Nature's Therapy Room

How Walking Shapes Your Brain

Could it be that we only understand our environment when we move at a walking pace?

The question pulled me forward from the fly camp I'd made under wind-tossed beech trees  and on to Big Hellfire Hut two hours distant. It stayed with me while I slid down the sandy trail made by penguins and deer to the beach 200 metres below.

It's an extraordinary feeling, knowing you are the only person for many kilometres. There's a sense of loneliness and vulnerability as well as freedom and belonging. I can't find this combination anywhere but out here. It feels right.

While I pad down the beach, I scan constantly. There's so much to see, touch, smell, hear, taste.  This is what it must have been like for our ancestors, walking in the midst of so much land with so few people.

I stop short by a stranded kelp plant, stretched like a marooned alien on the sand. The stem clutches a stone so tightly that I can't pry it loose. Next, I track penguin footprints up and into the scrub, seeking the mystery of a roosting place. From there, a cleft in a rock attracts my attention. I explore and experiment with photography. At the end of the beach a rock ridge bars the view. Of course, I must climb it to see what is on the other side.

The innate urge to go further is a reminder that we are born to explore and to walk. Our ancestors literally walked themselves out of Africa to populate the planet. They used their brains to change the world. Today, contemporary hunter-gatherers still walk prodigious distances, about 16 kilometres a day for men and about 10 kilometres for women. Over a year, they walk about 5,000 kilometres. Imagine walking the length of New Zealand and back again, every year.

The idea makes me wonder, "How has walking changed the human brain?"

I think an evolutionary argument can be made that walking led to the development of our brains. Based on experience, my hunch is that our brains absorb information best when walking.

We've designed a world where we move too fast, zooming along in miniature time-capsules, trying to beat the clock and meet illusory deadlines. It's stressful because the subconscious mind doesn't understand "tick-tock" time. It operates on a sensory and primal rhythm. When we move too fast, we cease to see our environment as it really is.

Out here, walking in wilderness at about 5 kilometres an hour or less, the conscious and subconscious can learn to work together in relaxed harmony. As a result, our experience of the world opens up. When walking, the world unscrambles and becomes intelligible in a way that doesn't happen in cities and towns.

I freeze. Something doesn't fit. I look around. There! Three white-tailed deer are grazing on salt grass about 50 metres away, upwind. An alert doe lifts her head after five minutes and stares at me. She drops it again to feed and I release my breath. Unconsciously, I had been holding it. The wind is chilly, though, and I walk on. At once, their tails flash warning signals and they bound effortlessly uphill.

I walk more briskly now, breathing deeper. The brain needs glucose and oxygen in the right proportion for clear thinking just as an engine needs fuel and air in the correct mixture for smooth running. Walking gives the brain what it needs.

At the beginning of every tramp, it never ceases to astonish me how walking sparks clarity of thought. If our conscious mind is a problem-solving, solution-finding tool, then walking is the sharpening stone.

The ancients understood this. Hippocrates said, "Walking is man's best medicine." Aristotle walked while he thought. Diogenes the Cynic may have coined the Latin phrase, solvitur ambulando: "It is solved by walking".

We are not designed for the modern fast-paced, stressed-out, sedentary world so many of us live in.

We are designed to walk in natural settings, alert, relaxed and tuned in.

At the end of the beach, I meet another tramper. I'm glad to see him and look forward to a companionable evening. The people you meet out here are kindred spirits.

For a few days or longer, we each find a way to reject what has become the norm and return to the nomadic ways of our ancestors. Walking a long trail reshapes our brains to match theirs.

"How do you spend long nights on the trail?"

Long Nights

One of my readers asked, "How do you spend long nights in the outdoors?"

The answer is, "Much as I'd spend a long night indoors."

I toss and turn, read a book on my iPhone, snooze and wake up again. If it's raining, I feel for leaks and tweak guy ropes. If I'm chilly or overheated, I put on more clothes or I take some off. If I'm sore or aching, I take an aspirin. I may even go through the effort of making a hot drink. If I want an adventure, I break camp and walk by head-torch.

At the start of a tramp, I curse, moan, question what I'm doing and laugh in disbelief at my stupidity in thinking this would be fun and enjoyable. Why forego the haven of a warm cosy bed next to my luscious wife for this?

The reality is that long nights will outnumber short ones but if I put comfort to one side, they are no different to ones indoors.

You still have to master your mind and this is where it gets interesting.

I remind myself that waking during the night has been the norm for most of human history. In fact, broken nights (or segmented sleep patterns) are still the rule and not the exception in many cultures around the world. For example, anthropologists embedded in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies report that their subjects are some of the happiest and well-rested people on the planet, despite waking up at night for extended periods.

Social scientists and historians also reveal that our pre-industrial forebears followed similar segmented sleeping patterns. The "Myth of the 8 Hour" sleep may be just that. When you take a longer term view, it can come as a pleasant surprise to acknowledge that we are "hardwired" to have two distinct chunks of sleep a night.

I tell myself that long nights on the trail are simply nature's way of recalibrating a more natural rhythm of rest. I don't need  a unbroken sleep to perform well the next day and nor do you.

One of my delights is to slip into a sound and refreshing at midday sleep in the same way that a modern day hunter-gatherer does. It is good for the brain as well as the body and surely contributes to the sense of intense well-being nearly all trampers experience after just a few days on the trail.

Knowledge is power. In this instance, knowing that it is normal and beneficial to awaken during the night helps me relax about it. The more relaxed I feel, the shorter the night seems.

I may not be as comfortable on the trail as I would be indoors. But when I lie awake at night, knowing I am cradled in the arms of Papa-tu-a-nuku, the Earth Mother, and blanketed by Rangi-nui, the Sky Father, I feel at home.

"The Map is Not the Territory"

I love maps. The ability to "read the ground" and navigate is a highly prized military skill.  I spent hours poring over contours, features and landmarks and still enjoy doing it. Maps are codes that can be partially unlocked by imagination. However, the only way to fully crack their mystery is to set your eyes on the land and put your feet on the trail. A map can show you the way but it cannot tell you what it is to like be there.

For example, no map, however well-detailed, can give you the full experience of moving through a forest at night. You follow a dim trail by your headlamp while a bright moon casts shadows and gleams on rocks and branches. A map cannot tell you what it is like to hear a kiwi calling or the liquid murmur of a rushing stream rising from a dark valley. Nor can a map give you that strange feeling of being vulnerable and being completely at home in wilderness. A map is not the territory.

I thought about this while I climbed through the dark forests of Mt Anglem/Hananui. At just under 1000 metres, it is Stewart Island’s highest mountain. I had left Christmas Village hut shortly after 4.00 AM in order to reach the summit in time for sunrise about four hours later. A glowing moonrise the night before had auspiciously forecast a clear dawn.

The trail looked straightforward on the map but two days ago in Oban, the DOC ranger had warned, “It’s steeper, further and tougher than it looks." Pulling myself up yet another ladder of muddy roots and rocks, I agreed with him. Yet the experience was worth every step. When the sky lightened behind me to the east and I could see more clearly, I hastened upward over spongy tussocks and moss, like a troll trying to reach sanctuary before the first rays of dawn turn him to stone.

Too late! The sun caught me on the ridge overlooking a black tarn and I turned, struck dumb and motionless with wonder at how the land flooded with colour.

The spreading blush reminded me of the common Maori name for Stewart Island, Rakiura. Translated and shortened, it means, “The great and deep blushing of Te Rakitamai”.

It comes from an ancient story about a proud young Maori chief, Te Rakitamai, who led his retinue of warriors to Stewart Island in search of a high-ranking wife. We can imagine this tattooed warrior stepping ashore from his waka in pursuit of his prize. After the customary greeting formalities, he would have taken his place of honour in the other tribe's marae (meeting house) where perhaps a hundred or more men, women and children had gathered to witness the high-profile offer of alliance.

The pride, dignity and reputation of both parties lay at stake. In an electric atmosphere, the visiting chief made his offer. But some misunderstanding had occurred. The eldest, highest status woman was already betrothed. The young chief blushed but manfully made an offer for the younger daughter. She too had been promised to another. Te Rakitamai's deepening blush of shame made such an impression on his hosts that they renamed their home and even its highest mountain after him. Mt Rananui means, "the great blush."

Like so many Maori myths, this one speaks directly of human experience. Who has not experienced the embarrassment of rejection, failure and loss of dignity? I think these legends are like maps. They show you the way but not until you enter the territory of experience can you fully understand.

Get High

Today, I decided to get high with Eli from Israel.

Before you judge, I’m talking about a natural high, not a drug-induced one. It’s splitting hairs, though. A good steep climb up through a tangled beech forest and out onto an exposed ridge-line sends a  powerful stream of chemicals through your brain.

The reward? A state of blissed-out euphoria. After lunch, I sunk onto a patch of alpine grass a hundred metres above French Ridge Hut. Cradled in a sun-warmed bowl that sheltered me from the cutting wind, I focussed dreamily on rainbow curtains shimmering from a wind-blown waterfall and on clouds boiling over a pass only to evaporate against invisible fingers of warmth rising from the valley.

Eli, my equally spaced-out walking companion is my age but an inexperienced tramper. He’s having a bad “trip" because he feels anxious about walking back down on his own. He’s brought a little food and a sleeping bag but no stove or fuel. I offer to share mine and he relaxes.

I came up here for solitude but now I find how enriching it is to share an evening with this kind and thoughtful stranger. There is nothing like getting high in nature’s therapy room.

Most people want an instant fix without effort. Doctors, psychiatrists and drug dealers are happy to oblige. But you can’t get this natural high without stepping into the pharmacopeia of nature’s therapy room.

Come on in and blow your mind.

Go Wild While You Can

Despite the ear plugs, I couldn't sleep. At least they muffled Brett's monologue and allowed me to sift through the wild ideas bubbling away in my neural circuitry. This journey down the length of NZ now had an end date less than four weeks distant. "Let's finish on a real high note," I thought and allowed myself to dream big. Almost at once, I knew what I would do.

Get Naked

When was the last time you took off your clothes in the wilderness? I had stopped for a breather on a sun-dappled wooded ridge in the Tuaruas when a glowing patch of sunlight on my forearm arrested my attention. Focusing on it, the slide into trance was easy.

River of Hope

River of Hope

I paused on the road five kilometres below Jerusalem and surveyed the straggling line of houses that make up Ranana-London. I smiled. If this hamlet had any connection with one of the world's greatest cities then it could only be as a reminder that from small beginnings, great things can grow.

River of Compassion

River of Compassion

Walking down the river road with sunshine breaking through the rain clouds and the river swirling, murmuring and sometimes roaring over shallow rapids, felt delightful. I bounded along the tarmac in high good humour, breaking into snatches of song, talking to myself, just your average tramping oddball.

Leaving the Comfort Zone

Leaving the Comfort Zone

For two days, I'd been living in relative comfort and luxury in a backpackers hostel. The longer I stayed there, the harder it was to leave. Even worse, I could sense my enthusiasm draining away faster than the battery in my iPhone.

Last Night in Crazyland

It's our last night before I start the trail again tomorrow. I'm lying in bed with Rosa and we're staring at the ceiling. It's painted with moons and stars that glow in the dark. We know the plaster walls are painted in psychedelic swirls of blue and yellow, A frieze of painted wave forms girdles the room just below the ceiling. We're in Crazy-land.

"If Only I had $1.00 For Every Time I've Heard, 'I Used To...'"

I've been thinking today about how many times I've heard clients say, "I used to enjoy…" when I ask them what they do that makes them feel confident, strong and alive. In fact, it's such a common response that if I charged $1.00 for every time I've heard it, I could have retired ages ago.