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Give Your Ideas Legs: Walking Spurs Creativity

Don’t trust any idea that comes to you sitting down. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1889) wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”

An ingenious four-part study from Stanford University tested that widely held belief--with unmistakable results.

Of the 176 students tested for creativity while walking, 100 percent came up with more creative ideas in one experiment, while 95 percent, 88 percent, and 81 percent in the other experiments had more creative responses compared to when they were sitting. “Walking worked indoors on a treadmill and outdoors at a bustling university,” Oppezzo and Schwartz wrote in summarizing their results. In short, walking made almost everyone more creative.

“Whether one is outdoors or on a treadmill, walking improves the generation of novel yet appropriate ideas, and the effect even extends to when people sit down to do their creative work shortly after,” Drs. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz, Graduate School of Education, Stanford University, wrote in introducing their study, which was published in the April, 2014, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. (See also ScienceDaily.com, April 24, 2014.)

Let’s explore those impressive results and the possible mechanisms involved.

Creative thinking was measured using standard tests, such as thinking of alternative uses for common objects (such as a button) and compound remote association (“cottage-Swiss-cake,” correct answer “cheese”). Novelty and practicality were also evaluated. For example, “Putting lighter fluid in soup is novel, but it is not very appropriate.”

In the first experiment, students sat—and then walked at a comfortable pace on a treadmill—facing a blank wall. Almost all of the participants benefited from walking compared to sitting; the average increase in creative output was around 60%. “[For example], when walking, people generated more uses, and more of those uses were novel and appropriate,” the researchers wrote.

Some wondered whether it helped that walking came after sitting, that some of the improvement was due to practice. The next experiment addressed that concern.

In experiment 2, a different group of students sat for two different sets of tests. Some walked during two sets of the test and some walked and then sat for the tests. Again, walking led to higher scores; practice cannot explain the effects. Moreover, when seated after walking, participants exhibited a residual effect of walking on creativity. “Taking a walk immediately before a brainstorming session should help improve one’s performance,” they wrote.

The next experiment looked at the effect of environment. Students were divided into three groups. One group sat for two sets of tests, but moved to different rooms for each test. Another group sat and then walked on a treadmill. The last group walked outdoors along a predetermined path. As before, walking doubled the number of novel responses compared to sitting. The effect of being outdoors was inconclusive, although it did increase the ratio of outdoor uses compared to sitting indoors.

The final experiment isolated the effect of being outdoors. Participants sat inside, walked on a treadmill inside, walked outside, or were rolled outside in a wheelchair. Again, the students who walked, whether indoors or outside, came up with more creative responses than those either sitting inside or in a wheelchair outdoors.

The effect of outdoor stimulation and walking were separate. “While research indicates that being outdoors has many cognitive benefits, walking has a very specific benefit—the improvement of creativity,” Oppezzo and Schwartz reported.

More research will be required to explain the mechanisms by which walking improves creativity, but the authors ventured that future studies will eventually identify a complex pathway that extends from the physical act of walking to physiological changes to the cognitive control of imagination.

“Clearly, there are a number of theoretical and practical directions available, now that the basic demonstration is at hand,” Oppezzo and Schwartz wrote in closing. “In the meantime, many people anecdotally claim they do their best thinking when walking. We finally may be taking a step, or two, toward discovering why.”

For more about the connection between physical activity and creativity, see “Intervals for Life” http://www.cbass.com/Intervalsforlife.htm and “Reboot Your Brain with Exercise” http://www.cbass.com/RebootBrain.htm

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