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Our Brains Were Meant For Walking
A Neuroscience Take on a Familiar Biblical Metaphor
Have you ever wondered why walking is a favorite biblical metaphor for following Christ? I counted about 50 times when walking is used in the New Testament to picture one’s moral life, whether good or evil. The obvious reason for this metaphor is physical:
Walking implies a path, or what guides conduct: “And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5)
Walking implies a destination, an ethical purpose or goal: “so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10)
But is there more to that metaphor?
As a counselor and student of psychology, I am always curious about potential connections between these metaphors and our biopsychospiritual nature as human beings. Could it be that our brains provide additional significance to walking as an image of one’s way of life?
I recently came across a study from 2014 in which walking was determined to increase creative thinking:
“Stanford researchers found that walking boosts creative inspiration. They examined creativity levels of people while they walked versus while they sat. A person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when walking.”
This research-based finding matches anecdotal evidence going back thousands of years.
Through’s inspiring book The Lord is My Courage, I learned a cool Latin phrase:
It means “solved by walking”, and has been attributed to Augustine (4th/5th centuries AD), as well as Diogenes (4th century BC).1
As attributed to Diogenes, solvitur ambulando captures Diogenes’ clever response to his fellow philosopher Zeno claiming that all motion is an allusion. Diogenes, so the story goes, simply responded by standing up and walking away, showing that motion is real: solvitur ambulando.
But the phrase means much more than that, as the Stanford study shows. Have you yourself had that experience of solving a knotty problem or thinking of a creative solution while walking?
What does psychology suggest about the relation between walking and thinking? The 2014 Stanford study offers many possible explanations: freeing the mind through activity without purpose, exercise-induced positive mood, tapping in to more memory associations, and others. I was surprised that they didn’t explore another hypothesis: cross-communication between both hemispheres of the brain.
Walking is by necessity a bilateral (two-sided) activity: the right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body, and the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body. This has been demonstrated by a number of functional imaging studies in which participants showed bilateral brain activity while walking.
I find this significant for a few reasons.
We were created with brains that have two hemispheres, and we are at our best when using both. Activating both hemispheres through walking suggests (the potential for) increased connectivity between the right and left brain.
While we ideally use both hemispheres, the right brain is designed by God to take the lead. Walking likely activates right-brain mediated attention: bodily motion (the right brain is more connected to our physical bodies than the left brain); receptivity to sensation (being outside and taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and interior bodily sensations like muscle movement); and diffuse broad awareness (not focusing on anything in particular, just open to whatever is).
It is the right brain that allows for greater integration between the hemispheres. The right brain can make use of left-brain specializations (analysis, focused attention, etc.), whereas the left brain, left to itself (pun intended), is not able to integrate contributions from the right brain.
In light of these observations, my hypothesis is that walking enables us to enter states of mind that facilitate integrative right-brain thinking.
In other words, we really do think better while walking. Solvitur ambulando.
Might that be related to Scripture’s way of picturing our embodied moral selves through walking?
While reviewing all the NT verses which use the verb “walk”, I wondered what role walking played with the 2 disciples and the risen Jesus in Luke 24. Read these verses from this familiar story slowly, paying attention to their movement. When are they walking, standing still, and walking again?
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. (Luke 24:13-15)
And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. (Luke 24:17)
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. So they drew near to the village to which they were going. (Luke 24:27–28)
Based on v. 27, it seems like they had resumed walking while Jesus was giving them the most amazing Bible study recorded in human history. Of course this new insight was supernatural, revealed to them by the risen Christ. But as one of my Bible professors was fond of saying, “God ordains the means as well as the ends.” Would it devalue Christ’s “interpreting to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” to include the physical insight-enabling role of bilateral brain hemisphere activation? Perhaps. They were walking before Jesus showed up, so walking in and of itself didn’t solve anything for them. Nevertheless, I find it highly suggestive that — and I’m admittedly reading between the lines here — Jesus didn’t interpret the Scriptures while they were standing still, but rather while they were walking.
Quote from Soren Kierkegaard
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”
When was the last time you went for a walk? How long of a walk do you have to take to experience theses kinds of benefits? Sometimes even 10 minutes can do a great deal of good for me. Taking a hint from Luke 24, how about going for a walk with a friend? Is there someone you can invite for a walk this week?
Unverifiable quotes are like a rock in my shoe. I spent an unjustifiable amount of time earlier this year trying to track down an original source and came up empty-handed. K.J. Ramsey was also unsuccessful. I just spent another 15 minutes looking again and need to give up! If anyone has any knowledge or leads please let me know!