Hello all. You may notice me running around campus from time to time as part of the cross country and track teams. Maybe you’re also a runner. If not, no worries. This column isn’t entirely dedicated to running—although it has its beginnings there. Footnotes was inspired by the many thought-provoking discussions I’ve had with fellow teammates while out for a run.
My team is quite the eclectic bunch, so our discussions tend to bridge numerous perspectives. I have a feeling that other students at DePauw have found themselves in similar moments in and outside of the classroom. After all, interdisciplinary inquiry is the hallmark of a liberal arts institution and it is how I hope to approach future topics.
Want to be a better student? Try a run in the nature park.
What if I told you running could make you a better student? It’s a little more complicated than that, but anyone facing down another academically loaded semester here at DePauw may want to keep reading.
To start, studies have shown that running increases neurogenesis (the process of producing new neurons) in the hippocampus—a region of the brain that plays a significant role in the formation of memory. Stimulating the area of the brain responsible for memory is particularly helpful to students studying for an exam or learning material in class. Running also promotes the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)—a protein that encourages the growth of new neurons while supporting the survival of existing ones.
Vybarr Cregan-Reid’s book Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human (yes, this is where my column title comes from) explains that what running “actually does is to make you ready to become smarter. It prepares the hardware and the pathways needed for learning . . . Integrating exercise into your working or studying day would seem like a sensible option if this particular benefit is of interest to you.”
Running can do more than just enhance your ability to learn, it can also improve concentration by promoting a mental process that psychologist call “soft fascination.” Soft fascination is effortless attention that is experienced freely in nature, like hearing leaves rustle in a breeze or watching clouds move across the sky. This contrasts with “direct attention” that requires mental work, such as writing emails or watching TV.
The catch is, soft fascination occurs in natural environments. Running indoors on the treadmills at the Lilly Center, while watching your favorite Netflix series, might momentarily relieve stress via physical work and distraction, but it won’t recharge your ability to concentrate.
To keep up with a rigorous course load, students should find ways to rest their direct attention by unplugging from concentration-sucking technology. Cregan-Reid says, “Time spent offline is essential for effective mental functioning. Letting your thoughts run as freely as you are is good for a healthy, working brain.”
Dr. Jason Duvall of the University of Michigan says, “It turns out that natural environments have the effect of engaging the involuntary system in a way that allows the direct-attention system to rest.” [ Cregan-Reid concludes that “Green + exercise is doubly beneficial to almost any learning form . . . If you want to get smarter, run. Better: run outside. Or best of all: run outside in a stimulating and immersive environment.”
I remember the cross-country team’s first training run this August. The first-years, unfamiliar with their surroundings and new teammates, trailed near the back of the group. The route for the day took us along rim trail in the DePauw Nature Park. Upon summiting the initial hill that leads to the Prindle Institute for Ethics, the funnel of trees flanking either side of the trail disappears to reveal the vast expanse of the quarry below. This moment brought about a chorus of gasps as the first-years took in their first full view of the nature park.
Those same first-years, along with the rest of their class, read E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops before arriving at DePauw. As the mechanized civilization in the short-story marches towards collapse, the character Vashti peers down upon the Himalayas from the Air-ship, unable to remember the name for snow, and says, “Cover the window, please. These mountains give me no ideas.” I hope all DePauw students, and many others, find a moment to experience fascination in our Nature Park. I urge you to go, run, think, and be inspired. There might be more at stake than your grade.
 “BDNF Gene – Genetics Home Reference – NIH,” U.S. National Library of Medicine, , accessed August 27, 2018, https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/gene/BDNF.
 Vybarr Cregan-Reid, Footnotes – How Running Makes Us Human (Ebury Publishing, 2017), 103.
 Stephen Kaplan, “The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework,” Journal of Environmental Psychology 15, no. 3 (1995): 172
 Cregan-Reid, Footnotes – How Running Makes Us Human, 106.
 Ibid., 113.
 Ibid., 121.
 E.M. Forster, The machine stops, (Oxford and Cambridge Review, 1909), 9. http://www.ele.uri.edu/faculty/vetter/Other-stuff/The-Machine-Stops.pdf