Stanford study finds walking improves creativity

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Stanford researchers found that walking boosts creative inspiration. They examined creativity levels of people while they walked versus while they sat. A person's creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when walking.

Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, was known for his walking meetings. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has also been seen holding meetings on foot. And perhaps you've paced back and forth on occasion to drum up ideas.

new study by Stanford researchers provides an explanation for this.

Creative thinking improves while a person is walking and shortly thereafter, according to a study co-authored by Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford doctoral graduate in educational psychology, and Daniel Schwartz, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education.

The study found that walking indoors or outdoors similarly boosted creative inspiration. The act of walking itself, and not the environment, was the main factor. Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.

"Many people anecdotally claim they do their best thinking when walking. We finally may be taking a step, or two, toward discovering why," Oppezzo and Schwartz wrote in the study published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.

Walking vs. sitting

Other research has focused on how aerobic exercise generally protects long-term cognitive function, but until now, there did not appear to be a study that specifically examined the effect of non-aerobic walking on the simultaneous creative generation of new ideas and then compared it against sitting, Oppezzo said.

A person walking indoors – on a treadmill in a room facing a blank wall – or walking outdoors in the fresh air produced twice as many creative responses compared to a person sitting down, one of the experiments found.

"I thought walking outside would blow everything out of the water, but walking on a treadmill in a small, boring room still had strong results, which surprised me," Oppezzo said.

The study also found that creative juices continued to flow even when a person sat back down shortly after a walk.

Gauging creative thinking

The research comprised four experiments involving 176 college students and other adults who completed tasks commonly used by researchers to gauge creative thinking. Participants were placed in different conditions: walking indoors on a treadmill or sitting indoors – both facing a blank wall – and walking outdoors or sitting outdoors while being pushed in wheelchair – both along a pre-determined path on the Stanford campus. Researchers put seated participants in a wheelchair outside to present the same kind of visual movement as walking.

Different combinations, such as two consecutive seated sessions, or a walking session followed by a seated one, were also compared. The walking or sitting sessions used to measure creativity lasted anywhere from 5 to 16 minutes, depending on the tasks being tested.

Three of the experiments relied on a "divergent thinking" creativity test. Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. In these experiments, participants had to think of alternate uses for a given object. They were given several sets of three objects and had four minutes to come up with as many responses as possible for each set. A response was considered novel if no other participant in the group used it. Researchers also gauged whether a response was appropriate. For example, a "tire" could not be used as a pinkie ring.

The overwhelming majority of the participants in these three experiments were more creative while walking than sitting, the study found. In one of those experiments, participants were tested indoors – first while sitting, then while walking on a treadmill. The creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when the person was walking, according to the study.

Written By: May Wong
continue to source article at news.stanford.edu

18 COMMENTS

    • I’d like that too, as I prefer swimmimg to walking. Living in a hot and humid climate and being menopausal into the bargain, swimming is the best bet for me:)In reply to #1 by Nitya:

      I’d like to see a study conducted to show benefits of swimming as this is my exercise of choice.

  1. I always thought this was true but just assumed it was a quirk of mine. I always pace when I’m doing any creative work and I’ve always found that walks were a great way to think about problems from a different perspective.

  2. While the study is commendable, it’s results tell us little that we didn’t already know, namely that exercise is good for the brain as well as the body. As a fiction writer who sits long hours staring at a computer screen, I know the direct benefit of taking the dog for a walk (although sometimes when I return, I’m ready for a nap.) But I suspect half of the benefit is simply getting away from too great a focus and using ‘other muscles’ for a change. I enjoyed the same renewal of creativity after a swim (also followed by a nap) and I’m willing to bet that any aerobic workout would do exactly the same. I’ve always thought that a brilliant new idea was to the brain as going up on point is to the ballet dancer – something your body will simply not let you do too often.

  3. Hasn’t evolution enabled us to multitask? I find that sleep sometimes generates simple solutions to problems which when I’m awake seem very tricky.

    I think a change of focus from the main task allows it to be mulled over in the back of the mind; often, when trying in vain to thread a needle for example, if you stop and change activity for a few minutes, although your alternative or replacement activity is a secondary one, you’re still thinking about that bloody needle and thread, and when you come back to them it’s seems easier to get that, by now wet, frayed and bedraggled end through the eye.

    • In reply to #6 by Stafford Gordon:

      Hasn’t evolution enabled us to multitask? I find that sleep sometimes generates simple solutions to problems which when I’m awake seem very tricky.

      I think a change of focus from the main task allows it to be mulled over in the back of the mind….

      I think so too. This happens to me all the time when I’m trying to pull out from memory something like the name of an actor or a country in Africa. I know it’s in there in the back of my mind but it’s like my consciousness can’t get a hold of it. It feels a bit like trying to grab an object that fell under the dresser and it’s just slightly out of my fingers’ reach. The more I try to grab it, the more it slips away from me.

      The solution is to focus on something else, anything. And after a few minutes, out of nowhere, the word or name I was trying to remember pops right up in my mind, all by itself. I believe the process is similar to going for a walk, it’s the change of context that does this. It seems to “unclog” one’s mind from a “closed loop” thinking pattern.

      A math teacher from my college days once told me that whenever he needed to solve a tough problem, he went in the shower. I guess that was his way to put on his thinking cap or rather his shower cap.

      • In reply to #8 by NearlyNakedApe:

        In reply to #6 by Stafford Gordon:

        Hasn’t evolution enabled us to multitask? I find that sleep sometimes generates simple solutions to problems which when I’m awake seem very tricky.

        I think a change of focus from the main task allows it to be mulled over in the back of the mind….

        I think so to…

        I recognize everything you site. I think the “discovery” of walking as an aid to creativity is a no brainer frankly.

        • In reply to #9 by Stafford Gordon:

          In reply to #8 by NearlyNakedApe:

          In reply to #6 by Stafford Gordon:
          I recognize everything you site. I think the “discovery” of walking as an aid to creativity is a no brainer frankly.

          It’s one thing to have anecdotal evidence or personal experience that supports some hypothesis. It’s quite another to have scientific data that supports it. I agree that this is hardly an earth shaking discovery but to me these kinds of comments aren’t much different than someone hearing about Newton’s laws of motion and saying “whatever, so he discovered things fall down when you drop them I knew that already”

          • In reply to #11 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #9 by Stafford Gordon:

            In reply to #8 by NearlyNakedApe:

            In reply to #6 by Stafford Gordon:
            I recognize everything you site. I think the “discovery” of walking as an aid to creativity is a no brainer frankly.

            It’s one thing to have anecdotal evidence or personal experience that suppor…

            I stand duly corrected, thank you; I should know better by now.

  4. I’m a musician,and I have to improvise in a lot of musical situations(which essentially is composing on the spot)and I can tell you for a fact,that exercise boosts creative thinking and mental energy in general,and also positive thinking. Although,sometimes a bad,or traumatic situation can yield good art,on the whole,when you lack energy,you tend to focus on the negative much more,and as a result become distracted by it,therefore not producing much in the way of new ideas.ie.feeling burdened down with workloads ,such as practice,recording dates etc,which then results in procrastination,anyway,sorry,have work to do,latrs…

  5. I can imagine a creature that hunts & forages and then retires to a redoubt. And I can imagine a selective advantage in turning on the creative power of imagination when out and walking around, and then shutting it down to rest and conserve energy when safe at home.

  6. Walking is like grounding yourself back to reality… getting you mind off a problem for a while and distracting yourself by interactive body experience – It gives your mind quiet time to think subconsciously…while your body walks…
    and then you naturally come up with ideas…

  7. @OP – The study found that walking indoors or outdoors similarly boosted creative inspiration. The act of walking itself, and not the environment, was the main factor. Across the board, creativity levels were consistently and significantly higher for those walking compared to those sitting.

    The body, circulation, and respiration, are powered up and more active when walking, so a higher level of alertness is to be expected.
    From an evolutionary point of view, it also requires 360° awareness, rather than keeping a dozy eye out through the entrance to a den.

  8. Stanford researchers found that walking boosts creative inspiration. They examined creativity levels of people while they walked versus while they sat. A person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when walking.

    Didn’t Darwin do much of his thinking while walking circuits of his garden – away from the distraction of the family activities?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down_House -
    In 1846, Darwin rented from Sir John William Lubbock a narrow strip of land of 1.5 acres (0.61 ha) adjoining the Down House grounds to the southwest, and had it planted. He named it the Sandwalk Wood.[18] One side was shaded by an old shaw with oak trees, and the other looked over a hedge to a charming valley. Darwin had a variety of trees planted, and ordered a gravel path known as the “sandwalk” to be created around the perimeter. Darwin’s daily walk of several circuits of this path served both for exercise and for uninterrupted thinking. He set up a number of small stones at one point on the walk so that he could kick a stone to the side each time he passed, so that he did not have to interrupt his thoughts by consciously counting the number of circuits he had made that day.

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