More on the Synergy of Walking and Learning

A few years ago, I discovered that walking made studying Chinese more pleasant and studying Chinese made walking more pleasant. It’s a big effect. While walking on a treadmill I could easily study Chinese for 40 minutes; while sitting or standing still, 5-10 minutes. The general idea seems to be that walking creates a thirst for novelty, for dry information. An evolutionary explanation is that this effect caused us to  better explore our surroundings. Such exploration paid off too rarely and/or with too-long delays to be supported by the usual reward-action mechanism.

Jeremy Howard, the president of Kaggle, discovered the same effect independently while studying Chinese. A few days ago, I heard from Patrick Roach, a medical student in the Midwest, who also discovered the same effect independently — in his case, studying anatomy rather than Chinese. He blogged about the Anki/treadmill combination. I asked him if walking on a treadmill made it easier to study Anki? He replied:

Absolutely.  I originally tried this with a 3100 card deck I created while studying anatomy in med school.  The format (Image/Name) was perfect for reviewing while walking, as there wasn’t too much text to read.  I imagine your experience with learning a new language was similar.  Anyways, Treadmill + Anki (+Music) along with my Tablet / Wiimote combo was much more productive than either task alone.  I could easily spend 1-2 hours and not notice the time passing in the same way it dragged on when trying to study endless flashcards sitting in a quiet room.  Getting tired or losing focus was less of an issue as well – I noticed I had less distractions/extra attention to spare while walking.

Thanks for getting in touch, Patrick. As Lewis Carroll said, “What I tell you three times is true.”




12 Replies to “More on the Synergy of Walking and Learning”

  1. > The general idea seems to be that walking creates a thirst for novelty, for dry information. An evolutionary explanation is that this effect caused us to better explore our surroundings.

    Or, besides the far-fetched evolutionary just-so story, walking is serving the same function that music does – it serves as a distraction and interruption when one gets briefly bored, and the more one likes the music, the worse one performs on a memory task, eg.

    > Twenty-five undergrads completed several serial recall tasks. They were presented with strings of eight consonants and had to repeat them back from memory in the correct order. Performance was best in the quiet condition, but the key finding was that particiants’ performance was worse when they completed the memory task with a song they liked playing over headphones (Infernal’s “From Paris to Berlin”), compared with a song they disliked (songs such as “Acid Bath” from the grind core metal band Repulsion). In case you’re wondering, participants who liked Repulsion were excluded from the study.

    Particularly germane, about that same study:

    > A further intriguing detail from the study is the participants’ lack of insight into the degree of distraction associated with each type of music. Asked to judge their own performance, they determined correctly that their memory was more accurate in the quiet condition, but they didn’t realise that their performance was poorest whilst listening to the music they liked.

    So, call us after you’ve randomized some days or weeks of walking/no-walking and observed an increase in average grade or something. This should be a cheap easy experiment to run, especially if it really is “a big effect”…

  2. besides the far-fetched evolutionary just-so story

    The rotary press is less than two centuries old, making it impossible for our brains to be evolved to do it particularly well. Humans have been walking and needing to recognize and remember locations of food, water, dangers & opportunities for millions of years.

    So, without the snottiness, how is this idea “far-fetched”?

  3. > So, without the snottiness, how is this idea “far-fetched”?

    *Any* evolutionary story is far-fetched without supporting evidence. Why? Because there are bazillions of possible mechanisms and theories out there: what singles out, from all these possibilities, ‘walking has to trigger an entirely new specialized reward system because I vaguely speculate that such a thing might be adaptive’? You might as well say that people love Justin Bieber because his smooth skin reminds them of ripe fruits and this would be adaptive on the African savannah. It is simply privileging the hypothesis. You don’t get to just make up random crap and say that any criticism of it is ‘snottiness’!

  4. I experienced something similar but under different circumstances. I’ve been watching some educational online courses and while doing that did some physical exercises for the back, shoulders and legs. Normally if I just sat and watched my attention span would be gone in 10 minutes or so and I would get bored quickly. Combined with physical exercise, though, I could do with no issue an hour long session which in my world is a lot. The nice thing is also that after completing the session I felt I could do more and did not feel as tired as I would usually feel. Looks like general physical exercise could be very beneficial to brain activity.

    Seth: Interesting, I haven’t tested other exercises. I noticed that if I am sitting down I would rather watch a movie than study Chinese. Whereas if I am walking I would rather study Chinese.

  5. We need a hypothesis to test. This is no ‘just-so’ story. You may be able to term it a ‘just try’ story. This is the realm of personal science. I realize in the grant writing/granting realm certain stories are there to completely obliterate any testing. The recent hullabaloo surrounding Richwine is a good example, since he inadvertently got squashed by the ‘just-so story’ known as equality, which stops rather than encourages research.

  6. > We need a hypothesis to test.

    There is a hypothesis, yes. It is ‘walking improves memory performance or concentration’; like most hypotheses framed, it is probably wrong and I’ve given some examples of why Roberts and other people might have a subjectively mistaken impression, but the hypothesis is certainly not impossible – if saccading can improve memory in right-handed people or chewing gum temporarily boost performance, I don’t see why walking couldn’t cause an alerting effect too.

    And you’re talking about testing? This is easily testable: this can be tested objectively by Anki’s built-in statistics collection or window-tracking (for memory performance and procrastinating, respectively). Roberts has chosen not to do so.

    > This is no ‘just-so’ story.

    But there is also a just-so story here. It is the just-so story that this hypothesized effect of walking is due to some story about our ancestors walking on the savannah and needed more delayed reward cycles and this explains why the hypothesized effect exists (ah, just so!). This is literally in the first paragraph of the post:

    “The general idea seems to be that walking creates a thirst for novelty, for dry information. An evolutionary explanation is that this effect caused us to better explore our surroundings. Such exploration paid off too rarely and/or with too-long delays to be supported by the usual reward-action mechanism.”

  7. I am not sure if my example is the exact same phenomenon, but I think most people will be familiar with it:
    Listening to music on the radio is rather boring.
    Sweeping the floor is rather boring.
    Sweeping the floor while listening to music is much more enjoyable (I would not call it fun, but it is not boring).

    In the same vein, exercising is boring. Exercising while listening to music is ok (again, not quite fun, but much less boring).

    I wonder if mixing any two rather boring activities makes the mix more fun, or if it needs to be one mental activity with one physical activity. Sweeping the floor while exercising (without music) seems very unappealing to me, though I have never actually tried.

    Seth: People choose to listen to music in many situations — hard to say that it is usually “boring”. I think it is more complicated than what you say. Sitting at a desk doing nothing is very boring — but sitting at a desk studying Chinese isn’t much better. Walking on a treadmill doing nothing is very boring — but walking on a treadmill studying Chinese is pleasant.

  8. The article that appeared on my netvibes after reading yours, somewhat relevant: “I tricked myself into loving my workout” –

    Seth: In the article she says she reads novels during her workout. Similarly, I watch TV I enjoy. What was shocking was to discover that, during treadmill walking, studying Chinese was more pleasant than watching favorite TV. While sitting, the reverse was true.

  9. I had a similar experience this week. I got bored listening to a video on internet even though the topic was something I am very interested in it. I decided to do some exercises while listening with laptop nearby on the floor. Somehow doing the two together your brain engages more while your body is busy. You are distracted from your own boredom and that focuses attention more.

  10. It’s not a stretch to say doing a physical activity increases attentiveness and tunnel vision. And that there would be evolutionary advantages to this. The most popular drug on the planet’s purpose is to get the effects of physical activity without physical activity. Methamphetamine stimulates the mind to be more attentive to those with attention deficient. Some children have trouble learning if they’re just sitting around. It also makes sense for the mind to not assert itself when sitting still to help conserve energy.

    As a thought experiment, evolutionary psychology can work if you think about it long enough.

    If your interest in doing the experiments to prove it, by all means. But this isn’t a stretch of the imagination. Because you can make it up doesn’t mean on it’s face fallible, it just means it’s not proven. Just ask pre experiment Einstein.

  11. I imagine I’m late to the comment party, but exercise is known to boost BDNF levels. This and or other chemical responses to exercise may be responsible for your enhanced abilities while exersizing.

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