Do you ever get a really good idea and then unconsciously begin pacing back and forth? Do you ever notice how, when this happens, the great ideas just keep on flowing? How about when you’re talking on the phone — do you tend to pace back and forth or roam around the house when you’re chatting about something exciting, or important? Well you’re not the only one, and research is now showing that walking can actually boost creativity.
We recently learned that walking in nature and hiking can change your brain chemistry and make you happier, peaceful, and less stressed, but new research now suggests that simply walking in general can boost your creativity. Certainly others have taken advantage of this before — Friedrich Nietzsche famously once said that “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking” — but it’s always nice when science supports what the body already knows.
Unfortunately, in recent years our lives have become sedentary, and we certainly aren’t walking as far or as often as we used to. Recognition of this shift led several researchers to question whether this might be affecting our creative ability, and so they decided to put it to the test.
Last year, researchers at Stanford University found that people performed better on creative divergent thinking tests during and immediately after going for a walk. Perhaps surprisingly, the effect was the same regardless of whether the participants were walking outdoors or walking on a treadmill and staring at the wall. It appeared that the act of walking itself, rather than walking in a pleasant setting, was enough to enhance creativity.
According to Quartz, lead researcher of the study and Dean of Stanford Graduate School of Education, Dan Schwartz, said in an interview that there are “very complicated” physiological changes associated with walking. It’s not exactly clear why walking is helpful to so many thinkers, but “it could be that the brain is focusing on doing a task it’s quite good at,” he adds, which then allows it to free up and relax.
Engineering professor Barbara Oakley, who also gave a Tedx talk about how to learn effectively which makes mention of the benefits of walking, has said in an interview that we make a mistake of thinking that we’re only learning when we’re focused. In fact, walking allows us to subconsciously process and think in a different way. “Part of why walking, I think, is important is it can be boring. It’s that very aspect that causes your mind to go back and revisit, even subconsciously, on what you’ve been analyzing and learning,” she says.
According to Oakley, “this is an important part of the creative process,” and it has helped her work many times. She adds:
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been working away and I’m completely stuck. Sometimes I’m so stuck I don’t even know I’m stuck. I finally get so frustrated I just get up. And as soon as I get out and have walked for ten or fifteen minutes, these ideas start coming to me. It’s the best thing I could’ve done and I should’ve done it earlier.
I can definitely relate to that statement. When writing articles I often struggle to find my flow and end up hopelessly staring at a screen, willing the words to come of their own accord. It eventually becomes so frustrating, and whatever I’m writing becomes so incomprehensible, that I inevitably decide to get up and go for a little jaunt around the office. And of course, this is when the ideas actually start flowing.
So, Now What?
After learning how walking carries the potential to improve creative ability, I am left thinking, forget standing desks, let’s have desks attached to treadmills, or even hamster wheel desks, and really get these creative juices flowing! (Okay, maybe the hamster wheel desks are taking it too far.) But all joking aside, if you really want to boost your creativity you should try walking in nature or taking up regular hiking; multiple studies have found that both of these activities can do wonders to boost your mood, uplift your spirits, and get you into a creative headspace! It’s important to remember, we all have creative ability, we just have to unlock it. Being creative means a lot more than just being able to paint, draw, act, or play an instrument. It means being able to come up with ideas, solve problems, make plans, and so much more. Feel like it’s time to unleash your creative ability? Then let’s go for a walk!
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