The Curious Truth About How Bicycle Touring Extends Your Life

I was over at the Adventure Pedlars bunkhouse the other day, chatting with the owner Pete about all things long‐distance cycling, when he told a story that really resonated with me.

When he and his wife Alice were nearing the end of their big honeymoon ride from the UK to New Zealand, and were crossing Australia with not an awful lot to do, he said, they’d gone back over the journey that had got them there and found that they could mentally ‘re‐run’ the entire trip, remembering each and every day’s events: where they’d cycled, who they’d met, what they’d eaten and where they’d slept. Amazingly, they’d been able to do this with no memory cues whatsoever.

It reminded me of similar experiences I’d had while writing Janapar back in 2012–13. Next to my writing chair I’d had a stack of hand‐scribbled diaries to refer to whenever I wanted. Not just that, but I’d had thousands of photos to look back on, and hundreds of hours of video footage to play back in search of things I’d forgotten.

But I barely touched any of them. Instead, the 3½‐year journey played itself back in my mind’s eye with sparkling clarity. I wrote the vast majority of that book from memory alone. Only later in the process did I fact‐check a few things against the records I’d taken at the time. Practically all of it was bang on.

Now, in case you’re under the impression that Pete, Alice and I are blessed with remarkable memories, consider this possibly more familiar scenario:

I have been attempting to learn the Armenian language for over ten years. While I’m able to understand the gist of most conversations, I still cannot quickly recall simple words such as ‘before’, ‘after’, ‘give’, ‘take’, etc. There are still several letters in the Armenian alphabet which I get mixed up and, try as I might, simply cannot commit to memory.

Why exactly is that? Why is it that can I recall the minutiae of a million roadside encounters that I made no attempt to fix in my mind, yet hours of diligent study and practice are unable to make a permanent register of the association between a shape on a page and the sound of a simple consonant?

This question has been bubbling away in my head for a long time, but I think I’ve arrived at a speculative answer – with curious implications for the bicycle traveller. (You might want to get a cup of tea at this point.)

Road kill

Your Memory: An Evolutionary Perspective

When it comes to understanding why things are the way they are, especially in the case of our species, it’s often useful to turn to evolutionary principles.

We humans have evolved this fantastic capacity to conscript our past experiences for an internal record we call ‘memory’. Memory is the foundation of our identity, underpins our every daily decision, and is drawn into all our future planning. Since too little time has passed to make us biologically distinct from the last era of hunter‐gatherers, it makes sense to assume that our memory evolved to serve the needs of that primitive type of society.

What kind of memory would offer the best chance of survival to our forebears, whose lives depended on finding food and identifying hazards?

It might sound obvious, but it would probably be one that was adept at spatial and visual learning – in other words, remembering where things were and what they looked like.

A thought experiment clarifies the point. Imagine visiting a friend’s house for the first time, and being given a couple of minutes to visit every room in the house. Would you recognise that house the next time you visited? Would you be able to remember your way to the bathroom? I’m willing to bet that you probably would, because even with the most limited exposure – and without any conscious effort – we are incredibly good at committing places and images to memory.

You might argue that you’d struggle to pick out any particular one of a row of Victorian terraces after a single visit, which is why we invented house‐numbers rather than typing ‘the house with the dark blue door and the recycling bin perched on the wall to the right and the pink fairy lights in the living‐room window’ into the delivery address form on Amazon.

And you’d be right, because we evolved to live in an environment carved by geological processes; one without our modern sense of orderliness imposed upon it, and one in which almost every landscape was in some way unique.

No stopping here

The Parallels Between Bike Trips & Memory Palaces

So it should be no surprise that I can still clearly remember the nameless Romanian gypsy village in which I stayed the night in a small house belonging to a one‐eyed lady with a side‐parting and her mushroom‐hunting husband with a huge mural of Christ crucified on the wall and a badly‐tuned television blaring the most awful Balkan Pop long into the night – but that I can’t remember how to pronounce Զ.

With the slowness and awareness engendered by riding a bicycle, I had plenty of time to take in the hugely varied landscapes through which I passed, and the never‐ending stream of unique faces, places and happenings that I encountered every day.

These are precisely the things that my memory evolved to store – not the abstract sounds of a second language or writing system, or the even greater abstraction of random strings of numbers that telephones, calendars and credit cards have given us.

It might also explain why my memories are less pronounced in the emptier, not‐so‐visually‐exciting places. Much of the Nubian desert has blended into a compact series of sandy, rocky and rather warm impressions, and northern Scandinavia has become a much more succinct tract of spindly pine trees, vast snowfields and frozen lakes than the month‐long ride actually encompassed.

Joshua Foer writes in Moonwalking with Einstein* about the vast and ancient body of knowledge surrounding the limitations of our memory – and, more poignantly, how it might be worked around.

Many of us will have heard of the ‘memory palace’ concept, perhaps through the mainstream media. The original BBC series of Sherlock had Benedict Cumberbatch depicting our favourite sleuth’s descent into a memory labyrinth from which he was able to pluck the most archaic of facts. The mentalist Derren Brown cites it in Tricks Of The Mind* as one of his most commonly‐used devices for committing abstract information – numbers, dates, lists of words, an ordered list of every English king or queen together with the dates they reigned – to memory. Tony Buzan has built a megalomaniac’s empire based to a large extent on these ideas.

The memory palace is not a fad. Records of the technique exist from Ancient Greek society almost 2,500 years ago, at which time — with writing still being at a very early stage of development — it appeared to be such a fundamental part of of every thinking person’s toolkit to the point that it was barely worth mentioning.

The point of bringing up the memory palace concept is the astonishing parallel it has, in my view, with bicycle travel.

The user of the technique begins with a location that they are familiar with – a direct play to our innate skills with spatial memory – and then scatters unique, often outright bizarre, occasionally provocative, and therefore memorable images at particular spots, thus taking advantage of our excellent visual memory.

This journey, of course, is one of the imagination, but by virtue of imagining this palatial sowing and reaping as a full three‐dimensional multi‐sensory experience – featuring not just sights but sounds, smells, textures and tastes – the resulting memory is just as strong as if the journey had happened for real.

A journey by bicycle – or, for that matter, by foot, or any other slow and engaged style of travel – leaves precisely the same impression. We become intimately familiar with our surroundings by virtue of our ambling and exposed mode of transport. In them, we encounter an endless string of new and unique faces, landscapes, cultural artefacts and random occurrences. Simply put, a cycle-tourist’s daily routine is practically identical to a well‐realised journey through a memory palace.

Is there any wonder our experiences stick in the mind so stubbornly?

In a society where memory has long been marginalised in favour of external records in books, websites and other directories, which can be accessed at any time through any number of ever‐more invasive devices, we now pay little attention to how our memories are actually set up to function. We use them increasingly little, and when we do, we use them badly. We repetitively hammer our brains with foreign vocabulary in an attempt to bludgeon it into sticking there. Our education system blasts our children with facts to remember, but gives them not an ounce of guidance on how to remember them.

Above the treeline

Live Longer. Ride Bicycles.

Modern society places the preservation of life at the very peak of its objectives. Authorities plough countless millions into health and safety. We have never been more obsessive about diet and fitness. The institution of medicine is constantly looking to cure yet more killer diseases in order that our physical longevity might be extended yet further.

In my view, our subjective sense of longevity has much more to do with richness of memory than with candles on a cake. We are all aware of how a month (or a year) can seem to zip by in a flash, and how, conversely, a week or two of the right kind of activity can feel like it lasted for months (or years).

Especially as we grow older, we look back and consider the way in which we’ve spent our lives. It’s doubtful that we’ll spend much time counting our birthdays. More likely is that we’ll think about the places we’ve been, the people we’ve met and the things we’ve done.

I have no problem with the belief in the value of living longer. Life is the greatest privilege of all, and has the potential to be endlessly fascinating. But I want to question the unit of measurement. What is the point of living a hundred years if the memory of it has become a blur of routine interspersed with brief moments of respite?

I have come to the conclusion that the 3½ years on the road that became Janapar lasted longer than the previous 23. This is my subjective truth. I cannot imagine how short the same few years might have seemed had I followed an office‐bound career as a web developer.

It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve been able to put my finger on just how the life I chose had such an effect, and there must be countless other ways in which to achieve the same thing.

If nothing else, though, I hope I’ve convinced you that travelling by bicycle will, in a very real way, extend your life.

14 Responses to “The Curious Truth About How Bicycle Touring Extends Your Life”

  1. Stephen Chapman

    Hugely interesting, Tom. I’ve often noticed how easy it is to recount the finer details of past travel experiences, all of which are absorbed passively by the mind, yet long periods of active desk‐bound study can fail to make any impression whatsoever.

    I think any period of travel has this effect, bike or no bike, fast or slow; and it’s probably why field trips at school and university can be such useful learning tools, even if you pay very little attention at the time.

    Thanks for the further reading links and for opening the lid on a fascinating topic.

    Reply
  2. Andy Welch

    cicero’s loci technique — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Method_of_loci

    Reply
  3. Paulo G

    Found some spare time waiting on a connection in Nairobi airport. I find cycling not only extends your life, it gets you chicks too!

    Reply
  4. Simeon Banner

    Hi Tom,
    Nice piece of writing. Let me share my experiences. I totally agree and have had the same experience learning Korean for seven years now. It is like walking through treacle and I’ve had many moments where the doubt I will every every progress further than the basics causes as much of a problem as trying to remember. All I can suggest is not being obsessed by achieving your goal. You have to step back and try to enjoy it again. I wasted perhaps two years and hours and hours but my heart had gone, something had gone inside. Now I don’t care so it has got easier. I’ll do the best I can and it is robotic but you can use it like a kind of meditation which is what I attempt to do. And memory is about association so I have to construct the most crazy images in my mind to remember words. Also most words are around 2000 in common usage so you can learn those core parts. My Spanish is much better but languages teach you humility. Relaxing on learning Korean has allowed me to think about other parts of my life such as doing some traveling and painting and drawing again. I’m very fascinated by making some landscape paintings and drawings with a bike and a tent. Sorry for this rather long reply.

    [Additional text removed]

    Reply
    • Tom

      That’s a really helpful perspective — thank you. I am going to try the same thing myself.

      Reply
  5. Simeon Banner

    Oops sorry Tom look like a previous email got posted, pasted by mistake. Quite funny..!!

    Reply
  6. jared

    Hey Tom, is Jared from the house in Victoria. A prescient perspective for me. Departing for my bike trip in a week and spent yesterday writing down the last three months adventures and I was surprised how much detail came back without any real effort.

    Reply
  7. Paul Hamley

    It’s fair to say that learning a foreign language has never come easy to me (massive understatement) even living in France for almost 2 years failed to stimulate the learning process to anything more than snails pace (pardon the unintended pun), however, whilst cycling one of my favourite roads, I started reciting all the words and verbs that I’d been having trouble keeping in my obviously pea sized brain, after my ride I found that I could remember everything I’d been struggling with, now, I don’t for one minute think that I’m ever going to be able to apply for any French translator vacancies but it has certainly helped in elevating my spoken French from pigeon to at least dove.

    Reply
  8. Marko Tusar

    Based on my last cycling trip, time seems to slow down by a factor of six — my two‐month trip felt like a year!

    Maybe it’s related to constant stimulation of the scenery, physical connection to the road, the distraction of real short‐term practical problems and the continuous experience of the new. All the best.

    Reply
  9. Paul

    Great to hear others feel this. I’m constantly drifting off into memories of seemingly benign roadsides in long ago places, always with a smile and a sense of Why is this so vivid. Maps also captivate me in ways which I only dream books and spreadsheets could.
    Arriving in new places always seems to invigorate my mind, though my sister was always the opposite, a new book was always the focus.
    I’ve also been trying to learn Armenian. Dear god, damn my brain. Lusine is being very very patient. Maybe it’s time to build a Hayastan memory palace.
    Beautifully written as ever.

    Reply

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