Model Railways and Walking About

I have posted before on the Museum of Technology in Cambridge, but this weekend I visited it (I confess) for the first time. It is more interesting than I imagined. Here for instance is the gas pump firing up.

I visited with my children, because there was an exhibition of model railways in a shed behind the museum. My children have no interest whatever in model railways. I have not much more interest in model railways than they do, but I did when I was their age. I was not entirely surprised, therefore, when my six-year-old, on entering the shed, stood hypnotised by a train running around a track for several minutes.

He wasn’t the only one. In truth model railway building and collecting is a dying hobby, clung to by a diminishing handful of old diehards.



But it retains its power to fascinate. We are fond, I think, of rhythmic play, at any age: model railways, Scalextric, hula hoops, juggling, Newton’s cradles, whirring gas pumps, and so on. Some writers (I am thinking of Bruce Chatwin) would have you believe that this is because we are nomads manqué, wedded to the jogging pulse of our mother’s sling. Thus it is, so the theory goes, that we do our best thinking while we walk. The circulations of the blood, of the lymphatic fluid, and of our ideas are somehow wedded together.

I had recently come to the conclusion that this was nonsense – we think best when we walk, I thought, because we have a stretch of time in which to think uninterrupted, nothing more; but evidence seems to suggest that I am wrong: walking regularly can grow your brain, or anyway your prefrontal cortex and your hippocampus, associated respectively (and very broadly) with planning (the former), and memory formation and spatial navigation (the latter).

In other words, walking about makes you better at, well, exercising the mental skills associated with walking about. Chatwin, in The Songlines, notes the prowess of Australian aborigines at recalling vast journeys by means of song and myth associated with sacred places strung out across the landscape. We are very good, as a species, at remembering spatial or locational data (hence, perhaps, the greater recall of those who read books over those who read ebooks, the latter being shorn of spatial markers).

And so if this post has started to ramble, take it as an indication, not that dementia has set it, but that I am energetically warding it off.


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