THE BLOG

The Psychology of Walking

16/10/2014 11:33 BST | Updated 15/12/2014 10:59 GMT
Hlib Shabashnyi via Getty Images

When was the last time you went for a walk? And I don't mean the frenetic power-walk to the tube in the morning to embark on your daily commute, nor the lazy stroll to the coffee shop to meet a friend; not even the amble around the supermarket to shop for groceries, (as strangely relaxing as I often find that activity); I mean a proper walk, with no ultimate purpose other than that of walking itself.

I live in London, a bustling metropolis whose streets are populated by various types of pedestrians, all of whom seem strangely disengaged with their environment: there are the ones who walk at a million miles per hour, leaning their heads and shoulders forward as if to make themselves more streamlined, (this type will mercilessly barge in front of you on the tube); there are the ones who walk achingly slowly, who see everything through a camera lens (this is of course 'the tourist'; sent here to infuriate the busy briefcase wielding speed walkers, causing them to tut and mutter when their manic haste is stalled); and then there are the myriad people who walk around either speaking on their phone, or staring into it.

On a practical level, many of us simply do not have the time to walk aimlessly, for enjoyment; but in a world that is increasingly dominated by the virtual realities of social media, by news and noise and endless streams of data coming at us from sides, then it seems only more important to make the time to do this most simplest of things: walking.

New psychological studies have proved that walking improves our cognitive performance; that it enhances our working memory and ability to learn, as well as creative thinking and problem solving. To reap these walking-induced benefits, however, we must be walking at our own chosen pace. Perambulating down Oxford Street might not be ideal, then, otherwise the only problem your brain will be focussed on solving is how to forge a path through the heaving hordes of people. Many times have I gone there and had my patience supremely tested by the aforementioned slow-walker types.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to indulge in a spot of gentle night wandering: as in, walking around the city at night. If it was good enough for the Parisian surrealists of the 1920s, then it's good enough for us. It is a wonderfully liberating experience to walk around the urban environment and allow the architecture and the surroundings to permeate your consciousness. Rather than looking down at the pavement, look up at the buildings, and notice things you wouldn't usually have the time to notice.

Walking around Soho on a Friday night would prove more hectic than liberating, but strolling a quiet area one weekday night can be a calming and relaxing experience. I recommend somewhere historic, like the area around the Tower of London. There is something magical about being in a place that is usually so busy by day, transformed into a place of silence and stillness. It never ceases to amaze me how we humans go to sleep at night; how we all get into our little beds and turn off the lights and close the curtains, so that we can slumber away peacefully. There is an almost thrilling quality to walk around when we should be asleep, as if transgressing some unwritten law. But it is then that we can absorb the quietness, and let our thoughts meander as we walk. No tubes, no smartphones, no people barging past us.

However, perhaps walking in and amongst nature is the ultimate way to achieve solace and a sense of calm. People probably associate walking with the countryside first and foremost, and there is a lot to be said about walking through rural tranquillity. I don't know if I'd urge people to indulge in 'night-wandering' in the country. Personally I've always been convinced that there are hedgerow dwelling men, who lurk amongst the twigs and the leaves, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting night-time rambler such as myself. Either that or I just have this gut feeling that the Hound of the Baskervilles is out there, somewhere, and a nocturnal stroll would end up with my running across the fields as I fled from the savage beast. Fortunately the countryside is fairly quiet by day, so these perilous risks can be avoided. Something about the space of the environment helps clear a space in our minds. It helps us achieve a state of 'mindfulness', where we can focus on our breathing and our footsteps. We can let the views and the fresh air and the walk's purposelessness help us de-clutter our minds, usually so bombarded with technology, and reach a renewed sense of ourselves.