Neuroscientist Shane OMara believes that plenty of regular walking unlocks the cognitive powers of the brain like nothing else. He explains why you should exchange your gym kit for a pair of comfy shoes and get strolling
Taking a stroll with Shane OMara is a risky endeavour. The neuroscientist is so passionate about walking, and our collective right to go for walks, that he is determined not to let the slightest unfortunate aspect of urban design break his stride. So much so, that he has a habit of darting across busy roads as the lights change. One of lifes great horrors as youre walking is waiting for permission to cross the street, he tells me, when we are forced to stop for traffic a rude interruption when, as he says, the experience of synchrony when walking together is one of lifes great pleasures. He knows this not only through personal experience, but from cold, hard data walking makes us healthier, happier and brainier.
We are wandering the streets of Dublin discussing OMaras new book, In Praise of Walking, a backstage tour of what happens in our brains while we perambulate. Our jaunt begins at the grand old gates of his workplace, Trinity College, and takes in the Irish famine memorial at St Stephens Green, the Georgian mile, the birthplace of Francis Bacon, the site of Facebooks new European mega-HQ and the salubrious seaside dwellings of Sandymount.
OMara, 53, is in his element striding through urban landscapes from epic hikes across Londons sprawl to more sedate ambles in Oxford, where he received his DPhil and waxing lyrical about science, nature, architecture and literature. He favours what he calls a motor-centric view of the brain that it evolved to support movement and, therefore, if we stop moving about, it wont work as well.
This is neatly illustrated by the life cycle of the humble sea squirt which, in its adult form, is a marine invertebrate found clinging to rocks or boat hulls. It has no brain because it has eaten it. During its larval stage, it had a backbone, a single eye and a basic brain to enable it to swim about hunting like a small, water-dwelling, vertebrate cyclops, as OMara puts it. The larval sea squirt knew when it was hungry and how to move about, and it could tell up from down. But, when it fused on to a rock to start its new vegetative existence, it consumed its redundant eye, brain and spinal cord. Certain species of jellyfish, conversely, start out as brainless polyps on rocks, only developing complicated nerves that might be considered semi-brains as they become swimmers.