Charles Darwin had one. Charles Dickens had one. And now I have one.
I’ve always believed in the Latin phrase Solvitur Ambulando: it is solved by walking. I enjoy long walks in the countryside, find them perfect pondering opportunities.
Not only is walking good for a healthy body, it’s just as beneficial for a healthy mind. When we walk, our body releases endorphins that boost our mood, which reduces stress and anxiety. This more relaxed frame of mind improves our problem-solving skills.
Scientists sometimes refer to this as “transient hypofrontality”. In essence, because our brain concentrates its resources on coordinating our limbs so we can walk, there are fewer resources for our pre-frontal cortex, where a lot of our stresses and anxieties play out through overthinking. With fewer resources, the pre-frontal cortex becomes less active, calming the mind, allowing us to concentrate only on one or two ideas at a time.
Every morning, when Charles Darwin was a child, he and his brother, Erasmus, followed their father on a walk around their seven-acre Shrewsbury garden. It was not a time for chatting and playing. Instead, it was a moment of solitude for quiet, contemplative thinking. Their father encouraged them to reflect on what they hoped to achieve with their day and how they might do it.
When Darwin married and moved to Kent, one of the first things he did was create a Thinking Path around his new garden. He walked it every day, as he pondered his theories for his most famous work, The Origin of Species.
When he had a challenging problem, he would begin his walk by piling three or four stones on top of each other. Then, as he completed each circuit of his Thinking Path, he’d knock off the top stone. He wouldn’t return indoors until he’d either knocked all the stones away, or he’d solved his problem. Over time, he became adept at gauging whether he was contemplating a two, three, or four-stone problem.
William Wordsworth was a great walker and thinker, too. He often pondered while walking in his garden. Wordsworth referred to the nine years he spent at Dove Cottage, in Grasmere, as his period of “plain living and high thinking.”
It was during his time that he wrote most of his greatest works, many of which were composed in the garden. With the help of his neighbour, John Fisher, they built steps up their mountainside garden to a terrace, which Wordsworth flattened further so he could pace back and forth while thinking.
Charles Dickens often walked up to twenty miles a day, using the exercise as an opportunity to think. In his book The Uncommercial Traveller, he explains:
‘My walking is of two kinds: one, straight on end to a definite goal at a round pace; one, objectless, loitering, and purely vagabond.’
His objectless loitering was his thinking time. So Darwin tackled circuits in his garden, Wordsworth paced his terrace, and Dickens walked linear routes of up to thirty miles at a time.
As a writer myself, I was keen to explore the idea of a Thinking Path. There are many times when the right words won’t flow, or I can’t determine the right ending for a piece. Both Darwin and Wordsworth chose routes they could do without having to think about where they were going. It allowed them to focus their thinking purely on the problem they were trying to solve.
Using a local map, I created a two-mile route from my front door that circles a small hill. It crosses open hillside, often grazed by sheep, then climbs alongside a wooded stream, before emerging on a single-track lane with grass growing down the middle, and far-reaching views across the Shropshire countryside. A long descent brings me to another lane, from where I take a stile, through a wooded section, carpeted with bluebells and wild garlic in spring, beech and oak leaves in autumn, and several inches of snow in winter.
I spent the first week marvelling at the sights and distractions around me: joyful birdsong, the high-pitched bleating of lambs, and the soulful mewing of buzzards and kites on the thermals above.
I soon fell into a routine during my second week, opening gates and crossing stiles without thinking, sauntering silently along the single-track lane, yet stepping onto the grass verge without noticing the approaching car or tractor.
During my third week, I began problem-solving. An editor rejected a story because she didn’t like the ending. Could I come up with something stronger? Dejected, my automatic response was to go for a walk. Three-quarters of the way round, a more satisfying ending came to me. I ran back home to write it up. And yes, the editor loved the new ending.
Since then, my Thinking Path has resolved all kinds of problems: deciding to end a toxic friendship, ditching a difficult client, and even reminding me to nurture myself with a much-needed holiday.
Not every problem is solvable during a single two-mile circuit. Unlike Darwin, I don’t keep walking until I’ve solved my problem. Instead, I pick up my thinking from where I left off the day before. Darwin had two, three or four-stone problems. I have two, three, or four-day problems.
My Thinking Path allows me to savour problems now. I look forward to my solitudinal stroll, where I know that, given time, I can resolve it all, through walking.
Create Your Own Thinking Path:
- Find somewhere safe to walk, such as a local park, or playing field, away from dangerous roads or livestock.
- Get to know your route first. Walk it several times, over a period of days, before contemplating problems.
- Walk alone. A thinking path is for quiet contemplation, not discussion.
- Accept that the solutions to some problems will come quicker than others.
- Record your Thinking Path experiences in a journal. What can you learn about the problems you solve this way?
© Simon Whaley