Need ideas? Take a walk!

A walk helps with ideas whether you’re in the park or on a treadmill.
Illustration by @ Jersoncharrys

If you’re stuck on something, or just beginning a project and need some ideas, consider taking a walk. Research out of Stanford University has demonstrated the creative power of an amble. Interestingly, it appears to be the act of walking and not the environment that’s important. You can expect a creative boost whether you’re outside taking in a beautiful bit of nature or inside on a treadmill staring at a blank wall.

The study was co-authored by Marily Oppezzo, a Stanford doctoral graduate in educational psychology, and Daniel Schwartz, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education. Participants of the study showed increased “divergent thinking” while walking and for a short period after sitting back down. Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. In the experiments, participants had to think of alternate uses for a given object.

In one experiment participants were tested indoors – first while sitting, then while walking on a treadmill. The creative output in terms of divergent thinking increased by an average of 60 percent when the person was walking. In another experiment, participants were twice as likely to generate complex analogies while walking versus while sitting.

Why this effect occurs will require further research. My personal theory is that physical exercise causes cognitive loading that may inhibit the “internal self-editor”. The “internal self editor” was a concept from a book I read on comedy writing. It references our tendency to cut out ideas we have before we can even list it down on paper. Overcoming this self editor is an important hurdle in any creative exercises and there are plenty of exercises to help with this.  In improv comedy for example, one exercise that you can do in a class is to constantly jump and click your fingers while doing an improvisational scene. The physical exertion distracts you from just how silly you’re being and generally you’ll find that you can get some flow in the scene.

Back to cognitive loading. While we can generally walk and run without thinking, this actually takes mental attention and energy. Think if I were to ask you run and count backwards from 100. You could probably do that without too much problem, unless you’re as unfit as I am. Now think if I was to ask you to run and count back from 100 in multiples of 7. 100, 93, 86…etc. You’d probably need to slow to a slow walk, or maybe stop moving at all to do this exercise. Find a more difficult mental problem and you might need to take a seat to begin. The reason is that walking and running take mental capacity that you need to free up for the problem. This is what I mean by the cognitive loading that can occur with physical activity.

It’s possible that walking may apply enough cognitive loading to lessen the cognitive capacity available to the nefarious internal self-editor. The researchers themselves have indicated that something like this could be a possibility. They’ve also suggested that improved mood from walking may give the creative boost. Note that the effect persists for a short while after sitting back down. Of course, both factors could contribute.  

Illustration by Reginald Swinney

It’s worth noting that while the study showed that walking benefited creative brainstorming, it did not have a positive effect on the kind of focused thinking required for single, correct answers. So a walk may be more beneficial when a project requires new ideas, as opposed to when a single idea requires execution.

In any event, with the well known health benefits of walking more often. Taking a walk seems like a no brainer!

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