Physical exhaustion and scientific creativity

I’ve just received the print version of The Chronicle of Higher Education and just have to share this with those of you who read our weekend post about being tormented by lab directors who aren’t keen on non-science activities.

In this front page article, “Running Jogs the Academic Mind,” by Don Troop, several academicians hold forth on the value of physical activity, running in particular, as a means to trigger thinking about research problems.

Religious “pilgrims have long understood this,” says Sarah Barringer Gordon, a professor of history and constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania and an avid runner. “You have to exhaust the physical self first. You really have to get kind of empty, and then it all roars in.” Ms. Gordon says that every chapter of her new book, The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 2010), contains an insight gained on one of her long runs.

I have to say that I am really, really looking forward to getting back to running after a frightening bout of pneumonia earlier this year. As you read in the previous post, I spent a good amount of time in Colorado as a junior faculty member. In fact, this coming week is one of my favorite races, The Breckenridge Crest Mountain Marathon, a 24.8 mile trail run on the ridge above the ski town that averages an altitude of 11,000 ft/3,350 m above sea level. I did it twice together with a member of our departmental promotion and tenure committee (I “let” him beat me.). The race was a remarkable experience that has stayed with me – I’ll never run a flatland marathon on asphalt.

And I have to say that the combination of exhaustion and hypoxia not only makes the colors more intense, but it certainly gives on plenty of time to gather thoughts about manuscripts, grants, and lectures.

Have you ever specifically observed your physical activities improving the quality of your work in the lab or on the computer?

Author: David Kroll

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  1. Absolutely. I was running consistently when working on a review chapter and my dissertation in grad school, and I would often work out phrases and transitions in writing on runs that I’d struggled with for hours! The trick was remebering the epiphanies after the runs ;)

    After starting my postdoc, I fell out of running routinely, and my mental focus has suffered. I’m getting back into it, and after even just 1 run, I was reminded of how much clear-headed and focused I feel afterwards.

  2. I’ll never run a flatland marathon on asphalt, either.

  3. Hi David, this brought to mind something Carmen and I posted in “Newscripts” a little while back about Dr. Nakamats, the eccentric Japanese inventor. If you watch the first video clip, you’ll see he agrees that a lack of oxygen helps the creative juices flow. His exercise of choice is swimming, and only when he is “0.5 seconds from death” do the prize-winning ideas materialize :)

  4. Ummm … don’t know if this counts, but the more I became involved in various outdoor activities, the quicker I got through my work so that I could get back outside.

    Oh, and walking, running or cycling to work helps me stay awake and think better until at least lunch time. After that, it depends on how much chocolate is stashed in my desk.

  5. Lauren, Dr. Nakamatsu was fabulous! That post needs to be Digged or Reddited!!! “Oxygen is bad for the brain,” “I have tested it on 10,000 women, I did not do the sex but I read the meters.” I think my brain is deprived of oxygen from laughing so hard!!!

    But with over 3300 patents, “Dr. Nakamats” is laughing all the way to the bank.

    antipodean, thank you so much for following me over here! Indeed, once you get past the fact that your pace varies on trails, making it a little more difficult to monitor improvement, you’ll wonder why people punish themselves on asphalt (I’ll still run a 5K on the road – still have to get conditioned enough to get back to a 10K, though).

    Indeed, PiT, I bonk around 2 or 3 in the afternoon and try to not drink coffee during the day – perhaps I need to keep some chocolate in my desk!

  6. If you are regularly bonking, then you need to remember Velocio’s rules, from about 1905:

    Eat before you are hungry, drink before you are thirsty.

    fusilier, who won’t be in shape for a century this September.

    James 2:24

  7. Dave. I love your brand of wisdom. Of course I followed over.

    Having done and seen the effects of hypoxia I can assure you it probably ain’t that good for your cognitive skills.

    Regarding running (I was attempting to make a joke). No thanks. Running bores the hell out of me thus I won’t be running a marathon regardless of the underfoot setting.

  8. During the last half of grad school, I was running (and doing other physical activities) quite a lot. I needed it to burn off much of the stress incurred during that period. During periods of intensive writing, often I would mentally stumble upon just the right transition or explanation while on my runs, transitions that I could (and probably did) spend hours hashing out otherwise.

    I haven’t been consistently running since moving to my current postdoc, but I’m starting to get back to it. It amazes me how, after even a single run, I feel much more focused and clear-headed. It’s definitely something I plan to hang onto.

  9. I more or less always run (or cross-country ski, depending on season and conditions) out the difficult clinical cases now. I don’t ever have brilliant insights during the actual run, it seems, but the process of running seems to work as a ctrl-alt-del for me. I’m usually able to come back and sort out what needs doing, stop wasting needless energy, and take a more elegant, effective path.

    It’s interesting because I’m careful to take time through the day to stop and be ‘present’ and mindful; therefore it appears to me to be more than just stopping the brain-chatter. I’m sort of observing the process, so your post is timely.

    As far as administrative duties and inspiration – no luck there, I’m afraid, as far as regenerative powers from a run.

  10. Hi Silver! Thanks for following me over to CENtral Science – great to see you again.

    You raise a very good point about also taking mindfulness breaks during the day. I’ve seen that recommendation from others and probably need to do that myself.

    Alas, you are correct about administrative duties. Not much can help with that.

  11. G’Day David

    Relevant to both this post and the previous post on ludicrous work hour for postdocs is this post on SciBlogs at The Pump Handle Excessive work hours: a serious safety hazards for workers.

    Everything we know from decades of study of circadian rhythms and workers on long, exhausting shifts shows that extreme physical exhaustion is a Bad Thing(TM). You may feel that you are being more creative as your brain fizzes out under hypoxia, but you will probably find it’s more a case of a “smell of turpentine pervading throughout”.

  12. I’m afraid I found quite the reverse. Running, or any other solitary sport that didn’t require great concentration, tended to either send me into serious suicidal episodes, or just into a depression fog where I couldn’t think at all. I was/am fairly seriously unwell, though: I suspect for healthy populations (or more mild depression patients) the effects would be very different. Team sports and things like fencing or badminton were excellent distractions for me, but didn’t have much impact on my mental health after a session (if anything, the fatigue worsened my symptoms). I certainly produced my most creative thinking when I was not exercising hard.

  13. David:
    Thanks so much for mentioning my article. The runners I spoke with were just brilliant people, and the experience of hearing their stories and writing about them got ME back on the trail as well.

  14. Don, thank you for coming by to comment! Yours is a really terrific article that deserves wider distribution and readership – I was very surprised to see that you only received four comments but then realized I only saw the whole article because I subscribe to The Chronicle (yes, I even get the hardcopy version for faculty and students to read in my department).

    Do you know how long before the article will no longer be paywalled? Let me know when and I’ll repost about it.