Tuesday, August 12, 2014

August 12 2014. How should a writer organize his workday? Apparently by writing less and walking more. Though I love to work, my feeling is that the lady is on to something very important. But, Dickens didn’t have to cope with e-mail, blogging, or computer issues.

“Walking . . . is how the body measures itself against the earth.”

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Or, How to Philosophize With the Hammer

“My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She's ninety-seven now, and we don't know where the heck she is.”

Ellen DeGeneres

I have written often about the value of walking where writing is concerned—though I don’t always practice what I preach. I do walk every day—virtually without exception—but not for as long or as energetically as I could. For all that, I really notice if I don’t walk. It lifts me both physically and mentally.

A fascinating article in Mother Jones adds some context.

Science Says You Should Leave Work at 2 p.m. and Go for a Walk

A new book tells you how to change your habits to improve at math, science…or whatever else you want to learn about.

—By Chris Mooney

| Fri Aug. 1, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Charles Dickens, perhaps the greatest of the Victorian novelists, was a man of strict routine. Every day, Dickens would write from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. After that, he would put his work away and go out for a long walk. Sometimes he walked as far as 30 miles; sometimes, he walked into the night. "If I couldn't walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish," Dickens wrote.

According to engineering professor Barbara Oakley(see above) photo author of the new book A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra),Dickens wasn't just a guy who knew how to keep himself healthy. Rather, his habits are indicative of a person who has figured out how to make his brain function at a very high level. And for this, Dickens' walks were just as important as his writing sessions. "That sort of downtime, when you're not thinking directly about what you're trying to learn, or figure out, or write about—that downtime is a time of subconscious processing that allows you [to learn] better," explains Oakley on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast.

And structured downtime doesn't just help the world's greatest writers and thinkers do their best work; it helps all of us while we're learning and striving to achieve tasks. Or at least it would, if someone told us how important it actually is. "We spend from 12 to 16 years of our lives in formal education institutions. And yet, we're never given any kind of real formal instruction on how to learn effectively," says Oakley. "It's mindboggling, isn't it?"

In fact, suggests Oakley, there are some very simple techniques and insights that can make you way better at learning—insights based on modern cognitive neuroscience. The most central is indeed this idea that while you obviously have to focus your cognitive energies in order to learn something (or write something, or read something, or to memorize something), that's only part of what counts. In addition to this "focused mode"—which relies on your brain's prefrontal cortex—we also learn through a "diffuse mode," rooted in the operations of a variety of different brain regions. In fact, the brain switches back and forth between these modes regularly. (For those familiar with Daniel Kahneman's famous book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the diffuse mode would be analogous to Kahneman's "System 1," and the focused mode to "System 2.")

What's crucial about the diffuse mode, writes Oakley in A Mind For Numbers, is that the relaxation associated with it "can allow the brain to hook up and return valuable insights." "When you're focusing, you're actually blocking your access to the diffuse mode," adds Oakley on Inquiring Minds. "And the diffuse mode, it turns out, is what you often need to be able to solve a very difficult, new problem."

Oakley is not a neuroscientist. However, as someone who initially hated math, but then later decided to "retrain my brain" and become an engineer, she grew fascinated by the process of learning itself. "Now, as a professor, I have become interested in the inner workings of the brain," she writes in A Mind for Numbers.

I am both pleased and disconcerted by this piece. I started my writing career by walking—and I have known for some time I should walk more, but have a problem finding the time. Dickens had the advantage of merely having to write. He neither published himself—nor did he blog—nor did he have e-mail to contend with. Also he didn’t have computer issues.

Still, this is an important matter. How to find a solution? I think I’ll go for a walk.

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