Get Moving To Get Creative

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Popular Wisdom, Now With Science!

Writer’s block? Can’t seem to come up with a solution to a persistent issue? Creative types often seek “inspiration” from a variety of sources, be it alcohol, coffee, or whatever stimulant is on hand.  Scores of authors, thinkers, and musicians, from Wordsworth to Kant to Tchaikovsky, have long lauded the solitary stroll as a source of meditation and inspiration. A recent study out of Stanford University suggests that the act of walking can stimulate the mind more effectively than any other form of exercise or stimulation.

One study author, Marily Oppezzo, expected the environment would have a greater impact than the act of walking itself, seeing as most anecdotal evidence refers to walking through tranquil, pastoral scenes. “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 researchers isolated students in an empty room, outfitted with a desk, and in some cases a treadmill. Through a series of carefully designed experiments, the researchers found that the act of walking itself, as opposed to the stimulation of walking through a pleasant forest or city street, significantly improved creative thought.

From the published report in the Journal of Experimental Psychology:

Four studies demonstrate that walking increases creative ideation. The effect is not simply due to the increased perceptual stimulation of moving through an environment, but rather it is due to walking. 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.

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Meditation On Foot

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”, and both Beethoven and Gustav Mahler were known to carry a pad and pencil on brisk, three-hour walks after lunch. Aside from building his infamous cabin of solitude on Walden Pond (but still delivering his dirty laundry to Mommy Dearest), Thoreau said, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow“. The study from Stanford is the first piece of academic research asserting that walking in and of itself offers stimulation, after centuries of anecdotal evidence encouraged creative types to get up and move.

If you’re stuck on a creative problem, like how to start your latest blog post (Yes, I took a walk before I wrote this!), walking can be the pick-me-up that gets the juices flowing. Just look at the boom in treadmill desks for workers across a variety of creative industries. Even without the pastoral view of a lily pond, the act of walking helps stimulate the mind.

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On Walden Pond

Additional studies suggest that the best environment for walking is a peaceful forest or park, as opposed to a busy cityscape, for reasons you may expect. Attention is a limited resource; if your attention is bounced around a rapidly moving city, you have less energy to devote to your creative task when you get back to the office.

The Stanford study found that in addition to providing immediate benefits to creative thinking, walking also leaves a residual effect. Students who had gone for a walk in advance of being asked to perform creative tasks still performed better than their sedentary counterparts.

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Turn On The Spigot Appropriately

As much as it benefits creative thought, walking does NOT help activities that require laser-sharp focus on a specific problem. The students in the Stanford study performed poorly on a different type of test, which asked them to find a word that united a set of three, for example, answering “cheese” for “cottage, cream, and cake”. For problems that require a single answer, rather than a wellspring of novel ideas, walking is probably not the best solution for a brain block. In these instances, it’s probably better to think in your chair than on your feet.

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Walk It Off

In addition to the creative benefits, walking is an excellent way to improve your overall health and wellbeing. Enjoy the benefits of a walking break during the workday, not only for your mental health, but your physical health as well. The mind-body connection can’t be denied, and you think better when you feel better. Studies suggest that taking  15-minute walking breaks at the mid-morning and mid-afternoon slump can deter an hour-long (and horribly unproductive) Facebook rabbit trail.

What walking habits help you stay creative? Share your creativity boosting routine in the comments.

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