On the Link Between Great Thinking and Obsessive Walking

From Charles Darwin to Toni Morrison, Jeremy DeSilva Looks at
Our Need to Move

April 19, 2021

Moreover, you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.
–Henry David Thoreau, "Walking," 1861

Charles Darwin was an introvert. Granted, he spent almost five years traveling the world on the Beagle recording observations that produced some of the most important scientific insights ever made. But he was in his twenties then, embarking on a privileged, 19th-century naturalist’s version of backpacking around Europe during a gap year. After returning home in 1836, he never again stepped foot outside the British Isles.

He avoided conferences, parties, and large gatherings. They made him anxious and exacerbated an illness that plagued much of his adult life. Instead, he passed his days at Down House, his quiet home almost twenty miles southeast of London, doing most of his writing in the study. He occasionally entertained a visitor or two but preferred to correspond with the world by letter. He installed a mirror in his study so he could glance up from his work to see the mailman coming up the road—the 19th-century version of hitting the refresh button on email.

Darwin’s best thinking, however, was not done in his study. It was done outside, on a lowercase d–shaped path on the edge of his property. Darwin called it the Sandwalk. Today, it is known as Darwin’s thinking path. Janet Browne, author of a two-volume biography of Darwin, wrote:

As a businesslike man, he would pile up a mound of flints at the turn of the path and knock one away every time he passed to ensure he made a predetermined number of circuits without having to interrupt his train of thought. Five turns around the path amounted to half a mile or so. The Sandwalk was where he pondered. In this soothing routine, a sense of place became preeminent in Darwin’s science. It shaped his identity as a thinker.

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Darwin circled the Sandwalk as he developed his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. He walked to ponder the mechanism of movement in climbing plants and to imagine what wonders pollinated the fantastically shaped and colorful orchids he described. He walked as he developed his theory of sexual selection and as he accumulated the evidence for human ancestry. His final walks were done with his wife Emma as he thought about earthworms and their role in gradually remodeling the soil.

In February 2019, I had the meta-experience of walking Darwin’s thinking path to think about how walking helps you think. It was school vacation in London, and I had to compete with families arriving in droves to see where Darwin had lived and worked. The desk in his study is still cluttered with books, letters, and small specimen boxes containing pinned insects. Hanging from a nearby chair is his black jacket, black bowler hat, and a wooden walking stick. The stick has a helical design like a crawling tendril and looks freshly polished. The bottom of the walking stick, however, is well worn—evidence of miles on the Sandwalk.

Darwin’s best thinking was not done in his study. It was done outside, on a lowercase d–shaped path on the edge of his property.

I walked out the back kitchen of the cream-colored home, passed the green trellis and vine-covered columns holding up Darwin’s back porch, crossed the beautifully groomed garden, and entered the Sandwalk. I was alone. The day was cool and blustery. Gray clouds hung low on the horizon and moved swiftly overhead, dropping an intermittent drizzle. Occasional breaks in the clouds allowed the sun to peek through, making the raindrops flicker.

I could hear planes from the nearby London Biggin Hill Airport and the hum of a lorry traveling along A233. But those modern sounds were fleeting. It was easy to imagine that it was 1871 and that I was taking a walk with Darwin himself. I could hear the chatter of gray squirrels but tuned them out as well since they are an invasive North American species introduced into England in 1876.

I stacked five flat flints at the entrance for the five laps I would take and began my walk, first along the meadow and then counterclockwise into the woods. The Sandwalk is alive. Starlings and crows fly overhead, filling the air with their trills and gurgles. Ivy inches up the thick trunks of alder and oak trees toward the sunlight. Underfoot, fungi decompose wet leaves, emitting the smell of fresh earth. I picked up a clump of cockleburs just off the path, and their hooks pulled on the folds of my hand and latched to my jacket. With each step the gravel crunched, and my shoes occasionally slipped on damp stones made smooth by thousands of footsteps, including some taken by Darwin himself.

Down House is not a place of magic, nor is it a place of worship. Looping the Sandwalk one flint at a time did not endow me with the wisdom to continue my scientific pursuits. It turns out, any walk outdoors has the potential to unlock our brains. The Sandwalk just happened to be where the unlocking of one 19th-century brain helped change the world and our place in it.

But why? Why does walking help us think?

You are undoubtedly familiar with this situation: You’re struggling with a problem—a tough work or school assignment, a complicated relationship, the prospects of a career change—and you cannot figure out what to do. So you decide to take a walk, and somewhere along that trek, the answer comes to you.

The nineteenth-century English poet William Wordsworth is said to have walked 180,000 miles in his life. Surely on one of those walks he discovered his dancing daffodils. French philosopher JeanJacques Rousseau once said, "There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts. When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to set my mind going."

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s and Henry David Thoreau’s walks in the New England woods inspired their writing, including "Walking," Thoreau’s treatise on the subject. John Muir, Jonathan Swift, Immanuel Kant, Beethoven, and Friedrich Nietzsche were obsessive walkers. Nietzsche, who walked with his notebook every day between 11 am and 1 pm, said, "All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking." Charles Dickens preferred to take long walks though London at night. "The road was so lonely in the night, that I fell asleep to the monotonous sound of my own feet, doing their regular four miles an hour," Dickens wrote. "Mile after mile I walked, without the slightest sense of exertion, dozing heavily and dreaming constantly." More recently, walks became an important part of the creative process of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs.

It turns out, any walk outdoors has the potential to unlock our brains.

It is important to pause and reflect on these famous walkers. They are all guys. Little has been written about famous women who regularly walked. Virginia Woolf is one exception. She apparently walked quite a bit. More recently, Robyn Davidson trekked with her dog and four camels across Australia and wrote about it in her book Tracks. In 1999, Dorris Haddock, an 89-year-old grandmother from Dublin, New Hampshire, walked 3,200 miles from coast to coast to protest United States campaign finance laws.

Historically, however, walking has been the privilege of white men. Black men were likely to be arrested, or worse. Women just out for a walk were harassed, or worse. And, of course, rarely in our evolutionary history was it safe for anyone to walk alone.

Perhaps it is a coincidence that so many great thinkers were obsessive walkers. There could be just as many brilliant thinkers who never walked. Did William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, or Toni Morrison walk every day? What about Frederick Douglass, Marie Curie, or Isaac Newton? Surely the astoundingly brilliant Stephen Hawking did not walk after ALS paralyzed him. So walking is not essential to thinking, but it certainly helps.


Marilyn Oppezzo, a Stanford University psychologist, used to walk around campus with her Ph.D. advisor to discuss lab results and brainstorm new projects. One day they came up with an experiment to look at the effects of walking on creative thinking. Was there something to the age-old idea that walking and thinking are linked?

Oppezzo designed an elegant experiment. A group of Stanford students were asked to list as many creative uses for common objects as they could. A Frisbee, for example, can be used as a dog toy, but it can also be used as a hat, a plate, a bird bath, or a small shovel. The more novel uses a student listed, the higher the creativity score. Half the students sat for an hour before they were given their test. The others walked on a treadmill.

The results were staggering. Creativity scores improved by 60 percent after a walk.

A few years earlier, Michelle Voss, a University of Iowa psychology professor, studied the effects of walking on brain connectivity. She recruited 65 couch-potato volunteers aged 55 to 80 and imaged their brains in an MRI machine. For the next year, half of her volunteers took 40-minute walks three times a week. The other participants kept spending their days watching Golden Girls reruns (no judgment here; I love Dorothy and Blanche) and only participated in stretching exercises as a control. After a year, Voss put everyone back in the MRI machine and imaged their brains again. Not much had happened to the control group, but the walkers had significantly improved connectivity in regions of the brain understood to play an important role in our ability to think creatively.

Walking changes our brains, and it impacts not only creativity, but also memory.

In 2004, Jennifer Weuve of Boston University’s School of Public Health studied the relationship between walking and cognitive decline in 18,766 women aged 70 to 81. Her team asked them to name as many animals as they could in one minute. Those who walked regularly recalled more penguins, pandas, and pangolins than the women who were less mobile. Weuve then read a series of numbers and asked the women to repeat them in reverse order. Those who walked regularly performed the task much better than those who didn’t. Even walking as little as 90 minutes per week, Weuve found, reduced the rate at which cognition declined over time. Therefore, because cognitive decline is what occurs in the earliest stages of dementia, walking might ward off that neurodegenerative condition.

But correlation does not equal causation. Otherwise, one could interpret graveyards as places where giant stones fall from the sky and kill unsuspecting, mostly elderly, people. Perhaps the arrow of causality was pointing in the wrong direction. Maybe mentally active people were simply more likely to go for a walk. Researchers had to dive deeper.


Excerpted from First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human by Jeremy DeSilva. Excerpted with the permission of Harper. Copyright © 2021 by Jeremy DeSilva.

Jeremy DeSilva
Jeremy DeSilva is an anthropologist at Dartmouth College. He is part of the research team that discovered and described two ancient members of the human family tree—Australopithecus sediba and Homo naledi. He has studied wild chimpanzees in Western Uganda and early human fossils in museums throughout Eastern and South Africa. From 1998 to 2003, he worked as an educator at the Boston Museum of Science. He continues to be passionate about science education and travels throughout New England, giving lectures on human evolution. He and his wife, Erin, live in Norwich, Vermont, with their twins, Ben and Josie.

Join the discussion…

  • Eugenie 4 months ago edited

    "Historically, however, walking [going out for a walk] has been the privilege of white men."

    We might smile and excuse that observation, given the pressure on modern academics to be demonstrably woke. On the other hand, it is even more amusing to see an anthropologist make such an ethnocentric error in the cause of wokeness.

      • Interesting comment. I enjoy walking too as I am pondering an idea during a writing project. Or for inspiration. Even for a visual that sparks an idea. But as a Black man living in a heavily policed neighborhood, I always make sure to have my i.d. with me, something I suppose Darwin never had to think about.

          • What about where black people have hiustorically lived? The situation is not the same as a black person Europe or the USA>

              • Yes Cary! Perhaps Eugenie could ask black people or women - including black women - what taking a walk at night or in an isolated place is like rather than deciding the author was 'woke' - a term I loathe. I am a white woman who can only walk at night if I dress like a man and even then it is hard to shake the hypervigilance and knowledge that women have been assaulted and changed forever in these very streets, the trauma of that does not stir the soul, it makes it harder, not easier to live. Walking is a freedom and to be able to do so without fear is a wonderful privilege all men, women and children should know.

                  • "I am a white woman who can only walk at night if I"- this is not true. Men are about 4-5x more likely to face violence and murder. If it's dangerous for women, it's considerably more dangerous for men.

                    Furthermore, walking, even at night is a safe activity for almost everyone other than in some acute circumstances which are worth pointing out, but not in the context of this article.

                      • "I am a white woman who can only walk at night if I dress like a man...." Like a rich white man?

                        Walk where?

                        I also loathe 'woke', which is why I mock it.

                        I suspect that I am much more likely than you to have an understanding of the fears of non-white women and men. Need I explain?

                        • There are presumably some places in the world where it is unsafe to walk. However, I come from The Bronx, and the vast majority of The Bronx is safe for everyone to walk in, during most hours of 8-8. The issue is much more that it is so crowded that the type of relaxed walking the author mentions is problematic.

                          However, I am curious what part of the country you are referring to that is too dangerous for you to walk in?

                        • The author is correct here. Wealth and power allow people to walk without fear. It’s not being woke, it’s being observant.

                            • Of course it is different with women, but walking was not the invention of Europeans. I'd bet serious money that guys in Africa, South America, China, India, etc., all walked.

                              Further, it should be noted that a key component of the article is that Darwin never actually left his property. I only mention this because obesity is a pet peeve of mine. A run thru the woods is more dangerous for a woman than a man, but virtually everyone can walk to the corner and back, as many times as they want.

                                • It's being ethnocentric, at least, which clouds observation and generates error. The author needs to look outside the USA cocoon and beyond the whiteness factor. This part of your comment is particularly dubious: "Wealth and power allow people to walk without fear". Anywhere and everywhere? Do you think a wealthy, powerful white or black or Hispanic or Chinese or Arab man can walk without fear anywhere in Chicago? New York? Johannesburg? Bangkok? Shanghai?

                                    • They can walk with less fear than women of any make and model can in those places.

                                        • It's more dangerous for men on the streets than women by far.
                                          Men do almost all of the killing but are also almost all of the victims.
                                          Where's it's bad for women is intimate partners.

                                          Ladies face way more danger at home that out on the streets almost anywhere.
                                          It's something that defies the easy stereotypes, I mean, it's just really easy to be 'scared at night' on the streets. But I don't think the notion of domestic violence should come as a surprise either. That said, for domestic violence as a whole (i.e. not murder), it's actually evenly split between men and women being victims and perpetrators.

                                          By and large ... it's mostly safe out there for all races, it always has been, other than in acute areas where victims and offenders are almost always of the same race and class.

                                          This is not a woke issue there was not need to introduce this into the argument.

                                          • If one is wealthy, he can NOT just walk anywhere, which is why some of them have bodyguards and/or live in gated communities.

                                            When one is wealthy, he becomes a target for criminals and can NOT walk just anywhere.

                                            In fact the more money you have, the less you can just walk anywhere and feel safe.

                                              • (from the amren story: "minnesota-sets-new-state-records-for-murders-assaults-on-police-officers-in-2020")

                                                And you said:

                                                The connection between race and crime is obvious; More blacks ( and hispanics) = more crime.

                                                During the prohibition era wars, which race was committing the most crime?

                                                  • It’s been two days and you haven’t answered the question. In case you can’t answer, either from ignorance or a "personal" reason for not wanting to, the answer is: YOUNG WHITE MEN. They were committing crime against each other at exorbitant rates. And that puts the mighty kibosh on your "racial theory" regarding crime and race. Amren race realism makes you stupid.

                                                    • I was thinking about women, actually.

                                                        • Of course it’s not "anywhere and everywhere" . But rich neighborhoods are safer than poor neighborhoods in every place I’ve lived. Ecuador, Tanzania, Germany , Australia, dc , Baltimore, Indiana, Oregon, turkey.

                                                          • I thought much the same that the reference to "privileged " was a very modern observation and also a cultural one. Outside the US cultures walk much more and even outside of the western world for centuries their is no telling how walking has contributed to the advancement of society by enhancing thinking.
                                                            Many things recorded by modern thinkers I believe may have well been known and discovered but not recorded. The articles author simply weighed in through current experience and culture, where the book author expands through vast segments of time, culture and human evolution

                                                            • Totally false. Walking is safe for almost everyone, even walking at night.
                                                              'Wealth' is almost assuredly more likely to make you a target.
                                                              A Black man above lamented having to carry an ID in a heavily policed neighbourhood, which is not nice, but rather upside down: the police are absolutely not a danger to him. Unfortunately, by far the most likely of his assailants are other Black men. In reality, if the streets are unsafe for Black Men (and in some places this is the case) then its due to the actions of others in their group. Not the 'Rich and Powerful'. Finally, it's mostly safe out there for everyone, so ideological totems like this really do not have a place in the discussion.

                                                                • I'm not sure where you live, but when you say that "walking is safe for almost everyone" and that "the Police are not a danger to a black man" you lose some credibility.

                                                                • Also, living in a place with not too much "diversity" (esp of the African variant) really helps with safety.

                                                                    • This is a site for educated people. If you want to post racist drivel I'm sure you can find a better place to do it. Just google "white nationalist" and you'll find your friends.

                                                                  • A couple of notes here:

                                                                    The study by Weuve could easily be selection bias. I'd would bet real money that the folks that are aware of the health benefits of walking/running were likely more cognizant to start with.

                                                                    The second is that, I have no idea why you would tune out squirrels because they are an invasive species. The benefit of walking is to allow your mind to relax and allow all manner of noise and sights to seep in. And to allow the issues of the day to slip out. To make a mental effort to tune out various stimuli would seem counter-productive. I'm not a scientist, but my own personal experience is that it is best to do no real thinking at all.

                                                                      • The idea of tuning out the squirrels is because the author was trying to replicate the walk exactly as Darwin experienced it (before squirrels existed in the UK)

                                                                          • Red Squirrels have been present in the UK for about 10,000 years, grey squirrels are more recent arrivals. I would add that Wordsworth wouldn't have had to walk very far to find the daffodils - they were in his garden (and are still grown there).

                                                                              • I understand that, I guess, but that's not what the walk is all about.

                                                                                And I'd bet real money that is exactly what Darwin did NOT do. I'd take a pretty good guess that Darwin was probably more fascinated by that which did not belong, rather than that which did.

                                                                                If the author wanted to replicate Darwin's experience, he needs to think and act like Darwin was likely to have done.

                                                                              • "...Historically, however, walking has been the privilege of white men...."

                                                                                The author of the above article surely knows that that is not true.

                                                                                I will give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that he only said that because in this crazy age we live in, he felt he had to ( or was pressured to ) insert some anti-white comment in his article or he would risk being accused of white supremacism. ( which I will be accused of for this comment, any minute now )

                                                                                Historically, for tens of thousands of years, humans - of ALL races - had only one way to go from point A to point B, and it was walking.

                                                                                If anyone has Historical documented evidence that 3000 of years ago Chinese did not walk because they were not white or that 50,000 years ago blacks in Africa did not walk because they were not white, please provide it.

                                                                                I rest my case.

                                                                                  • I come from The Bronx. The African-Americans, the Latinos, and the Asians all buy groceries, have kids in school, have jobs, go to Church, etc., but apparently, none of them walk.

                                                                                    • James Henry 4 months ago edited
                                                                                      Historically, however, walking has been the privilege of white men. Black men were likely to be arrested, or worse

                                                                                      It depends, as they say, what you mean by "historically".
                                                                                      Bruce Chatwin in Songlines not a scientifically reliable book. I'd agree, but still well worth reading - looks at the importance of walks and the memory of walks to Australian aborigines and generalises that early humans were nomadic and that their lives centred on their walks.

                                                                                        • My first thought after reading the article was to see if the Berkeley Public Library has a copy yet ..

                                                                                              • The photographs of described walk away would have been so much better to provide readers the glimpse...

                                                                                                • Delia 3 months ago

                                                                                                  Women writer/walkers:

                                                                                                  Grandma Gatewood

                                                                                                  Dorothy Wordsworth (as for those daffodils brother William wrote about....... https://human.libretexts.or...

                                                                                                  Cheryl Strayed
                                                                                                  Isabella Bird
                                                                                                  Rebecca Solnit
                                                                                                  Anne Labastille
                                                                                                  Nan Shepard
                                                                                                  This does not include the multitude of women adventurers who subsequently wrote memoir

                                                                                                    • HemithTIles 4 months ago

                                                                                                      Sometimes you need to start acting rather then thinking more about it. Like " Good idea is not good unless you work on it." From last 2 year i am thinking to start tiles company and not finally i decided to start Best Tiles Manufacturer Hemith Tiles and this article boost my thinking.

                                                                                                        • A priviliged, white, liberal pansy teaching at Dartmouth and living in the self-loathing state of VT. How does Jeremy DeSilva go on living when he looks in the mirror each morning and hates the reflection?

                                                                                                            • paxmaker 4 months ago edited

                                                                                                              Thanks for the era reminder and the authors. if we can get off the gender politics psychosis for a minute, let me suggest, if you have the time, to take another look ay "My Fair Lady" on your favorite film site. Music is great. Satire as well. Remember that style of writing? Then discuss, exactly what you think Audrey Hepburn does at the very end, as the intent seems to be she engineers her real dignity.

                                                                                                              • I used to keep--that is, know where I kept--a list of noted thinker walkers. Certainly Wm Wordsworth & Co were notable in that line, and so was Albert Einstein. When stuck, he go for a walk. He called it 'incubating.'

                                                                                                                  • Because the brain which is the seat of consciousness, for arguments sake, and that part of the anatomy that provides the act of walking share a common elemental metaphysical source, it is easy to see why a vigorous act of peregrination creates an enhanced stream of thought

                                                                                                                      • Understanding the material source, principles and dynamics upon which the human physical body is 'designed' explains this phenomenon

                                                                                                                          • The parts of the human body that enable peregrination and the brain that enables consciousness are emanations of the same substance. Working in tandem the effect of the act of using the legs to walk increases activity in the brain

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