If you find yourself in a creative slump, scientists have a suggestion: Take a walk.
People generate more creative ideas when they walk than when they sit, according to new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.
“Everyone always says going on a walk gives you new ideas, but nobody had ever proved it before,” said Marily Oppezzo, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and the lead author of the study.
In fact, Oppezzo got the inspiration for the research while she was taking a stroll as a graduate student with her thesis advisor, Stanford University education professor Daniel Schwartz.
To measure creativity, Oppezzo recruited 176 people and gave them various verbal tests. For instance, some volunteers were asked to come up with alternative uses for a common item, like a button. Oppezzo defined a creative response as one that was both appropriate (a button could serve as a tiny strainer or the eye for a doll, but it wouldn’t work as a light bulb) and original, meaning no one else in the study had said it.
In the first experiment, volunteers were asked to complete the creativity test twice – first while sitting at a desk in a small room for four minutes, and then while walking on a treadmill for the same amount of time. Researchers found that 81 percent of the participants improved their creative output when walking.
Walkers were more talkative than sitters, but, Oppezzo said, the increased output of creative ideas while ambulatory was not simply the result of having more ideas in general.
“We took everything they said and divided the total creative ideas by the total ideas mentioned,” she said. “Walkers had more thoughts, but they also had a higher density of creative thoughts than sitters.”
To see whether walking improves brainpower overall, Oppezzo and her team had volunteers complete a task that measures convergent thinking. Study participants were given three words and asked to come up with another word that would combine with each of them to make a common phrase. For example, “Swiss,” “cake” and “cottage” can all be combined with “cheese.”
On this test, volunteers performed slightly worse when walking compared with when sitting. That led the researchers to conclude that the cognitive benefits of walking were specific to creative thought.
In subsequent experiments, the researchers found that this creative boost can linger for a period of time. People who took the creativity test while walking, and then while sitting, came up with more creative ideas in their chairs compared with other seated volunteers who hadn’t gone for a walk.
To make sure this wasn’t just a sign that the volunteers were getting used to the test, the researchers asked some participants to take the test twice and remain seated both times. Under those conditions, test performance did not improve with experience.
In another set of experiments, the researchers found that walking inside was just as good for creativity as walking outside, although being outdoors made participants more talkative.
In the final experiment, Oppezzo tried pushing volunteers around the Stanford campus in wheelchairs and compared their creativity with that of volunteers who went for a walk outside, those who walked indoors on a treadmill and those who sat inside a lab room with no view of the outdoors. The results were clear: walking (whether inside or outside) trumped sitting (either inside or outside).
Other researchers said they found the results convincing, especially because they were confirmed in four different experiments.
Jennifer Wiley, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago who was not involved in the study, said Oppezzo’s results were in line with what she called the “bed, bath, bus and bar syndrome.”
“When we take a break from active perusal of solutions and go about our other daily activities, new ways of thinking about the solution may pop into our minds,” she said. But Wiley and others were at a loss to explain why walking seemed to enhance creativity.
Perhaps walking increases arousal in the brain, said Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara who wasn’t involved in the study. If so, that would explain why most volunteers became more chatty when they were ambulatory, he said.
Oppezzo thinks it is possible that walking interferes with the brain’s ability to filter thoughts. “We really don’t know,” she said.
Oppezzo and Schwartz intend to continue their research into the connection between walking and creativity. “We’ve had many walking meetings to think about future ideas,” Oppezzo said. “Hopefully we'll be running new studies soon.”
In the meantime, she recommends that people take a walk before brainstorming, or if they are stumped on a creative problem.
“Our study shows everybody’s creativity improved when they were walking compared to themselves when they were sitting,” she said. “It’s so cool that you can just go out, take a walk, and make your creativity better.”