Until recently I never went on a run without two essential things: my earphones and my running shoes. These were nonnegotiable, or so I thought. But, one morning early last year, just as I was getting ready to set out, I realized I had done the unimaginable… I’d forgotten to charge my earphones. When I tried to turn them on, they were as unresponsive as two little stones.
Now, I have postponed (and even given up on entirely) runs for lesser things, so the idea of going for a run without music, or even a podcast, to follow along to was daunting. I had a choice to make. I could wait until my earphones were charged or I could go anyway, sans the tunes. The decision, I am pleased to share, was a complete gamechanger for me. You can probably guess already… That’s right, I lit out without my earphones, which meant I’d only have my thoughts to keep me company this time.
Not only was I wrong about my need for music, but I found the lack of audio accompaniment actually freed my mind and allowed me to notice things around me in a much more mindful state. This in turn allowed me to connect with my thoughts in ways that I hadn’t been able to previously with earphones in. It was as if a window had been opened on both sides of my head and the breeze was flowing in one ear and out the other! Afterward the run felt productive physically as well as mentally.
The relationship between athletic performance and music is well documented, but I have been wondering: what if the absence of music while exercising actually allows the connection to our thoughts to become deeper, more detailed, and more vivid? Is it possible that we think more clearly when we are not being pushed on by drums, bass, and heavy guitars? I mean, people were exercising and reaping the rewards of a stronger mind and body long before the advent of the Walkman, right?
We know that most forms of aerobic activity are beneficial to brain health and increase the number of new brain cells created in the regions of the brain associated with memory and thinking. Could it also be true that more new cells are generated while exercising when music is absent versus when it is present? Is music a distraction to our thought processes (and cell formation) while running?
I’m not sure about the answer to that one, perhaps it’ll come to me next time I’m out for a run.
Joshua Cohen teaches English at Kinki University. In his free time, he likes gardening, golf, and going for runs.