How do you think? What do you think? Where do your moments of inspiration come from? There I was wondering what on earth I was going to write for this blog post when suddenly it came to me whilst taking a shower; How do we get ourselves ready, as postgraduate researchers, to think analytically about our chosen research topic? What helps us find those moments of insight?
I seem to have two spaces where I get these brain waves. One is, as you’ve probably already guessed, is the shower. A nice, warm morning cascade gives me the opportunity to go through my plan for the day and very often a phrase or an idea will pop into my head and it’s just what I need to break into the next section of my writing. I regularly find myself running from the bathroom to my study to write down that word or sentence before it disappears into the ether again. The other, more metaphysical place, is when I’m running.
Now this is probably nothing new to you. You may run yourself (or cycle, or swim, etc etc) and thus be thinking “Yes, I know this to be true”. You may have read many of the newspaper articles or blog posts extolling the virtues of aerobic exercise on mental health and intellectual capacity. But I wanted to take this opportunity to share my personal experience with you, so bear with me.
Imagine you can’t string a coherent sentence together and you regularly forget what you are saying in the middle of a sentence. Imagine you stand up and immediately fall off balance despite not having touched a drop of alcohol. Imagine you feel so tired that every muscle in your body aches and you never wake refreshed from sleep. Imagine thinking that you are going mad. This was me ten years ago. I was struggling to do my job, was always irritable and putting on weight hand over fist. Then there was a magic moment. I was diagnosed with an underactive thyroid – not an uncommon problem in the UK – but my case was one of the most severe my doctor had ever seen. For those of you who don’t know what the thyroid does it regulates your metabolism so if it isn’t working the body begins to slowly shut down like a clockwork toy running out of energy. The solution was simple; take tablets every day for the rest of my life to replace the hormone my body doesn’t produce with a manufactured substitute. And physically it works brilliantly. I began to lose weight, I wasn’t as tired, I stopped falling over when I stood up and I could do my job again. But psychologically I’ve found it much harder to recover. So this is where the running comes in.
As with a lot of people I started it as a means of keeping fit and losing weight. Believe me, after feeling so tired that I could barely stand, the achievement of running just for a short while felt amazing. Running has helped me rebuild my self confidence – achieving every new goal I’ve set myself even if it is just to the get to the next lamppost has told me I can do it if I put my mind to it. And that’s the crux of the matter. The underactive thyroid changed my brain chemistry. Running gives me my mind back. The rhythm of my feet hitting the pavement becomes hypnotic, creating a clear space, not one filled with confusion and doubt. I’m always moving forward, a great metaphor for writing as well as running; one more footfall is like one more word on a blank page – a little closer to the final word count. This rhythm and headspace combined seems to then allow me to think about, well, whatever I want to think about. It’s not always about my research, but I know that if I run my mind quietens and sometimes, without even knowing it, I arrive home with a phrase or a word that will help me with the next section of my research.
I know the physiological benefits of aerobic exercise but for me it is the way running allows my brain to behave that is most advantageous to me. The fitness, weight loss and the ability actually get around a 10k race are purely (very gratifying) by-products. I run because it keeps me mentally fit and allows me to think. So I don’t think Descartes will mind when I say “I run, therefore I am”.
Cath Badham is a PhD student in the Theatre Department researching the plays of Philip Ridley