People who rely on walks to overcome writer's block or solve a tricky problem seem to have it right: new research shows that walking — whether indoors or outdoors — can encourage creative thought.
Researchers at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education conducted experiments on 176 people and found that participants who walked rather than sitting or being pushed in a wheelchair gave more creative responses on tests used to measure creative thinking.
Previous research has shown that regular aerobic exercise can have a positive effect on cognitive ability, but this study suggests that walking can have a very temporary effect on certain kinds of thinking.
The researchers explain their decision to focus on walking rather than more strenuous exercise: "Asking someone to take a 30-minute run to improve creativity at work would be an unpopular prescription for many people," said co-author Daniel L. Schwartz, PhD. "We wanted to see if a simple walk might lead to more free-flowing thoughts and more creativity."
In one test, researchers named an object, then asked a subgroup of 48 students to think of alternative ways to use it. So, "button" might lead a student to say "as a doorknob on a dollhouse." In another test, 48 students were asked to complete word associations involving three-word groups — for example, "cottage-Swiss-cake," for which the correct answer was "cheese."
Of the students tested while walking, 100 percent came up with more creative ideas in one experiment, while the other experiments saw 95 percent, 88 percent and 81 percent of the walkers come up with more creative responses than when they were sitting.
Whether indoors or outdoors, the walkers had more creative responses.
Interestingly, when asked to solve problems with a single answer, walkers scored slightly lower than the sitters.
While the authors say more research is necessary, one thing is clear: "Incorporating physical activity into our lives is not only beneficial for our hearts but our brains as well. This research suggests an easy and productive way to weave it into certain work activities," said study co-author Marily Oppezzo, PhD, now of Santa Clara University.
The study was published in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.