Creative Thinking is Improved by Walking

According to some new research coming out of Stanford, walking may increase creative thinking. That’s right – if you’re struggling in your meetings, work, or anything else, and need fresh ideas, a nice walk may just do the trick. The late co-found of Apple, Steve Jobs, is known to have loved walking meetings. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has been known to do the same. We are now seeing that these two legendary figures in the tech industry, and many others who walk to fuel their creativity, may have been on to something.

According to a study published by Stanford doctoral candidate Marily Oppezzo, and her professor Daniel Schwartz, creative thinking is improved while a person is walking, as well as shortly after. It doesn’t matter if the walk was indoors or outdoors, it was the act of walking, not the scenery or anything else, that improved creative thinking, or coming up with fresh ideas.

We’ve seen research in the past that shows mental benefits of exercise, but this is the first time exercise has been directly linked to creative thinking; that is, coming up with new ideas. Oppezzo and Scwartz performed this experiment by having people walk outside in the fresh air, or inside on a treadmill, facing a blank wall.

Both walkers had twice as many creative responses when compared to a person who had been sitting down, so the researches concluded it was the act of walking, not the outdoors that caused this. They admitted they were surprised by this, assuming it was the outdoors that caused it. Not only was creativity boosted while walking, but even shortly after while sitting down.

Now let’s look at how this test was actually performed. They used 176 adults, broken into four groups. Along with the two walkers we already talked about, one group sat in a chair, indoors, facing a wall, and the other group was pushed outside in a wheelchair, to be exposed to the same sights and movements as the walkers.

To test creativity, which may seem challenging, they used divergent tests. Divergent thinking is basically thinking outside the box. Participants were given common objects, and had a limited time to think of as many uses as possible for the objects. Obviously, the more creative ones would think of not only more uses, but often, less-common uses. If no other group thought of the same use for the object, it was considered novel, or unique. A creative thought.

It’s also important to note that the same people were tested multiple times, in various walking and sitting conditions, so it wasn’t simply a matter of the walking individuals being more creative anyway. The researchers found creative output increased by an average of 60 percent while walking.

The researches also looked to see if walking boosted focused thinking; that is, coming up with single, correct answers, as you might find while taking an exam, or doing a work project. They did not see any link between walking and improved focused thought. In fact, not only did it not have a positive effect, it actually had a negative effect.

They used word association tests to check this one. Basically, participants were shown a list of several words, and had to respond with the common word or them they all shared. The example shared was that the words “cottage” “Swiss” and “cake” should trigger the word “cheese.”

Schwartz, the professor who helped Oppezzo with the study, strongly believes this study is groundbreaking, and will lead to much more research on the effects of walking on cognitive processes and creativity. For example, we don’t know if it’s just walking, or if other forms of activity work as well.

One thing is for sure though, based on this study, if you are every struggling with creative output, a nice walk may be just the thing you need to get the creative juices flowing. Add to that the many benefits of regular activity, and you have some great motivation to get up and get walking.

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