It’s been my experience that ideas – we could call them ‘creative thoughts’ to represent the fact they’re thoughts about writing – come to me while I’m out walking. I don’t often write on the hoof in the sense of composing specific strings of text, but I do think through plot, conceits, scenes, images. Sometimes that’s what I’m trying to do; I take the dogs for a walk and deliberately mull over a creative problem. But just as often, I’m not consciously thinking about writing at all – I’m thinking about that hedge, or picking up the dog’s poo, or paying the car insurance – and a solution, or step forward, or idea, comes into my mind unbidden.
Talking to other writers, that seems to be a common experience: that we make creative advances unconsciously, when we’re concentrating on something else, or on nothing at all. I don’t think it’s limited to walking, but I do think walking is a particularly fertile activity for having those thoughts, maybe because the body is active and the mind is pretty idle. (Other suitable activities might include running, swimming, washing up, hanging the washing out, shopping, and so on.) And, just as walking isn’t the only activity to encourage unconscious creative thoughts, the thoughts themselves aren’t limited to writing, but occur across the range of human practices.
There’s a well-known story of the mathematician Poincaré making a big advance in his thinking while out on a geological jaunt:
The incidents of the travel made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go someplace or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step, the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to find the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry. (quoted in Arnold H. Modell, Imagination and the Meaningful Brain, 28–9)
There’s also a story that Peter Higgs thought of the Higgs boson while out walking in the Cairgorms (see here and here), although the truth seems to be a bit messier than that. Buthe point is that not only artists but also scientists may have ‘creative thoughts’ arriving unexpectedly in the conscious mind, and that walking seems to be an activity likely to foster such experiences. And in fact neither artists nor scientists should be thought of as special: the geographer Jennie Middleton has reported that people walking to work may have similar experiences. One respondent said that:
“It’s amazing how I suddenly start conceiving ideas about work whilst walking along, even without realising it” (quoted in Jennie Middleton, ‘“Stepping in Time”: Walking, Time, and Space in the City’, 1946).
So much for the rarefied Romantic writer–walker receiving special insights; creative thinking is available to anyone.
I’m not a neuroscientist or a psychologist either, so I need to be cautious here, but the simple phenomenon of finding oneself making an advance in thinking without conscious effort seems to be one of the forms of creative thinking outlined by Arne Dietrich in his article ‘The cognitive neuroscience of creativity.’ Dietrich describes how both conscious and unconscious creative thoughts might be mapped on to brain function. (Of course ‘creative thoughts’ in this context means something much simpler than the complex processes and practices of high-level artistic and scientific work – one example of the need for caution.) Most interesting for me is Dietrich’s assertion that unconscious creative thinking is less bound by our existing structure of knowledge – less policed by consciousness, as it were – so the thoughts that come unbidden may be riskier, more radical, more creative than those that are willed. So taking the dogs for a walk – or going for a swim or a run ‘to clear the head’ – might help us to achieve different and better creative work than chaining ourselves to the desk.
I’d really like to hear from you, whether you’re a writer or not, about whether you experience unconscious thinking when walking or undertaking other mundane activities. You can comment on this post or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org