An old colleague of mine, who I like to call The Captain (our Air Force careers briefly overlapped in 1970), dropped me a note the other day with an interesting query: Why does he always seem to come up with such great ideas when he’s out on his bicycle cranking his way up some torturous hill? What’s happening in the brain during intense exercise that seems to spark, as he put it, “wildly exciting, clarifying thoughts and ideas”?
He did not clarify what these exciting thoughts focused on, but let’s just assume that, The Captain being The Captain, they involved truth, justice and enterprise rather than, well . . . other stuff. This sort of Big Idea thing never happens to me while exercising; working up a lather on the EDM or in The Pit just makes me a happy, sweaty guy. Of course, I’m pretty oblivious to brainstorms these days (the last Big Idea I had was to start my own newspaper!?!?), so I’m tempted to chalk up The Captain’s personal rush of creativity to some level of latent brilliance that eludes happy, sweaty, oblivious guys like me.
That may partly explain this burst of imagination and clarity when he’s in the saddle, but there are some things going on in the brain when you’re exercising that tend to boost your ability to think big thoughts. In this 2008 study, researchers found that regular exercise helps the body produce neural stem cells in the hippocampus — the brain’s center of memory and learning — through a process called neurogenesis. A healthy hippocampus means a smarter, more insightful, creative, sweaty guy pedaling up that god-forsaken hill.
And that sense that he’s experiencing a “rush” of insight is probably triggered by the body pumping out serotonin, dopamine and other pleasure-enhancing neurotransmitters that make guys like me feel happy even though we’re making a fool of ourselves in The Pit.
So, The Captain is doing the right thing by climbing on his bicycle regularly and fueling his brain to think big thoughts.
The problem, he explained, is that by the time he’s parked his bicycle in the garage, changed out of his biking clothes, showered, and parked his butt in front of his laptop to record his terrific new insights, they’ve pretty much disappeared. His hippocampus, so lively and receptive on two wheels, goes all slacker on him. “All those grand schemes somehow disappear from my to-do list, and I go back to being a 66-year-old man,” he laments. “Maybe with a slightly stronger heart after an hour in the saddle, but I never quite follow up on all the brainstorms I have while exercising.”
Maybe his hippocampus needs more frequent workouts, I’m thinking. Or maybe all that dopamine he’s generated by the time he’s reached the top of that hill has made him so euphoric that pretty much any idea seems breathtakingly insightful. Who knows? I’d suggest that The Captain arm himself with pen and paper next time he’s saddled up, so he can capture those grand visions in a more timely fashion, but then I think back to my last major brainstorm and wonder whether his hippocampus may be doing him a favor.