Thinking is a physical activity
This article explores how a mathematician comes up with creative solutions and new ideas. The key? It is neatly summed up in the last sentences: ‘I strike the ball and lift the weights, knowing that there is something about moving my body that will help move my mind.’
Throughout the ages, remarkable thinkers extolled the benefits of physical movement for the creative process. Nietzsche says he wrote a whole book while hiking in the Alps. Countless others extolled the benefits of walking for their creative pursuits, such as William Wordsworth, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Kant, Darwin, Einstein.
“Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Henry David Thoreau
Research has caught up with these great thinkers, with a lot of studies measuring the benefits of physical movement to creative problems solving. Thinking is a physical activity.
Why do we need physical movement for abstract thinking?
Because we are very successful apes, not virtual code.
Our minds are the product of natural selection. We evolved to survive and reproduce in the natural world.
Our capacity for abstract critical thinking helped our ancestors predict the future and thus change it. They could anticipate their prey and thus catch animals faster than them. They could kill predators bigger, stronger and meaner than themselves. They could invent new tools. They could create ideas.
The human capacity for creative solution is not a random occurrence, nor a divine gift. It is a survival adaptation.
Our ancestors solved physical material problems. They solved the problem of making a knife out of stone and plants, not the problem of identifying the best sold products of the company in Black Friday. They solved the problem of trapping quick deer, not of making pretty PowerPoint charts.
Solving problems was not a purely abstract exercise. It was a practical exercise. We physically moved to solve problems.
Hunting was not an armchair strategy, it was a deadly combination of chess, Crossfit and poker.
One where success came in equal measure from thinking and the quality of the execution. You not only had to anticipate where the deer goes, but also throw the spear skillfully to hit it.
Our brain evolved to solve problems while moving rather than while we are sedentary
For this reason we are smarter and solve problems better when we are in motion. Thinking is a physical activity.
This implies we are dumber when sitting still.
But why? Would it not be more advantageous for us to be as smart as possible all the time? When moving but also when sedentary.
The answer lies in energy conservation.
We are energy misers
All animals conserve energy. It is the coin of life in natural selection. Animals survive if they have more energy than they expend. So all animals evolved to be as good as possible at obtaining energy and at preventing its use unless absolutely necessary.
Thinking is hard. Metaphorically and biologically. Intense problem solving consumes much more energy than brain functioning in a more relaxed mode (e.g. daydreaming, looking at something or performing simple tasks). For example chess grandmasters burn 6,000 calories on tournament days. That’s three times the average person while sitting in a chair all day long.
It was advantageous to do creative problem solving only when it was necessary. And not do it in the rest of the time. This conserved energy. So we evolved to be good at creative problem solving while we are in physical movement.
It is also why you are bad at creative problem solving later in the day. You have already expended a lot of energy with tasks, so your brain becomes unwilling to expend the energy needed for difficult problem solving. Most writers and thinkers do creative work in the first part of the day. Their brains are fresh. This means their brains have energy to spare for problem solving.
Sitting inhibits creative problem solving
Our ancestors did not do any important tasks while being static. Everything important implied movement and action.
Resting was static. Socializing was sometimes static. Eating and digesting were static. These are all activities opposite to complex thinking.
There is one type of thinking that activates when sitting still: rumination. This is regrets about the past, worries about the future and concerns about how others perceive you.
Rumination is great for long-term changes. It’s a way to analyze general patterns and correct behaviour. But it’s not creative problem solving. It inhibits creativity. Rumination is self-conscious, creativity forgets the self.
Thinking is a physical activity.
Move to think
When you hit a wall wresting a difficult problem, stop. Do physical movement to activate your creative problem solving circuits.
There are two options to achieve this:
- You could do your favorite sport. But only if it is solitary. Group sports add the social component which might inhibit you.
- You could do light exercise: a walk or an easy run. Alone. Preferably in nature.
It is not hard. I used to walk around the office. Now I walk outside the home or run a trail with mountain views. The nature trail is better. But the physical movement is the critical bit. Walking in an airport is better for creative problem solving than sitting at a desk. And you can walk anywhere.
This is not a lifehack or a secret tip. It’s simply using your body as it evolved to function.
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