An Alpha State of Mind

Friday, 11 February 2011

Col d'Izoard

Problem solving at 2,000 metres

A ride doesn’t just clear my mind, it fills it with fresh ideas. If I go out for more than an hour then often answers appear and new ideas flash into my mind. This might sound like spurious justification but for me it’s true, issues I might have been weighing up can often get resolved. Some say sleeping on a tricky decision helps, I say go for a ride.

Alpha Waves
One theory is that cycling helps the brain produce “alpha waves”, a relaxed state of mind you might get whilst sitting relaxed with your eyes closed but awake, close to daydreaming. I’m not so sure as I’m generally alert rather than close to sleep, although if I let my mind wander things like potholes, passing traffic and effort can get managed on autopilot.

Great minds think alike

“My mind only works with my legs”
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It’s not unique to cycling. 18th century writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau said “I can only meditate when I walk… …when I stop, I stop thinking… my mind only works with my legs“. Similarly, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard stated “every day I walk myself into a state of well-being… I have walked myself into my best thoughts“. Rousseau and Kierkegaard didn’t live to see the bicycle but there’s every chance they would have enjoyed the simple act of cycling too.

Break away
There are less poetic reasons to explain how a ride can clear the mind. After all, once you are riding you can’t do much else. Even on a group ride you might not talk a lot. There are no distractions from ringing phones or incoming emails. I suppose it’s easier to think when you escape these things.

A healthy mind in a healthy body

Disc thrower

Mens sana in corpore sano

There are the simple benefits of exercise. 2,000 years ago the Romans spoke of “a healthy mind in a healthy body”, today the modern day benefits of exercise are better known. Relaxation and well-being contribute to a sharper mind.

Addiction
If you’re lucky enough to ride a lot, you can get a mild addiction. There’s the comfort of routine but the endorphins too. These aid relaxation but there can be a downside, missing a ride can bring feelings of frustration and cold turkey.

Whether it’s philosophy, escapism, plain exercise or even addiction, have a good ride this weekend.

Steve February 11, 2011 at 5:15 pm

nice piece. I can get the same benefits but its hard to get away sometime. like the new site.

Paul February 11, 2011 at 6:55 pm

Having an interest in the benefits exercise can have on mental health, my understanding is that, because of measurement problems, there is very limited evidence that endorphins are psychologically beneficial to humans. Regardless, is does appear to be a very popular explanation.

The Inner Ring February 11, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Steve – thanks.

Paul – that’s interesting, if you want to come back, can I put a question that if they are not psychologically beneficial, is there any evidence of the physical effects?

Paul February 11, 2011 at 7:15 pm

I haven’t got any direct evidence (I lost my access to Pubmed since leaving university), but, given that endorphin is essentially an internally produced opiate, I’d imagine there is strong evidence that it does have a physical effect, namely pain relief.

Have a read of this excellent free-to-access article on exercise and mental health, especially the ‘Models explaining the benefits of exercise’ section. The ‘hyperthemic’ theory is quite interesting.

From my own perspective, I tend to take the biological explanations with a pinch of salt.

Paul February 11, 2011 at 7:28 pm
georgedad February 11, 2011 at 7:44 pm

Nice piece, though I think it was the Ancient Greeks who quoted “healthy mind in a healthy body”
Cheers from the recession -stricken Greece

barbara February 12, 2011 at 1:08 am

It’s all about the unconscious working for you. For me, taking a long undisturbed shower is giving a lot of answers. For everybody it’s very useful to have at least a one-night sleep over your questions.

The Inner Ring February 12, 2011 at 10:37 am

Paul – thanks again, I’ll have a read along with a pinch of salt.

georgedad – apparently the quote is from Roman poet Juvenal. But like many quotes, usually some Greek got there before. Wikipedia indicates Thales might have said something similar.

barbara – yes, sometimes anything relaxing can help. But I wanted to suggest cycling works too, that even when the heart is pounding the unconscious can work on problems. But I’m no psychologist.

Nick February 12, 2011 at 11:05 am

Horner says it best “I do what I normally do when there is a problem, I ride my bike”.

King amongst men.

James February 14, 2011 at 1:36 am

It’s interesting reading all these blogs about drugs in cycling and the heavy weight issues but at this time of night it’s nice to read about going for a ride and the photos of a long climb looks great.

The Inner Ring February 14, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Nick: it’s probably the first time Chris Horner gets named with Rousseau and Kierkegaard but he’s rigt.

James: yes, I need something lighter from time to time. If I do cover the serious things, the simple pleasure of a ride is one of the best things about the sport.

Natalija February 14, 2011 at 8:49 pm

I just discovered your blog and wanted to say it’s so good. I can’t believe you cite Kierkegaard in something about a weekend ride, that is a good choice.

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