Take a Hike, or “Thoreau Was a Neuroscientist”

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Stop reading this and go outside and take a walk somewhere nature-like. Right now.

Okay, did you go? Good. Now you might actually pay attention to me.

My dad’s in town, and after I told him about my struggles with never being able to get off the damned Internet, he mentioned this study that showed going for a hike in nature can actually make you smarter (here’s a less scientific write-up).

It’s called Attention Restorative Theory, and the idea behind it is that when you go for a walk in, say, the woods, you’re using a more subtle “involuntary attention” when looking at things like sunsets or squirrels. When you’re in the city, you’re always avoiding that asshole bicyclist, stepping over that pile of human poo, or spending your brain power ignoring the Rottweiler barking at you in the window. Because your “direct attention” is always focused, your prefrontal cortex is always on overdrive, and you end up not being as good at things that you need “direct attention” for, like learning at school or solving problems you haven’t faced before or resolving conflict. And if a simple walk through the city overwhelms us, I can’t even imagine what the Internet does.

In other words, if you don’t take some time to look at a sunset, your brain never gets a break, and that’s not good.

Not that this is necessarily all that new, but I thought everyone could use a reminder. In fact, it seems that neuroscientists may just be finally catching up with 19th century transcendentalists.

Here’s a line from Thoreau’s essay Walking“: “He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all, but the Saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.”

Note: The quote in the title came from “Emmy” in the comments section of this article.


Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He is a Dornsife PhD Fellow at USC and been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →