LucySmithsonianWalking is the perfect pace for our brains. Some evolutionary theories posit that the beginnings of our bipedalism, say, 4 million years ago, predated and even facilitated the development of our brains. We walked to intelligence.

Neuroscientists such as Daniel Levitin and Vinod Menon have studied how our brains direct our attention to either a state of vigilance and absorption, or a state of daydreaming and reverie. Moreover, they identify a “switch” within the brain that transitions us from one state to the other. In an era when the volume and velocity of information interrupts and assaults our senses, that switch gets overloaded. Walking is that ideal activity that enables us naturally to be at once physically and mentally aligned, both in our world and of the one around us.

snake_footpath_close-upI experienced this switch, somewhat rapidly, on a recent walk when, deep within my thoughts, I snapped back to my immediate senses… a 4 foot snake (python?) on the footpath will have that effect!

The slow metronomic effect on attention was noted by famous walkers such as Charles Dickens, who walked perhaps 12 miles a day (or night), compelled not just to observe the world but to gain a sense of it. Dickens described his walking as being of two kinds: “One, straight on end to a definite goal at a round pace; one, objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond.” In many respects, this mimics a description of conversation, motivated by either a sense of purpose or vacillation, or both. The value of walking is its ability to allow us to be simultaneously in the world and of the world, and to alternate slowly, at the pace of our stride, between our interior and our exterior landscapes, allowing our minds and senses to form a harmonious rhythm. The author Rebecca Solnit describes walking as, “A state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together… ”

Gustave_Caillebotte_-_Jour_de_pluie_à_ParisWalking used to be a common endeavor, whether born from simple necessity or pleasure, to exorcise our demons or as an act of pilgrimage. A variety of socio-economic, cultural and technical shifts have since altered our behavior and our mindsets. You are now more likely to see walking reduced to a necessity for those without alternative travel options, or exclusively as a mode of exercise by those clad in unnecessary athletic accoutrements, or otherwise as a travel endeavor, with a comprehensive itinerary narrowing one’s time and attention. Walking as oddity was satirized by Ray Bradbury in his short story, The Pedestrian, whose protagonist of the future dystopia was remanded to the “Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies” for the crime of walking without a purpose.

Yet walking is unarguably a more natural feature of our humanity than the automated ways we engage our environments, and by walking we access the richness of our minds and our senses. I would encourage you to be a contemporary flâneur, a civilized stroller of the streets, consuming all that you can see, and conversing with all of your potential worlds.