Books Now!

News and reviews from around the corner to across the world


2 Comments

GETTING THE CREATIVE JUICES FLOWING

Courtesy of The New Yorker.

Why Walking Helps Us Think

BY FERRIS JABR

Jabr-Walking-690

CREDITPHOTOGRAPH BY ALEX MAJOLI/MAGNUM

 

In Vogues 1969 Christmas issue, Vladimir Nabokov offered some advice for teaching James Joyce’s “Ulysses”: “Instead of perpetuating the pretentious nonsense of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings, instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom’s and Stephen’s intertwining itineraries clearly traced.” He drew a charming one himself. Several decades later, a Boston College English professor named Joseph Nugent and his colleagues put together an annotated Google map that shadows Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom step by step. The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, as well as students at the Georgia Institute of Technology, have similarly reconstructed the paths of the London amblers in “Mrs. Dalloway.”

Such maps clarify how much these novels depend on a curious link between mind and feet. Joyce and Woolf were writers who transformed the quicksilver of consciousness into paper and ink. To accomplish this, they sent characters on walks about town. As Mrs. Dalloway walks, she does not merely perceive the city around her. Rather, she dips in and out of her past, remolding London into a highly textured mental landscape, “making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh.”

Since at least the time of peripatetic Greek philosophers, many other writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing. (In fact, Adam Gopnik wrote about walking in The New Yorker just two weeks ago.) “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” Henry David Thoreau penned in his journal. “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Thomas DeQuincey has calculated that William Wordsworth—whose poetry is filled with tramps up mountains, through forests, and along public roads—walked as many as a hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime, which comes to an average of six and a half miles a day starting from age five.

What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that bothstimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.

The way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa. Psychologists who specialize in exercise music have quantified what many of us already know: listening to songs with high tempos motivates us to run faster, and the swifter we move, the quicker we prefer our music. Likewise, when drivers hear loud, fast music, they unconsciously step a bit harder on the gas pedal. Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down.

Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight. Earlier this year, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford published what is likely the first set of studies that directly measure the way walking changes creativity in the moment. They got the idea for the studies while on a walk. “My doctoral advisor had the habit of going for walks with his students to brainstorm,” Oppezzo says of Schwartz. “One day we got kind of meta.”

In a series of four experiments, Oppezzo and Schwartz asked a hundred and seventy-six college students to complete different tests of creative thinking while either sitting, walking on a treadmill, or sauntering through Stanford’s campus. In one test, for example, volunteers had to come up with atypical uses for everyday objects, such as a button or a tire. On average, the students thought of between four and six more novel uses for the objects while they were walking than when they were seated. Another experiment required volunteers to contemplate a metaphor, such as “a budding cocoon,” and generate a unique but equivalent metaphor, such as “an egg hatching.” Ninety-five per cent of students who went for a walk were able to do so, compared to only fifty per cent of those who never stood up. But walking actually worsened people’s performance on a different type of test, in which students had to find the one word that united a set of three, like “cheese” for “cottage, cream, and cake.” Oppezzo speculates that, by setting the mind adrift on a frothing sea of thought, walking is counterproductive to such laser-focussed thinking: “If you’re looking for a single correct answer to a question, you probably don’t want all of these different ideas bubbling up.”

Where we walk matters as well. In a study led by Marc Berman of the University of South Carolina, students who ambled through an arboretum improved their performance on a memory test more than students who walked along city streets. A small but growing collection of studies suggests that spending time in green spaces—gardens, parks, forests—can rejuvenate the mental resources that man-made environments deplete. Psychologists have learned that attention is a limited resource that continually drains throughout the day. A crowded intersection—rife with pedestrians, cars, and billboards—bats our attention around. In contrast, walking past a pond in a park allows our mind to drift casually from one sensory experience to another, from wrinkling water to rustling reeds.

Still, urban and pastoral walks likely offer unique advantages for the mind. A walk through a city provides more immediate stimulation—a greater variety of sensations for the mind to play with. But, if we are already at the brink of overstimulation, we can turn to nature instead. Woolf relished the creative energy of London’s streets, describing it in her diary as “being on the highest crest of the biggest wave, right in the centre & swim of things.” But she also depended on her walks through England’s South Downs to “have space to spread my mind out in.” And, in her youth, she often travelled to Cornwall for the summer, where she loved to “spend my afternoons in solitary trampling” through the countryside.

Perhaps the most profound relationship between walking, thinking, and writing reveals itself at the end of a stroll, back at the desk. There, it becomes apparent that writing and walking are extremely similar feats, equal parts physical and mental. When we choose a path through a city or forest, our brain must survey the surrounding environment, construct a mental map of the world, settle on a way forward, and translate that plan into a series of footsteps. Likewise, writing forces the brain to review its own landscape, plot a course through that mental terrain, and transcribe the resulting trail of thoughts by guiding the hands. Walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts. Ultimately, maps like the one that Nabokov drew are recursive: they are maps of maps.


6 Comments

Let’s Hear It for Victorian Slang!

Courtesy of A Small Press Life and Mental Floss, life is much, much bigger than LOL, BFN or even WTF. I’ll be attempting to Do the Bear and trust I’ll not Cop a Mouse. Here’s hoping we’ll all Take the Egg……

In 1909, writing under the pseudonym James Redding Ware, British writer Andrew Forrester published Passing English of the Victorian era, a dictionary of heterodox English, slang and phrase. “Thousands of words and phrases in existence in 1870 have drifted away, or changed their forms, or been absorbed, while as many have been added or are being added,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “‘Passing English’ ripples from countless sources, forming a river of new language which has its tide and its ebb, while its current brings down new ideas and carries away those that have dribbled out of fashion.” Forrester chronicles many hilarious and delightful words in Passing English; we don’t know how these phrases ever fell out of fashion, but we propose bringing them back.

1. Afternoonified

A society word meaning “smart.” Forrester demonstrates the usage: “The goods are not ‘afternoonified’ enough for me.”

2. Arfarfan’arf

A figure of speech used to describe drunken men. “He’s very arf’arf’an’arf,” Forrester writes, “meaning he has had many ‘arfs,’” or half-pints of booze.

3. Back slang it

Thieves used this term to indicate that they wanted “to go out the back way.”

4. Bags o’ Mystery

An 1850 term for sausages, “because no man but the maker knows what is in them. … The ‘bag’ refers to the gut which contained the chopped meat.”

5. Bang up to the elephant

This phrase originated in London in 1882, and means “perfect, complete, unapproachable.”

6. Batty-fang

Low London phrase meaning “to thrash thoroughly,” possibly from the French battre a fin.

7. Benjo

Nineteenth century sailor slang for “A riotous holiday, a noisy day in the streets.”

8. Bow wow mutton

A naval term referring to meat so bad “it might be dog flesh.”

9. Bricky

Brave or fearless. “Adroit after the manner of a brick,” Forrester writes, “said even of the other sex, ‘What a bricky girl she is.’”

10. Bubble Around

A verbal attack, generally made via the press. Forrester cites The Golden Butterfly: “I will back a first-class British subject for bubbling around against all humanity.”

11. Butter Upon Bacon

Extravagance. Too much extravagance. “Are you going to put lace over the feather, isn’t that rather butter upon bacon?”

12. Cat-lap

A London society term for tea and coffee “used scornfully by drinkers of beer and strong waters … in club-life is one of the more ignominious names given to champagne by men who prefer stronger liquors.”

13. Church-bell

A talkative woman.

14. Chuckaboo

A nickname given to a close friend.

15. Collie shangles

Quarrels. A term from Queen Victoria’s journal, More Leaves, published in 1884: “At five minutes to eleven rode off with Beatrice, good Sharp going with us, and having occasional collie shangles (a Scottish word for quarrels or rows, but taken from fights between dogs) with collies when we came near cottages.”

16. Cop a Mouse

To get a black eye. “Cop in this sense is to catch or suffer,” Forrester writers, “while the colour of the obligation at its worst suggests the colour and size of the innocent animal named.”

17. Daddles

A delightful way to refer to your rather boring hands.

18. Damfino

This creative cuss is a contraction of “damned if I know.”

19. Dizzy Age

A phrase meaning “elderly,” because it “makes the spectator giddy to think of the victim’s years.” The term is usually refers to “a maiden or other woman canvassed by other maiden ladies or others.”

20. Doing the Bear

“Courting that involves hugging.”

21. Don’t sell me a dog

Popular until 1870, this phrase meant “Don’t lie to me!” Apparently, people who sold dogs back in the day were prone to trying to pass off mutts as purebreds.

22. Door-knocker

A type of beard “formed by the cheeks and chin being shaved leaving a chain of hair under the chin, and upon each side of mouth forming with moustache something like a door-knocker.”

23. Enthuzimuzzy

“Satirical reference to enthusiasm.” Created by Braham the terror, whoever that is.

24. Fifteen puzzle

Not the game you might be familiar with, but a term meaning complete and absolute confusion.

25. Fly rink

An 1875 term for a polished bald head.

26. Gal-sneaker

An 1870 term for “a man devoted to seduction.”

27. Gas-Pipes

A term for especially tight pants.

28. Gigglemug

“An habitually smiling face.”

29. Got the morbs

Use of this 1880 phrase indicated temporary melancholy.

30. Half-rats

Partially intoxicated.

31. Jammiest bits of jam

“Absolutely perfect young females,” circa 1883.

32. Kruger-spoof

Lying, from 1896.

33. Mad as Hops

Excitable.

34. Mafficking

An excellent word that means getting rowdy in the streets.

35. Make a stuffed bird laugh

“Absolutely preposterous.”

36. Meater

A street term meaning coward.

37. Mind the Grease

When walking or otherwise getting around, you could ask people to let you pass, please. Or you could ask them to mind the grease, which meant the same thing to Victorians.

38. Mutton Shunter

This 1883 term for a policeman is so much better than “pig.”

39. Nanty Narking

A tavern term, popular from 1800 to 1840, that meant great fun.

40. Nose bagger

Someone who takes a day trip to the beach. He brings his own provisions and doesn’t contribute at all to the resort he’s visiting.

41. Not up to Dick

Not well.

42. Orf chump

No appetite.

43. Parish Pick-Axe

A prominent nose.

44. Podsnappery

This term, Forrester writers, describes a person with a “wilful determination to ignore the objectionable or inconvenient, at the same time assuming airs of superior virtue and noble resignation.”

45. Poked Up

Embarrassed.

46. Powdering Hair

An 18th century tavern term that means “getting drunk.”

47. Rain Napper

An umbrella.

48. Sauce-box

The mouth.

49. Shake a flannin

Why say you’re going to fight when you could say you’re going to shake a flannin instead?

50. Shoot into the brown

To fail. According to Forrester, “The phrase takes its rise from rifle practice, where the queer shot misses the black and white target altogether, and shoots into the brown i.e., the earth butt.”

51. Skilamalink

Secret, shady, doubtful.

52. Smothering a Parrot

Drinking a glass of absinthe neat; named for the green color of the booze.

53. Suggestionize

A legal term from 1889 meaning “to prompt.”

54. Take the Egg

To win.

55. Umble-cum-stumble

According to Forrester, this low class phrase means “thoroughly understood.”

56. Whooperups

A term meaning “inferior, noisy singers” that could be used liberally today during karaoke sessions.