Can walking ‘give our ideas legs’?

I am a big believer in walking as a form of activity and exercise. The evidence suggests that it’s a legitimate exercise for improved physical and mental wellbeing, but I also like the fact that it’s relatively kind on the body, and can often be sustained well into later life.

Another thing I like about walking concerns it’s impact on thinking. I have personally noticed that when faced with an issue that requires some creativity, I am usually better off taking a walk rather than nulling things over in my mind sat at my desk. In fact, in reference to walking, I wrote in my recent book (A Great Day at the Office):

Getting out of the office and a change of environment may help revitalize and stimulate your thinking. I’ve met lots of people who have experienced flashes of inspiration while out walking that they may well not have had staring at the wall in their office. The structure and main content points of this book were not conceptualized in front of my laptop, by the way – they came during the regular walks I take.

So, I was very interested to read this week a study that assessed the impact of walking on creative thinking [1]. The study itself was made up of four separate experiments, each of which tested creative thinking (e.g. alternative uses of an everyday object such as a button or car tyre) in specific settings such as sitting or during or immediately after walking. Walking both inside (e.g. on a treadmill) and outside (in a university campus) was assessed.

The results showed that creative thinking was significantly boosted during and immediately after walking. In one of the experiments, walking induced a 60 per cent rise in creativity. What is more, it did not seem to matter much whether the walking was performed indoors or outdoors – the benefits were much the same.

The authors of the study theorise about what it is about walking that enhances creativity. They suggest the movement per se is not the most potent factor, as benefits appear to persist even after someone is seated after walking. They suggest improvements in circulation or chemical changes may have something to do with it, or perhaps it’s a by-product of the mood-enhancing effects activity can have.

Another suggestion they make is that walking and thinking at the same time is a ‘dual task’ that allowed more creativity to ‘seep in’. But they dismiss this idea too, on the basis that when individuals were more ‘taxed’ in a distracting environment (outside), creativity was no better than when walking in a less taxing environment (inside).

So, when it comes to explaining the effect, there really were no clear answers from the authors. But there is no doubt about the overall findings of their work: when stuck for ideas and one simple thing that may help boost our inspiration and problem-solving is to get up and walk about.

References:

1. Oppeezo M, et al. Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. Online 21 April 2014.

9 Responses to Can walking ‘give our ideas legs’?

  1. Mark John 1 May 2014 at 7:42 pm #

    I really believe walking / gentle (or not so gentle) exercise helps in problem solving.

    Rather than “brain-storming” how about “brain-walking”?
    If a meeting comprises more than a few people, participants could perhaps be equipped with radio mic headsets whilst walking in an inspiring environment. Constant comms as in the office but out and about…

    Is my idea patentable?! ;)

    • Deirdra 1 May 2014 at 9:25 pm #

      I’m also a big fan of brain-walking, but notice all the under-30s I pass all have their earbuds in and seem to prefer being plugged in 24/7. Is there hope for creative thinking in the future?

  2. PhilT 2 May 2014 at 8:26 am #

    I wandered, lonely as a cloud……

  3. Chris 2 May 2014 at 8:31 am #

    Early to bed and early to rise .. etc.

    The early philosophers seemed to come to appreciate that thinking is freshest in the morning. Perhaps the endocrinology (balance of hormones) that persist after a good nights sleep and soon after rising is something that aids clarity and positivity of thought. And several are the occasions when I have woke with an idea in my head that has been worth hammering out in word document.

    Something I have become assured of is the case is that advances and creativity do not always arise from working on the issues headlong. My experience has been to have creative interests running in parallel and I came to observe that I sometimes had inspiration on one matter while working to creatively advance something else. After a while and after I gotten used to the phenomenon I called this ‘progress by proxy’.

    Not all creativity nor stepwise advances in problem solving stem from conscious and directed effort channelled headlong. Sleep is that great opportunity for a burdened mind to de-fragment itself (I think the computer analogy is deserved) and without conscious effort former understanding that was not contiguous before sleep can miraculously be made more contiguous during sleep. So if you wake up with a ‘what if?’ scenario in ones head and you research it to subsequently establish the scenario was justified and essentially correct, then it is this overnight reassessment of and rearrangement of the ‘bits’ that facilitated this gain. Creativity and problem solving is a mix of direct and indirect, conscious and semi-conscious, effort. It is good policy for students to complete an essay in advance of a deadline, then go off to do something else before returning to review, modify, and proof it. Not only will their essay improve but so will their underlying thinking. The break is a functional contribution to the quality of their work and their ability to judge it.

    I think it was Michael Dell whose work I was reading and whose habit was to work out for an hour before commencing his working day. Dell Computing was immensely successful and Michael linked this success with his regime. Some of his most creative and clearest thinking came while riding the exercise bike or working out on the rowing machine. The circulation generated by working out might explain the perceived benefits by either of two mechanisms. Perhaps it aids delivery of important chemicals to the brain, endorphins perhaps, while equally prospective is that it could aid removal and metabolism (down-regulation) of biochemicals whose presence might impede creative thinking, such as adrenaline, perhaps.

    The body needs incentives to solve a puzzle or to be creative. These incentives are all biochemical at the level at which they actually work. Panic is a state that would have us run in fear but not think too hard or long about whether the perceived threat is directed specifically at us. Panic is resolved by thinking more clearly after the event. I would suggest walking or other activity presents a opportunity for semi-conscious reflection that augments the head-on approach. Biochemical balances must play a part in this, but many nights spent sleeping on the topic, or hours spent pacing the room or the concrete and/or clay, may be needed before the answers to this puzzle get firmed up.

    Plenty of sleep, opportunity for exercise of moderate intensity, and respite from having ones nose pressed to the wheel is ‘good’ and results in better outcomes in health and creativity. How much is to be gained from knowing more?

  4. Rosamund 2 May 2014 at 8:31 am #

    Steve Jobs, probably one of the most creative people to have lived in the past 50 years, was a great fan of walking which more than bears out this research. With no room for a treadmill, I started walking up and down my house from the kitchen to the front door for 30 minutes a day and I must say I certainly feel the benefit particularly with my breathing — not sure about the creativity but now I’ve read this piece I will certainly start to become more aware of it!

  5. John 2 May 2014 at 1:05 pm #

    I have worked as an IT consultant for many years and have long known that many of my most creative thoughts have come whilst mowing the lawn. I can’t say whether it was the exercise that provided the benefit or whether the fact that part of my brain was occupied with the repetitive act of mowing that allowed other parts to function more creatively but I have often come up with solutions to technical problems that have eluded me at my desk.

  6. Terry 2 May 2014 at 2:16 pm #

    The philosopher Descartes did us all a crippling disfavour when he separated the body from the mind with his ”I think: therefore I am”. What he should have said is ”I think and sense: therefore I am”. We are one united whole, not two (or more) parts. We forget and/or fail to act upon this at our peril.

    This study merely serves to underline the above. For those interested, I recommend an excellent book called ”Descartes’ Error” by Professor Antonio R. Damasio, an American neurologist. Medical practice (and much else) is still plagued by Descartes’ error.

  7. Robert Park 2 May 2014 at 5:06 pm #

    Throughout my life I enjoyed walking but especially on my own and preferably in a rural or pastoral setting when it was then I was able to contemplate and to solve problems which were currently existing in my life. I enjoy urban walking when it is dark with the streets lit and empty of pedestrians or traffic. Gymnastic equipment I find utterly boring and a turn-off to creativity. My best hours of the day for creative thinking other than walking has always been the wee sma’ hours. Some associates are able to stimulate creativity but people mostly dampen it. Regrettably, advanced age robs on of energy and brings in its wake aches, pains, and disablements which hinders walking but age itself does not dampen creativity. When the elderly are staring into space they are most likely re-living aspects of their past life and probably wondering what it was all about. I find the masses of information available on the Internet helps at drawing together connections that are not generally known nor accepted so this too can be a tool of creativity.

  8. Vanessa 2 May 2014 at 7:25 pm #

    I’m inclined to think that it’s more the ‘meditative’ action of walking that inspires creativity than the actual exercise. I say that because I also find ironing, washing up and showering particularly useful for engendering creative thoughts. It’s a bit like in transcendental meditation where one clears the mind by using a mantra, or in dowsing where one dowser I met used to put the question in his mind of what he was looking for and then hum a tune to himself to let the ‘creative/intuitive’ part of his mind do its stuff without his logical brain interfering. Interestingly, but irrelevantly, he was a physicist at the University of London and had no scientific explanation for his dowsing abilities!

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