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Philip H. Mandel - NLP Coach and Hypnotherapist

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Darwin's Thinking Path

An article in Natural History magazine* provides a simple but powerful example of the relationship between patterns of movement and the way we think. The article is a reflection on the country estate of Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882), the English biologist and naturalist whose theory of evolution revolutionized our understanding of natural history and shifted our perception of human origins.

Darwin acquired Downe House a few years after his return from his historic voyage aboard HMS Beagle. He spent some 20 years after returning from his travels on the HMS Beagle working out his theories and their relationship to the evidence he had gathered and the observations he had made. It was at Downe House that he wrote his classic works "Origin of Species" and "Descent of Man".

In describing the estate, the author of the article notes: "Soon after settling at Downe, Darwin constructed a sand- covered path known as the sandwalk that still winds through the shady woods and then returns toward the house along a sunny, hedge-lined field. He strolled it daily, referring to it as "my thinking path." Often he would stack a few stones at the path's entrance and knock one away with his walking stick on completing each circuit. He could anticipate a "three-flint problem," just as Sherlock Holmes had "three-pipe problems," and then head home when all the stones were gone."

Reading this description, it is easy to imagine Darwin, deep in thought, strolling along his sandwalk and contemplating some key aspect of his theory of evolution and natural selection. The fact that Darwin called the sandwalk his "thinking path" indicates that he considered his walks along this path to have some significant connection with his thinking process. It seems as though repetitive physical movements and activities involving major muscle groups (such as walking, swimming, biking, playing tennis, etc.), influence our overall state of mind and provide a rich context for our thinking processes.

Other historical greats had "thinking paths" of their own. Einstein played the violin during times of productive thinking, claiming that it was in some ways an extension of his thinking and that it helped him to solve particularly tricky problems. Einstein also loved to sail regularly, reportedly hastily scribbling away in his notebook whenever the wind died down. Leonardo da Vinci played the lyre. Mozart claimed that many of his best musical ideas came while he was walking or riding in a carriage. Similar to Darwin, other famous thinkers, such as Emmanuel Kant, walked as part of their daily regimen.

Robert Dilts (NLP developer and trainer) interviewed the founder of a large Scandinavian shipping company. The founder claimed that he used different physical activities to help him solve various problems. For certain issues, he would go out and play golf to get into the frame of mind required. For other problems, he would ride his bicycle. He was so specific about which type of physiology to use that he would say, "You can't golf on that problem. That's one that you have to ride your bicycle on."

Do you have a "thinking path" that you use? I wonder if there is an activity you enjoy, that you could do every day, to help stimulate your thought processes and creativity. There is an New Guinea proverb which states, "Knowledge is only a rumor until it's in the muscle." Do you churn and concentrate when solving problems so intently that you develop muscle tension and headaches? If so, you might want to take more frequent breaks and walk, jog, or otherwise use your major muscle groups to open up your state of mind and relax your mind/body. As Boston's Museum of Science used to advertise, "It's amazing how a relaxed mind perceives relationships."

*Keeping Up Down House, Milner, R., Natural History, August, 1996, pp. 54-57

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