In the documentary Happy, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky points out that it doesn’t take much to keep our brains busy and, therefore, stimulated and happy; simply changing up our running route now and then can worthily contribute.
I don’t run. But I do walk my dog several times a day around Washington Heights And so, this morning, I took on the Challenge of shaking up our walking pattern.
I followed Mitra’s lead as she curved us away from home, and pondered why the brain gets so stimulated when outside routine.
Let’s consider an MIT study from the early 1990s*, where researchers tracked rats navigating a maze in order to get a delicious snacky reward. As they learned the maze — the sound of the ‘click’ that opened the door, the feel and smell of the walls and floor, and the turn that brought them to a dead end and the one that brought them to the food — their brains were constantly on fire; with every new eye widening or sniff, something fired away in their adorably tiny brains.
Now, when they repeated the same maze, with the same cues, the brain activity started to shift. They’d still show a fire of activity at the cue of the ‘click’, and when having found the reward. But in the middle, the output required to navigate from start to finish eventually — from one run to another — began to simmer. In a process known as “chunking”, the parts of the brain that constantly assess major input like sight, smell, touch etc., began to rest as the basal ganglia recorded the process as a habit, and took over. It’s the brain’s way of making sure it doesn’t always overwork.
This process is how we eventually can drive, get to work, shower, or even read books without actually thinking about the steps they all take, or even being that fully aware of our surroundings throughout.
So I kept all of this in mind as I set off this morning. Because in the hundreds of walks Mitra and I have taken, I like to think I’ve been pretty aware of my surroundings. Yes, we’re definitely moving by habit much of the time, and I tune out as I listen to a podcast or scroll social media or whatever. But other times — and especially as this Year of habit shifting has built and layered — I’ve forgone any other activity but the joy of walking her and being present.
What would a shift of our route bring?
Taking a cue from the rats, I decide to bring my senses into alert. Since part of the chunking process is allowing the sense to acclimate — which is way helpful in a city like New York, given that things just don’t smell great all the time when eight million people share a postcard-sized slice o’ land — I try to intentionally de-acclimate them, sniffing deeply and keeping my ears and feet open to stimulation.
Whoa. It’s spring in New York City!
As we walk a lower whisp of Riverside Drive, the air fills with drooping jasmine and a chorus of chirping sparrows. A suited man walks by (poor him, it’s sweaty-hot already on an unseasonably warm May morning), and I almost faint in a burst of his cologne. The green thrust of the ash trees around — I think they’re ash, some of them, anyway — and the sprouting of so many flowers just fills the air with… green and pink and white. The light is pretty much always stunning in my part of town, bouncing off the old brick and concrete and wrought-iron of stately pre-war buildings. But this morning, I find it in secreted nooks and crannies that my eyes often miss in their downward-focused stare.
In the habit-shift portion of our walk, we cross the street to walk up a flight of stone steps, retracing our steps now on the upper portion of Riverside, which looks down on the lower. A thin expanse of trees and shrubs and wild grass separates the two, one so elevated above the other, giving the affect of now being a part of the trees that just so recently canopied you. From there, we start back.
In just a few feet, I notice mulberries on the ground. They’re underripe, dropped by the sparrows, and a surprise to my eyes, as I know the two trees on my lower street won’t be lush with fruit for at least another two months. Mitra meanders off the sidewalk and back on, both of us sniffing out new spaces. We haven’t been up here since the warm autumn days when leaves were dropping. Now, the tops of trees are shrill with the high-pitched cries of baby birds, and their shade makes the air smell cool and fresh. I lock it in, knowing that later I’ll want to channel it when in the vacuum that is the stale, hot air of midtown Manhattan.
I spy into an outdoor courtyard that always sends me daydreaming. I see a rose bush, with fully opened red petals — I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one in this neighborhood before. We’re at the bottom now and awkwardly cut across a loud, six-pointed intersection in an aim back to our doorway.
The entire trip took about twenty minutes. We walked maybe about six or eight blocks.
According to Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, willpower is a muscle, just like those in our arms and legs. Willpower — like attention, and habit building — uses the brain and the brain is, too, a muscle. That’s one of the reasons why we have a basal ganglia and it helps us create routines and habits; so that we don’t overuse and tire out our muscle all the time.
Did I waste my brain-muscle energy on flowers and birds and light? Will it be there for me now that I need it for words and ideas and meetings?
I guess that’s the next step of my study.