As a child, the 19th-century the English poet, John Clare, desired to walk to the edge of the horizon to find new worlds beyond. He wanted, he said, to walk all the way out of his knowledge.
But in the last two decades, neuroscience has begun to catch up with the idea of our ancients : a sound mind flourishes in a healthy body. Thales and Juvenal are not something consigned to the shelves for dust to gather but are relevant to us even this day. Their ideas are not gathered from musty halls of an ivory tower but in the midst of a jostling crowd now it could be a Marathon Run. That reminds me the mathematical genius Alan Turing was the Marathon man who could run in 2.4 hours. There is a strong link between exercise and intelligence. While the studies unite in telling us that running will makes us smarter, it is only partly true. The process is more complicated and reveals more about the wonderful complexities of both the human body and its evolution. Although the science might be helping us to understand how the mechanisms work, an important question remains: why does running make us smarter?
Two studies, one published in Cell Metabolism by Finnish researchers in Feb. and June, have expanded our understanding of the mechanisms involved in running and the ways that it enhances memory and cognition. Before these, it was understood that exercise induced a process called neurogenesis (where new brain cells are created) in a part of the brain involved in memory formation and spatial navigation, known as the hippocampus.
While intense exercise will create brain cells, they are basically stem cells waiting to be put to use. Exercise doesn’t create new knowledge; rather, it gives you the mental equivalent of a sharpened pencil and clean sheet of paper. It prepares you for learning, but you have to actively do some learning yourself, too. Integrating exercise into your working or studying day would seem like a sensible option, if this particular benefit is of interest to you.
I think that what these discoveries about running and improving cognitive abilities tell us is that the hunter-gatherers of prehistory had to have the ability to outrun theirs.
We are slow in a sprint compared to that of a cheetah but we can chase down almost any animal on the planet to the point of exhaustion over longer distances. It is due to persistence hunting as persistent as Captain Ahab in Melville classic Moby Dick. Hunting was a risky activity because it required hunters to leave behind the places they knew in the determined pursuit of prey. With no map-making technologies, the navigational skills of the brain had to step up and do all the work. So those people who adapted this brain cell growth response to distance running were more likely to find their way back to their tribe, and consequently, to survive.
The growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus and the enhancement of spatial memory that is brought on by endurance running is basically an evolutionary safety net for when you have outrun your knowledge, when you have run so far that you no longer know where you are and you need to learn, fast. It is a mechanism that makes information uptake easiest when historically you might have been tired, lost, and at your most vulnerable.
I know what I have written with some hardship what with convalescing from a bout of pneumonia and other assorted evils of old age, is sound but I do not intend to practice what I preach. Out running and expanding your limits of knowledge works well to young bucks but not for me.
Author of ‘Footnotes: How Running Makes us Human’)