Read Running with the Pack Online

Authors: Mark Rowlands

Running with the Pack (8 page)

Thoughts only come when they are ready. They cannot be forced, they cannot be hurried — they cannot be bargained with. They come in their time, not ours. In the many years that have come and gone since that day on Mynydd Maen, I have lost count of the number of times that a problem I have been trying to solve — and my business is hard, abstract, conceptual problems — has suddenly resolved itself, or if not that
then dissolved before my eyes, during a run. Part of the explanation for this almost certainly lies in the idea of rhythm.

When someone taps out a regular rhythm, activation will occur in regions of the left frontal cortex, left parietal cortex and right cerebellum. Just as important as the location of this activity is its frequency. This frequency is in the gamma band: 25—100 Hz, but 40 Hz is typical. Gamma oscillations are thought by many to be the key to optimal information processing in the brain, underlying processes like attention and perhaps conscious experience. Some think this is because of the role gamma oscillations play in binding activity together into a unified whole. Francis Crick and Christof Koch famously argued that gamma oscillations of around 40 Hz are responsible for binding information together in visual awareness, and so are essential to visual experience — although this claim is controversial. Nevertheless, the idea that gamma oscillations are implicated in efficient cognitive performance is now largely accepted. In fact, the technique of optogenetics, developed by Karl Deisseroth's team at Stanford University, fairly conclusively demonstrates this. In optogenetics, one manipulates the rhythm of the brain through pulses of light directed at a type of neuron that produces parvalbumin — a type of protein that regulates the frequency of gamma wave oscillations in the brain. Using this technique, Deisseroth demonstrated that the right frequency of gamma oscillation will ‘enhance information flow among cells in the frontal cortex'. The frontal cortex is the area of the brain associated with higher cognitive functions like thought.

It is notable that the optimal frequency of gamma oscillations — around 40 Hz — can be induced simply by tapping out a rhythm with one's finger. So it is not too much of a stretch to suppose that moving one's entire body in an appropriate
rhythm can produce the same effect. Indeed, one might suspect that if tapping one's finger can induce the appropriate frequency of gamma oscillations, moving one's whole body might do this a little more forcefully. It is therefore not implausible that there is a connection between the rhythm of the body involved in running and the presence of the brain activity involved in higher cognitive functions. However, rhythm cannot be the whole story. Tapping my finger at a frequency of 40 Hz for hours on end would, at most, lead to a sore finger.

Wolfgang Ketterle, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist at MIT, also notes the beneficial effect running has on his problem-solving abilities. He describes this effect in terms of the idea of relaxation: ‘Some solutions are obvious, but they are only obvious when you are relaxed enough to find them.' But I don't think this is quite right — at least, that is not how it is for me. To begin with, to state the obvious, there are many ways of relaxing — I'm actually extraordinarily good at relaxing, especially if there's a TV, a comfortable sofa and a bottle of halfway decent wine in the vicinity. Unfortunately, the solutions to difficult conceptual problems do not seem to announce themselves when I am doing this. Since they are far more likely to appear when I am running, I have to conclude that exhaustion rather than relaxation must play at least some role. Up to a certain point — there is a point of exhaustion that is the death of thoughts — the longer the run goes on, the more tired I become, then the more likely it is that a solution will appear. But this will only work if the rhythm has been established first. It's not as if I can refrain from running for six months, start again, find myself feeling like death after two miles on my return, and expect all these worthy thoughts to appear as if from nowhere and solve all
the problems I've been working on for those past months. It would be much easier if things happened like that, but they don't. On a run like that, I never get beyond thinking — usually badly: thoughts have no wish to be associated with me. The reason, I suppose, is that my mind will not be empty. For that I need the rhythm, and to get that I need to be in shape.

So it seems that, for me at least, there are two crucial factors: rhythm and exhaustion. Neither will work in isolation. Having less empirical work to fall back on, I have to be more speculative with regard to the effects of exhaustion on higher cognitive functions. First, there are some general principles about how the brain works which might be pertinent. The brain is a creature of habit. It travels down the same streets and avenues, visiting again and again the same old cul-de-sacs, dead ends and no through roads of thought. The reason is that the brain is, in essence, an associative machine. Activity spreads in the brain through associations. If activation in one area of the brain has, in the past, produced activation in another area, then an association between the two is set up, and this means that, in the future, when another instance of the first sort of activity occurs, it is more likely that activity of the second sort will occur too. The tendency of humans to make, both individually and collectively, the same mistakes in thinking over and over again — and even a cursory glance at the history of thought will show that essentially the same, typically unsuccessful, ideas are revisited over and over again, in slightly different forms — is a testament to the associative nature of the brain.

Sometimes, the brain has to be persuaded to let go, just for a while, and when it is tired it is perhaps more easily persuaded. When I talk to someone who suffers from dementia or Alzheimer's, I am often struck not so much by the
extent of the memories they have lost, but of the power and vivacity of the ones that remain. Memories from a long time ago, from a lifetime ago, are uncovered once again, as if they were new-born moments before. Their brain is letting go, associations are breaking down and in this process we find the uncovering of things that were hidden. That, I suspect, is the sort of thing that happens when tiredness starts to insinuate its way into the rhythm of my run. Emptiness is the sign of the brain letting go — not letting go in general, but simply allowing its grip to loosen on its day-to-day executive duties. The associations through which its activity is channelled are loosened, just a little. And so, to an extent, the familiar but fruitless avenues and dead ends of thinking are left behind, and in this new desert landscape of the mind thoughts are uncovered, shining and pristine.

There is one piece of empirical work that bears specifically on this topic. In a study of Tibetan Buddhist monks, neuroscientist Sean O'Nuallain demonstrated a correlation between transcendental mental states and gamma wave oscillations of around 40 Hz. More than this, however, he also argued that what these monks have in common — at least the ones proficient at this sort of meditation — was the ability to put their brain into a state in which it consumes power at a lower rate than usual, sometimes approximating zero. According to his ‘zero power hypothesis', lower power states of the brain may correspond to a selfless state, and higher power states correspond to the experience of the self. Gamma oscillations are more prevalent in lower power states.

This work is strongly suggestive of the role tiredness may play in thinking — or, more accurately, in the having of thoughts. Intense activity of the body results in the brain adopting a lower power state. The principle would be like
feeling sleepy after a heavy meal. Blood has been diverted to the intestine to facilitate digestion, and as a result less blood, and therefore less oxygen, goes to the brain. On the long run, when you reach the point when you are struggling, all your energy must be directed to putting one foot in front of the other. To compensate, the brain — normally taking up more than 20 per cent of the body's total energy supply — goes into a lower power state in the way described by O'Nuallain. The result is a ‘selfless' state. Thinking is typically something I experience myself as doing. On the long run, I don't experience myself to be thinking because the grip I have on myself has become more tenuous. In place of thinking, there are thoughts, seemingly not mine at all, that come from nowhere, out of the blue and into the black.

Thoughts come in their own good time — and this, I suspect, is what their own good time might look like: an increase in gamma activity coupled with a decrease in the overall power state of the brain. There is highly integrated activity in the left frontal cortex, left parietal cortex and right cerebellum, coupled with the kind of tiredness that allows the usual associations of daily life to break down just enough. The result is a kind of emptiness: a clearing in the mind where thoughts can come to play. Maybe that is why it happens, maybe not. But, for me, far more important than why this happens is that it does, in fact, happen.

Talk is antithetical to thought. And so I run with dogs that do not talk. But they do more than that. They augment: they magnify the rhythm, enhance the essence, of the run. My heartbeat is magnified by those of the dogs that run beside me; my breath is magnified by theirs. The thud-thud-thud of my feet is expanded and enhanced by the pitter-pitter-pitter-pat of theirs and the chingle-chingle-chingle of the chains
around their necks. This is the heartbeat of the run, a heart that beats outside me, not within. And when the run has done its work, I am lost in this beating heart. Before this point, the point when thinking stops and thoughts begin, I am not running, not really. I am only moving. The point where movement transforms into running: that is the point at which thoughts come to play.

That day on Mynydd Maen was perhaps my first experience of the heartbeat of the run — the heart that beats outside me, not within. I could not have understood, neither then nor for many years to come, that this experience would come to shape my life in some of its more important respects. To experience the heartbeat of the run is to have one of the most powerful experiences possible of what Plato would have called ‘The Good'. Many years will have to come and go before the heartbeat of the run will reacquaint me with a kind of value that the child knows best. The idea that life is the sort of thing that needs this value — that an adult who has lost it has become, in a significant sense, a diminished thing — is not something I could have known on that day when I ran with Boots on the mountain of stone, when thoughts that came from the beating heart of the run danced in the place my mind used to be, as the sun danced on the bright blue waters of the sea that lay to the south.


Born to Run


Every run has its own heartbeat; the years are teaching me this. The heartbeat is the essence of the run, what the run really is; and the heart beats outside me, not within. Permeating everything is the backbeat: the gusty, undulating thunder of the wind in my ears. I am on the Rathmore Peninsula of Kinsale, slap bang in the middle of the southern coast of Ireland, and the wind accompanies every step I take: ebbing and flowing, never constant, whoosh, silence, whoosh, silence. Then there is the pack. I am running with Brenin, the wolf, Nina, his dog-friend, and Tess, his wolf-dog daughter. There is the pad-pad-pad of a dozen feet, the click-click-click of forty-eight claws, enamelled metronomes tapping out the beat of distance covered and time elapsed on the cracked, faded, potholed tarmac. There is the pant-pant-pant of three breaths and the jingle-jangle of three chains. These all fuse with the whoosh and the silence.

There are few cars on these narrow, crooked country lanes,
and I can let the pack run as it will. More or less: anywhere behind me, but nowhere in front. That is the rule. This is not a matter of dominance, simply safety. But, anyway, they fall into my rhythm, effortlessly ghosting over the ground beside me. Beyond that, it is fluid, always shifting. The flowered hedgerows that line the lanes, the towering hedgerows of summer, are teeming, fidgeting with life. A promising rustle, perhaps a mouse, shrew, rabbit or rat, draws out one of the pack — Brenin plunging paws first, canine hope personified, rigidified, into the buttercupped, cow-parsleyed undergrowth, disappearing up to his tail — and then an empty-jawed return to the rhythm of the pack. This severance and return — to be repeated over and over again during the course of the run — is part of the heartbeat.

Now we are drawing close to the place where the rabbits live: around the corner, and four hundred strides to where the hedgerows open up into a field. Marking the entrance are two hulking, rotting bales of hay that have been here longer than we have. Between the bales is a rabbit warren, and today as ever, the rabbits will be making the most of the milky, reticent Irish summer sun. Reticent is about as good as the sun gets in these parts. As we turn the corner, I can feel the excitement of the pack beginning to build. We're still three hundred strides away, but they try to persuade me to run faster, slowly building the pressure. Brenin inches his nose in front of me, testing the water. ‘Back!' I growl, but inwardly smile, gesticulating brusquely with my thumb. Seconds later, Nina tries the same thing. That was the strategy. First one animal then another: testing me. Another growl: ‘Wait for it!' Then, an agony of moments later, I release the tension: ‘Go on!' and we sprint the remaining distance. It's an enjoyable way of getting in some speed work. I need it. By the time I
have reached the bales, trailing miserably behind the others, the pack has dissolved before my eyes: Brenin one way, Nina another, Tess yet another — a frenzy of chasing and snapping and slipping. To no avail — no rabbits were ever harmed on these runs. Perhaps they hear us thundering along the lane, and by the time we arrive are waiting, patient, unsurprised, maybe a little amused, by their burrows. I don't know. I'm hunched over, winded, often nauseous, but always elated. The pack bounces up to me in unison, tongues lolling, eyes shining with excitement: that was fun, maybe better luck tomorrow. A few minutes later, we are back on the road and the gentle rhythm of the pack reasserts itself.

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