Take a Walk

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Another Reason We Should be Getting Those 10,000 Steps . . . Outside

You don’t often see links to Salon pieces at TDE, but I’m a big fan of walking and so is this guy. Much of it meshes with Barbara Ueland’s artistic observations in If You Want to Write.

“The brain is always active. Even when we lay motionless in bed thinking of nothing, billions of neurons in our brain are firing. Yet, in almost a hundred years of research, scientists still can’t find the cause or consequences of this activity. Spontaneous fluctuations are like the dark matter or “junk” DNA of the brain. They make up the vast majority of brain activity but are shrouded in mystery.

“Yet, what little we have recently discovered about them is already profoundly shifting our models of consciousness. Moreover, we now know that this flux is not just present when we are inactive but is involved in all brain functioning. It even eats up two-thirds of the brain’s total energy supply. That’s a big deal. . .

“The most interesting positive finding we have so far is that these spontaneous fluctuations are neither random nor deterministic, but have an unpredictable “fractal” structure. A fractal is a pattern that roughly repeats across scales — like a tree whose few big branches have many smaller branches with even more leaves that look like tiny branches. Scientists have found that spontaneous neural activity follows a similar branching pattern throughout the brain, and has a related proportion of a few slow and strong frequencies to more faster and higher frequencies scientists call “pink noise.” With this discovery, researchers are now starting to observe changes in these fluctuations related to agingconsciousness, mental health, experiences of art and nature, and memory.

“One of the most compelling explanations for why healthy cognitive fluctuations have this fractal structure is that they were an evolutionary adaptation to aid humans in identifying, navigating, and remembering the fractal patterns ubiquitous in nature. For example, early humans spent a lot of their time walking around looking for things bathed in a world of fractal sights and sounds. This is why our eye moments and searching patterns employ fractal patterns of a few long and many short motions. Even the way we walk is fractal and becomes less so as we age. Fractal patterns are easy on the eyes, endlessly fascinating to see and hear and even inspire feelings of beauty

“When we take a walk outside, the fractal rhythms of our heart synchronize with the fractal rhythms of our lungs and our fractal gait. Researchers have also shown that our wandering bodies make our minds wander too. On a walk, our brain waves slow down. The underlying spontaneous fluctuations bubble up more easily, creating experiences of spontaneous thoughts and associations that seem to come from nowhere. We often call them “moments of inspiration.” 

“Seeing and hearing natural fractals helps slow our brainwaves down, and slowing down our brain waves allows our spontaneous fluctuations to help identify and memorize patterns and rhythms more easily or work through problems unconsciously as dreaming does.

The exciting conclusion of this research is that while it’s wonderful that walking increases blood circulation, the primary source of walking’s cognitive benefits seems to come from its effects on the mysterious spontaneous fluctuations of our brains.”