Science Says Going For A Walk Can Significantly Improve Your Creativity
Steve Jobs was a big fan of them. As is Mark Zuckerberg. Charles Dickens loved a good walk. Even Friedrich Nietzsche declared that “all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Lucky for them, science is on their side.
A study from Stanford University in the US has proven that people are much more creative when they’re walking around, as opposed to when they’re sitting still. Participants in the study took a creativity test (the very intriguing Guildford Alternative Uses Task, or GAU) in different settings, with the intention of seeing what influence a walk had on the participants’ creative reasoning.
At the completion of the study, researchers confirmed that walking on a treadmill increased the participants’ GAU scores by 81% as opposed to those who did the task seated. Another experiment found that participants who walked outside doubled their ability to generate creative analogies, compared to those who sat inside. There was also a residual effect on creativity too – after people walked, their subsequent seated creativity was much higher than those who had not walked at all.
Interestingly, the study found that creativity increased regardless of whether the participants walked around inside or outside. This means that while environment played a part, the bigger jump in creativity came from the act of walking itself.
So how is this possible?
We’ve spoken before about the benefits of listening to podcasts while running, and this theory uses similar logic. When we go for a walk, our heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles, but to all the organs as well – including the brain. Previous experiments have proven that exercise (even exercise as mild as walking) can help people perform better on memory and attention tests. Walking has also proven to promote new connections between brain cells.
Dan Schwartz, who co-authored the Stanford study, said that there are “very complicated” physiological changes associated with walking. “It could be that the brain is focusing on doing a task it’s quite good at,” he says, which in turn, allows it to free up some space and relax.
Think about it this way: when we go for a walk, the act of putting one foot in front of the other is something we barely have to think about anymore. That means we’ve effectively created space in our brains for processing ideas and thoughts.
Walking is boring (which is a good thing)
Walking could be triggering improved lateral thinking simply because walking is kind of boring.
Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University, wrote a book about learning effectively. According to Barbara, a common mistake we’re making is thinking that we only learn when we’re focussed. She believes that when your mind is relaxed and wandering, that’s when you’re forced to look at a problem in a different way.
“Part of why walking, I think, is important is [because] it can be boring,” she explains. “It’s that very aspect that causes your mind to go back and revisit, even subconsciously, on what you’ve been analysing and learning.” It’s an “important part of the creative process” she reveals has helped her in her own work.
Admittedly, the Stanford study has confirmed what we probably knew already – taking a calculated break from our screens can ultimately lead to a clearer, more productive mindset. But seeing as our lives have become increasingly sedentary (and smartphone obsessed) the act of going outside to clear out heads is made all the more futile if we don’t switch off entirely.
So drop the phone. Get outside. Stretch those legs. But if that fails, you could always invest in a treadmill desk ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Rebecca Russo is a freelance writer, editor, community radio dabbler, occasional hiker and celebrity autobiography enthusiast. She has written for online publications including Junkee, AWOL, Fashion Journal and Tone Deaf. Find her online here.