Often I sit down at my desk and realise I have no ideas. My mind can have been buzzing with thoughts all day, but as soon as I sit down they all vanish. It feels like walking into a room looking for something, just to have your mind go blank on crossing the threshold. My desk is the threshold where my thoughts disappear. I have to trick my mind into working, making notes of all of the things I need to do when I am nowhere near my desk so that I can arrive with a concrete purpose.
Ideas come at strange times, when walking, showering, cooking, when I am drifting off to sleep or waking up. They seem to appear when I’m not concentrating on them and feel like the wisps of a dream that if you think about too hard will just disappear.
Walking has always helped me both creatively and mentally. It has been integral to my practice, from art foundation, where I realised that my walk to college gave me my best ideas, through university where I made a thought labyrinth as part of a project, through my Masters where I studied psychogeography and the derive. For my final study I took participants on a psychogeograhpic walk through Glasgow to look at railings, trying to understand how metalwork changed the feel of streets.
All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.
As a teenager I took a course in documentary photography in which we were taken on a walk through the centre of London. The tutor encouraged us to stop, to really process and notice things around us that we would generally miss. Walking through central London is generally done at speed, so many things go by unnoticed. However, on that trip I saw unforgettable things, including a man sitting on a bench with his false teeth clasped in his hand.
Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts.
Walking has now become the way that I deal with the lockdown, I try to take a daily walk to clear my mind, to notice the birds and flowers and really take in what is around me. This type of walking has been described to me as mindful walking, and is related to the drifting or derive of psychogeography, but any kind of walking helps me feel better and loosens my mind, freeing it up to think creatively.
Every walk I go on I try to discover new things, to drift through a landscape or streetscape. I allow myself to explore, to say yes to a path I hadn’t noticed before. There always seems to be an alleyway I haven’t been down, a path through a group of trees, something inviting in the distance I want to head towards. Before lockdown this might lead me to a new cafe or row of shops. Now, it is more likely to be a park or interesting house, a chalk drawing on the floor or some interesting metalwork. Allowing yourself to go down new streets opens up areas in your local environment that make it seem fresh and new. The world is waiting to be discovered.
Walking is a man’s best medicine.
Walking has been shown to help us to think – our hearts beat faster, circulating oxygen to our brain which increases our ability to concentrate. According to a study in the International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology, aerobically exercising for only 12 minutes improves the attention. A Stanford study found that creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when the person was walking, and that a walk doubled the number of creative ideas people were able to come up with in a task. Memory is also improved with regular walking – new connections between brain cells are made, and the volume of the hippocampus is increased, as are levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.
Never did I think so much, exist so much, be myself so much as in the journeys I have made alone and on foot. Walking has something about it which animates and enlivens my ideas. I can hardly think while I am still; my body must be in motion to move my mind.
Although walking with friends is enjoyable, it is, as Rousseau says, when you are alone that a walk really enlivens your mind. As you walk you fall into a rhythm, the meter of your step matching the cadence of your thoughts. Rebecca Solnit writes about thoughts mimicking the rhythm of your step and this movement helping your mind to think along certain paths.
The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it.
Walking at the pace set by our thoughts creates its own rhythm and mood, with fast walking feeling purposeful and determined, and a slow meander allowing for more reflection. I like Solnit’s idea that you are walking through the landscape of your mind, and that your thoughts can be a physical thing to discover – she says that “a new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were travelling rather than making.” This is what my best ideas do feel like – not a complete bolt out of the blue but something that was there, hiding just around a corner, waiting to be discovered. As you walk through the landscape and your thoughts match to your footsteps, you can almost feel your way to ideas and thoughts.
Setting out each day in lockdown has allowed me to discover a new areas of town and new areas of thinking. With a break in commissions I have been able to take a moment to concentrate on what excites me, where I want my practice to go. I have bought some books on walking, including A Philosphy of Walking by Frederic Gros, and I hope to come back to this discussion when I’ve thought harder about it. If you have any comments or ideas please send me an email.