Your Brain on Camino

Why does the Camino do those things with us? And was this always the case?

To answer the second question: probably not. Walking the Camino Frances, until as early as the early 90s of the last century, wasn’t “fun.” The infrastructure was just about to start ramp up, and way markers were much less prevalent. After this, the Camino became a self-fulfilling prophecy: more infrastructure meant more pilgrims, more pilgrims meant more money coming into the area, and more money to be earned meant more infrastrcuture.

Even earlier pilgrims had to content with a complete lack of those services, being reliant upon the goodwill or greed of religious accommodations, at risk of being mugged or murdered, and more.

But today… it’s a stroll. And that’s good.

In our daily lives we follow short, medium, and long term goals. Each are involved in a drive and reward cascade that, on the bad end of things, makes addiction possible. On the good side, it’s what gives us the drive to go on every day: completing a task successfully has a number of positive effects on our brain, effects the brain craves.

“Seriously!”

This is a very simplistic view of the neuropsychology of challenge, trigger, reward, and resolution systems in our brains. It’s so simplistic, that I am ashamed to write it. That’s pop-science level, seriously. If you’re interested in some real talk about what goes on, contact me and I’ll send you a reading list.

The Camino Frances, however, is pretty “simple.” There is a medium term goal: to get to Santiago de Compostela, yes, but this goal is incidental. It will happen, as long as we complete all short term, daily goals. And of that, we have one: get to the next stage.

We rise in the morning with only that goal. And we complete the goal, mild to moderate exertion later, without fail. This leads to a rather quick establishment of a new reward cascade: walking leads to completion. And, as in the “bad” versions of reward cascades like gambling or smoking, we begin to crave the reward and feel compelled to do the thing that leads to the reward, pulling a lever, lighting a cigarette, or … walking.

Repeated completion of rewards means that we actually “precomplete” the cascade in our brains. This can be observed in addiction as well, where not the pharmacodynamics or other rewards cause the release of happy hormonal and neurotransmitter activity but the mere fact of performing the task does.

That explains the “Camino Happiness” and the “Camino Blues” after the walk. For a few weeks, we reward our brain for performing a simple task. Repeatedly. In absence of this task, the old structure of medium and long term tasks returns, depriving us of the short term ones of daily walks. We go back from daily reward to daily challenge with fewer real completion chances.

Once you overcome the Body part of Body, Mind, and Soul, you’re “there.” Even the small nuisances, snoring, sun, dust, heat, gnats, rain, won’t affect you anymore. After all, they are (as your brain learned) just steps to the nearby reward.