If you’ve ever read the biographies of some of the world’s greatest thinkers, you may have noticed that one of their favorite pastimes was taking long and relaxing walks. For instance, Charles Darwin had a fixed schedule that demanded he begins his morning rituals with a walk upon waking at 7:00, and only after take breakfast. Aldous Huxley, Winston Churchill, Immanuel Kant, just to name a few. These were all great men that excelled in their creativity and problem solving, and though each may have left their mark on posterity in a different manner, they all share a common trait – no day went by without taking a walk.
Now, I’m not saying walking in parks all day is going to make you a champion, but according to a recent study published by the American Psychological Association, when the task at hand requires some imagination, taking a walk may lead to more creative thinking than plain ol’ sitting.
“Many people anecdotally claim they do their best thinking when walking,” said Marily Oppezzo, PhD, of Santa Clara University. “With this study, we finally may be taking a step or two toward discovering why.”
The power of a simple walk down the park
Previous studies showed that regular aerobic exercise may protect cognitive abilities, however Oppezzo and colleagues showed that even mild physical activity can have significant positive effects on cognition and creativity in particular. Multiple experiments were conducted involving 176 participants, who were divided into walkers and sitters.
They found that those who walked instead of sitting or being pushed in a wheelchair consistently gave more creative responses on tests commonly used to measure creative thinking, such as thinking of alternate uses for common objects and coming up with original analogies to capture complex ideas. When asked to solve problems with a single answer, however, the walkers fell slightly behind those who responded while sitting.
What’s remarkable is how more creative the walkers were. Of the students tested for creativity while walking, 100 percent came up with more creative ideas in one experiment, while 95 percent, 88 percent and 81 percent of the walker groups in the other experiments had more creative responses compared with when they were sitting. Of course, stating a wacky idea didn’t get you points – all answers, though the questions called for originality, had to be feasible and respect certain imposed constraints.
The experiments were thought such that the participant’s creativity was engaged. For one experiment, the researchers put each of the 48 participants alone in a small room facing a blank wall – this ensured minimum external stimuli that might interfere with their creative process. They were then asked to think of as many alternative uses they could for a common object. For example, for the word “button,” a person might say “as a doorknob on a dollhouse.”
With a different group of 48 students, some sat for two different sets of the tests, some walked during two sets of the test and some walked and then sat for the tests.
“This confirmed that the effect of walking during the second test set was not due to practice,” Oppezzo said. “Participants came up with fewer novel ideas when they sat for the second test set after walking during the first. However, they did perform better than the participants who sat for both sets of tests, so there was a residual effect of walking on creativity when people sat down afterward. Walking before a meeting that requires innovation may still be nearly as useful as walking during the meeting.”
A novel idea is considered to be an idea that hadn’t been encountered in a response from any of the participants, regardless of the group. Students who walked in another experiment doubled their number of novel responses compared with when they were sitting.
But is it exposure to nature or simply being outside that causes these cognitive benefits? To see if walking in itself, no matter the environment, leads to the observed benefits the researchers devised another experiment with 40 participants and compared responses of students walking outside or inside on a treadmill with the responses of students being pushed in a wheelchair outside and sitting inside. Again, the students who walked, whether indoors or outside, came up with more creative responses than those either sitting inside or being pushed in a wheelchair outdoors. “While being outdoors has many cognitive benefits, walking appears to have a very specific benefit of improving creativity,” said Oppezzo.
There you have it. Tomorrow, maybe you’d like to have your coffee with you outside.
The study was published in APA’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.