The secret to brilliant science? A bike ride

The Dutch are known for pedaling their way to their destinations—whether it’s work, university, the supermarket or the bar. But in a country where bikes outnumber people and cyclists rule the streets of every city, the bicycle is more than a mode of transport. In fact, some of the best ideas come to Dutch scientists when they’re on two wheels.

It’s almost like meditation: the repetitive motion of pedaling, the slightly increased heart rate, the gradual clearing of the mind. Riding a bike can be a mental workout as much as a physical one.

In an interesting read published on the website of the Correspondent on Friday, journalist Thalia Verkade explores the relationship between cycling and creativity. In the Netherlands, where over one-fourth of all trips are taken by bicycle, sudden bursts of inspiration often seem to happen to people while they are riding a bike.

Scientists are no exception, Verkade writes. “Biologist Frans de Waal, for example, partly pieced together his theory on moral behavior (reconciliation) in monkeys while riding a bike.” And: “Chemist Ben Feringa came up with new types of molecules on a bicycle. It was those molecules that later won him a Nobel Prize.”

Riding a bike offers the right circumstances to achieve a mind state that has been called ‘flow’ by the American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the 1990s. The flow state is similar to the experience of being ‘in the zone’: it’s a feeling of energized focus and effortless enjoyment, during which you are so immersed in the task at hand that you forget everything around you and enter a state of sharp attention.

Not every cyclist will achieve flow during a bike ride. In order to enter into a state of flow, a certain level of relaxation is essential. That’s why flow is unlikely to happen to  beginning cyclists or tourists wobbling around on bicycles. But once you feel that carefree sensation coming over you as you glide along the smooth, pink tarmac of a bicycle road, you may very well be hit by a flash of pure brilliance.


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