locomotion. Zipping around our cities in cars, on public transit, on bikes or scooters, or via Futurama-style pneumatic tubes, for that matter, would do just as well, and that would have obvious consequences for urban planning. Any policy worth implementing should have a sound philosophical and scientific basis; speculating about what makes walking special thus is not some indulgence for lazy elites but rather is relevant to everyone, no matter their circumstances.

I want to argue for the essential, unique, and irreplaceable value of walking, a value I think is rooted in our ancient bipedal nature, in the way that the evolution of our cognition may be intimately bound up in it.

There was a black guy in LA I remember seeing on the news back in the 90s (IIRC) interviewed about his pushback against cops harassing him for his penchant for taking long, long walks around the city. He spoke of how important it was to him, not merely for the sense of being able to exercise his legal but all too poorly respected right to walk wherever he felt like in public spaces, just like any white person, but also because it helped him think. I remember thinking, yeah! I know just what you mean! The news anchors interviewing him seemed not to register that aspect of his well-articulated explanation of his grievance against the LAPD; they could only view him through a lens of “black man complains about not being able to walk outside his ‘hood.” The idea that he could be pondering and philosophizing during his walks, that that might even be his primary reason for his extensive perambulations, seemed not to occur to them.

Post-postscript: There’s an old joke about the difference between New York and LA: in LA they say “Have a nice day!”, but they’re thinking “F@&# you!”; in NY they say “F@&# you!”, but they’re thinking “Have a nice day!” But for me an even more pertinent difference, and why I prefer NY, is that LA is a sprawling, spread-out city of cars (as the old pop tune goes, “Nobody Walks in LA”, which isn’t strictly true – lots of poor black and Chicano folks do – but true enough), whereas NY truly is a pedestrian city, dense and compact enough for it to be feasible, and a place where it’s not unusual for lifelong residents to never get a driver’s licence.

Post-post-postscript: a number of comments I’ve received have affirmed and expanded upon my themes, so I present them here:

There is something inherently healing as well about walking. I don’t run. I walk. And I notice. Walking pulls me away from my thoughts, and brings me closer to them, at the same time. There is an inward-outward movement, like a wave, from my inner world, to noticing and hearing what’s around me.I suppose that’s why I like to visit cities. I can leave the car where it is, and explore, meet people, engage in my surroundings. – Leeça St.-Aubin

My mother was the first to teach me the power of walking, but many have since encouraged me. Nietzsche admonishes us to trust only those thoughts which come to us while walking and Taleb tells us in an excellent essay precisely why he walks. I’ve witnessed the strange mix of panic and exasperation that many suburban North Americans express when you tell them they’re about to walk for more than 20 minutes, and it is indeed bizarre. Just happened two weeks ago actually. “Why don’t we drive?” she blurted out, trying to conceal her anger. I think you’re on to something concerning the relationship between categorical thinking devoid of nuance and excessive driving. Something to that. – John Faithful Hamer

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” From Twilight of the Idols. (Nietzsche) – Rich James

Many years ago I decided that the best way to explore Brooklyn was to walk from Brighton Beach to the Manhattan Bridge. I took the el train to Brighton Beach, had breakfast at some bar/breakfast place and decided to ask the locals for suggestions. A lively conversation about bus versus metro ensued, but when I clarified that I was planning on walking there was unanimity: that is impossible! I did it, but the route I chose was more or less the equivalent of walking Jean Talon from end to end. Not the most exciting walk…. But I did learn a thing or two about Brooklyn during my meandering. I think that I did something like this: From Brighton Beach to Manhattan Bridge via Coney Island Ave. – Zvi Leve

Taking the train to TO tomorrow and will be reading Dan Rubinstein’s Born to Walk: The transformative power of a pedestrian act, along the way! – Marilyn Berzan-Montblanch

Native American chief, Red Cloud, was born to a mother with the name “Walks As She Thinks”… – Jaffer Ali

Over the last 36 years I’ve run around 65,000 miles. Hiked, skied, climbed, and backpacked much more. For me the motivation is not the opportunity for meditation, but rather the opportunity to observe nature with all my senses that gets me out there. Forget pace. Remember beauty. – Tom Bohannon

Totally agree about the walks: it’s a biological necessity that’s treated like a luxury. – Diana Young

Hell yes!! I love walking!! Especially after a big meal, that’s just the best. When I’m traveling in a new city I walk for hours to soak up the atmosphere. I live in China so wherever I walk I turn heads and get the occasional dirty look and muttered assumptions but it’s small price to pay for a good constitutional. I also love running, and biking and just propelling myself in general without any mechanical assistance though so maybe I’m the strange one. – Mike Benner

About kaimuse

Kai Matthews is a musician, composer, and philosopher-in-training (with degrees in both fields, to the extent that that means anything.) As a 12th-generation American and 8th-generation Canadian, but born as an ex-pat in Germany and feeling more European in outlook, he feels at once both a deep rootedness in and a critical reserve toward his culture. He feels most comfortable being a little out of his milieu - that is, being uncomfortable and challenged. He's a cisgendered hetero white boy who's lived in a gay neighbourhood in San Francisco, and is a middle-class WASPy anglophone living in a poor, multi-cultural immigrant 'hood where most people's first language is neither French nor English. He was a rock and roll hippie getting a classical composition degree at a jazz school, and is a perpetual beginner student of North Indian classical music, in which his Western training is less help than hindrance. In philosophy, he naïvely wonders why the perpetually feuding analytic and Continental traditions can't just get along...

One thought on “Walking, Thinking, and Attention

  1. Great article and totally agree with the importance of walking. As a lifelong resident of Manhattan, walking is a requirement, and fortunately easy to do in parks and paths; not so much on the sidewalks as the tourists block the way. I’ve found it particularly rewarding and enjoyable when my 2 boys join me so we can walk and talk, covering many more subjects than at the dinner table.


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