Walking and Creativity with Jono Lineen

Jono Lineen, author of Perfect Motion

Jono Lineen was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the start of the “Troubles.” He moved to Canada as a young boy and then spent almost twenty years traveling the world working as a forester, mountain guide, ski racer, humanitarian relief worker and writer. He is a curator at the National Museum of Australia. His books include River Trilogy, Into the Heart of the Himalayas and Perfect Motion: How Walking Makes Us Wiser. In this interview, we discuss Perfect Motion and the relationship between walking and creativity, confidence and time.

Greg: Please tell me a little bit about your background. I know you’ve traveled extensively. What led you to some of your favorite destinations? What led you to settle at the National Museum of Australia?

Jono: I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It’s strange, but as a child, you don’t think about what it’s like to grow up in a war zone but then years later things come back to you and you realise that that time was exceptional, for example when we were driving back from my Nana’s house once and our car got blown off the road. Strange and exhilarating for a child—not so good for parents.

My family moved to Canada when I was ten and I grew up on Vancouver Island. A beautiful place steeped in incredible nature.

When I left high school I worked in forestry (and did some university) but I knew I wanted to travel and ski race and that’s what I did for the next twenty years. I was a fulltime cross country ski racer in Europe and across North America for five years and skied the World Cup and World Championships and when I retired from ski racing I began to travel more for personal interest. I ended up in the Himalayas and loved it. I spent eight years there (although I would go back to Canada every summer to work in the forest). I did a lot of trekking and climbing and the highlight would definitely have been walking 2,700 kilometres solo from Pakistan to Nepal along the length of the Western Himalayas. I was the first person to ever complete that trek.

Eventually, I wanted to do something else so I worked with Médecins Sans Frontières for five years organising medical projects in war zones in Africa and Asia. That was full-on life and death shit, but incredibly rewarding and that’s where I met my future wife. She’s Aussie and that’s how I ended up in Australia.

Greg: How did your peripatetic lifestyle change you physically, mentally and emotionally?

Jono: I’m a pretty flexible guy and don’t get too stressed about things and I think this is part of being in many different geographic, work and social environments. I’m adaptable and this is partly because of my many experiences.

In relation to this resilience in my personality, I would say that the amount of walking I’ve done in my life probably contributes to that. Resilience combines the ability to imagine new ways of overcoming life’s unending challenges with the capacity of not giving up in the face of those difficulties. Walking promotes creativity, it generates a fresh, open and spacious mindset that lets us objectively approach everyday problems.

But walking is also an embodied metaphor for the persistence and tenacity that human beings have excelled at in our four-million-year journey to becoming the world’s most evolutionarily advanced species. The human story is built around the journey narrative, the never-ending cycle of overcoming challenges and incorporating that wisdom into our lives. Walking physically reconnects us with humanity’s greatest story and reminds us that nothing worthwhile was ever achieved without learning from failure and reveling in triumph over and over again—one step at a time.

Walking and creativity really appear to have developed in a symbiotic way.

Greg: I’ve read some of the research on the non-physical benefits of walking, such as boosting creativity, memory and cognitive processing. What are some of the other benefits?

Jono: Walking and creativity really appear to have developed in a symbiotic way. Four million years ago when one of our earliest ancestors stood up to grab a piece of golden fruit and then walked three steps on to grab another she changed the way we see the world and started to utilise what had been forepaws for multiple purposes. The more we walked the more those forepaws developed into dexterous hands which could manipulate our immediate environment for our own benefit—we began to create stone tools, which are the earliest evidence of human creativity. So, walking and creativity have been connected for hundreds of thousands of generations and through evolution, this has generated a relationship whereby when we walk we think differently. We drop into a more open and spacious mindset that’s conducive to divergent thinking.

Cover of Perfect Motion by Jono Lineen, a book about the relationship between walking and creativity, confidence and time

A 2014 study conducted by Oppezzo and Schwartz at Stanford University proved that while walking and for some time after exercise subjects were more creative (as measured using standardised creativity tests). So, what’s going on? There are measured changes in neurotransmitter discharge, neuroelectrical levels and neurophysiology when we walk. All of these elements contribute to a state of mind where we lose our sense of self.

For creative thinking this is essential because human beings tend to approach problem-solving in the same way over and over again, dependent on past experience, this patterning becomes part of our individual personalities, so to break out of those repeated patterns we need to remove our sense of self. Walking does this by decreasing the activity of the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain most associated with our feeling of individuality, increasing levels of serotonin, dopamine, anandamide and norepinephrine and dropping our neuro-electrical frequency.

Walking also increases confidence. Walking is what we’re made to do. For four million years humans have been wandering this planet on two legs and in that time our bodies and minds have evolved around this locomotion. Thinking on our feet is code for thinking creatively. Human beings are bipedal problem solvers and when we walk, we come back into touch with who we are as a species. Confidence grows when you understand yourself; when we walk we are physically reminded of what it is to be human.

Greg: You mentioned the symbiotic relationship between walking and creativity. Can you say a little more about this development? Did humans become creative because they were bipedal, or was it a simultaneous shift from quadruped to biped along with becoming more and more creative?

Jono: I would say it was a simultaneous shift. Those very first ancestors who stood up to harvest fruit created a uniquely Homo skill. What’s different about Homo is that we didn’t just rest on that particular skill like most other animals that find their evolutionary niche and stay there, we began to modify our environment for our own benefit (stone tools)—I align with Dan Lieberman at Harvard on that part of the timeline.

However, I believe that this ability to change our environment for our own benefit made it easier for Homo to do what no other species had ever done successfully before and that was leave their homelands (Africa) and move to a completely different environment and become competent in that new environment. This is what happened to Homo erectus 2.5 and 1.8 million years ago when, because of climate change events, we left Africa and moved to Asia and Northern Europe—species Homo was a more confident species because of the adaptability that creativity had instilled in them. Creativity instills confidence. Bipedalism did not create creativity but it became an integral part of a framework out of which species Homo could be more creative than other species.

Greg: How is walking related to our perception of time?

Jono: Thousands of generations of bipedal motion have embedded the pace of walking deep within us. Until the advent of consistent ways to measure amounts of time smaller than day and night humans perceived time as movement through space. Time for Homo sapiens has moved for almost four million years at four kilometres an hour, a regular walking pace.

Of course now we’re constantly looking at our watches or phones to tell the time but something interesting happens when we go for a walk; we become more relaxed. Why does this happen?

Clinical psychologist and neuroscientist Stan Rodski has said, “If I were to summarize all of my learning over forty-odd years, I’d say that most people’s stress starts with the complaint: I don’t have enough time.” Walking reduces stress by changing our relationship with time in three ways; firstly, as I mentioned in relation to creativity, it increases the flow in the brain of neurotransmitters that help create a more open and spacious mindset. Secondly, walking lowers our brain wave frequency from the beta region to the high theta range—the theta wave between 5 to 10 Hz is the frequency we enter when we are meditating. Again, this encourages an expansive mindset.

Thirdly, we drop into the flow state, we lose our sense of time. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the world leader in flow research, noted through over 8,000 interviews with highly successful people that a great many of them observed that when they entered flow they lost their sense of self—but also their sense of time. This is again related to the reduced activity of the prefrontal cortex. All of this completely changes our perception of time and gets us out of the clock-driven, stress-inducing mindset and back into our sense of natural time that runs at four kilometres an hour.

Zanskar Himalaya

Greg: I would guess you had some topics in mind as you prepared to write this book. Did anything you discovered in your research surprise you?

Jono: Yes, the biggest mind-blowing finding in my research was the relationship between walking and story. Story is incredibly important for human beings, it’s how we frame our lives, we essentially create our own personality through narrative.

The genesis of story lies with the human acquisition of two incredible cognitive leaps:

  1. Symbolic thought, which is the ability to understand something as more than it initially presents itself—a Christian cross is a good example, it’s really just two pieces of wood stuck together, but for the Christian faithful that symbol is representative of an entire theology. That type of deep, layered, complex thinking only developed around 100,000 years ago.
  2. At the same time, Homo sapiens also gained spoken language. Researchers believe that this developed at least partly out of the complexity of explaining the world through our newly attained symbolic perception.

So these two elements gave us the ability to tell stories.

At around the same time as we acquired these skills Homo sapiens were forced out of their homeland in east Africa by climate change. This was an incredible event that saw Homo sapiens wandering the planet for the next 75,000 years in search of security and by the end of that migration, Homo sapiens had gone from being a minor (possibly only 5,000-20,000 individuals) subspecies of Homo to being the only subspecies left and inhabiting every possible locale on the planet. It is the ultimate story of overcoming the odds through tenacity, intelligence and hard work, and the whole time this story was evolving we were walking. That’s why the hero’s journey is the most popular story structure on earth and why when any of us goes for a walk we reconnect with our storytelling self.

Greg: How do you build walking into your current, presumably less trekking-focused lifestyle?

Jono: Walking (and running) are integral parts of my every day. I run most mornings and find that that 10 kilometres or so ends up being one of my most fruitful periods—thought wise—of the day. At work, I try to do three short walks during the day (only 10-15 minutes). I’m lucky because I’m a curator at the National Museum of Australia so if the weather’s back I can walk around the galleries and be surrounded by all kinds of inspiration. Then lots of times after dinner around sunset I walk also about half an hour with my wife. This is great because this is when we have our best chats. So yes I walk a lot.

For more on Jono Lineen and his work, visit his website jonolineen.com. And for more interviews like this one, check out The KineSophy Library.