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Walking increases creative thinking, leading to new ideas

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Study finds walking boosts creative thinking

If you want to stir your creative juices, then start walking, as a new study has found that it increases creative thinking.

Indeed, researchers from Standford University in California found that walkers scored an average of 60 percent higher on divergent thinking creativity than when they were sitting.

It’s no secret that walking can boost the creation of new ideas, as many successful folks have said that some of their best ideas came to them while walking. For example, both Steve Jobs, late co-founder of Apple, and Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, have been known to hold meetings while walking.

According to the new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, there are reasons why walking stirs creativity – and researchers, Dr. Marily Oppezzo and Professor Daniel Schwartz from Stanford Graduate School of Education, say it doesn’t matter whether the walking occurs indoors or out because the end result will be the same: a boost in creative thinking.

This finding surprised Dr. Oppezzo, who believed that walking outside would result in much greater creative thinking than walking on a treadmill in “a small, boring room”. Yet the researchers found that regardless of where the walking occurred, it actually doubled the flow of creative thoughts compared to just sitting down.

Dr. Oppezzo says the study may be the first-of-its-kind to explore and compare how walking compares with sitting as it pertains to generating creative thoughts. Moreover, the boost in creative thinking seems to last for a while – even when sitting down after taking a walk.

Research Experiments

The team conducted four different experiments, involving 176 people consisting of college students and other adults who performed various tasks typically administered by researchers for measuring creative thinking.

The participants completed the tasks under a variety of indoor and outdoor conditions to compare walking to sitting. For example, when walkers were walking in one of the outdoor experiments, the sitting participants were seated in wheelchairs, where they were pushed on a path around the campus at Stanford in order to give the sitters in the wheelchairs the same visual movement as walking.

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There were also different combinations of walking and sitting, such as two consecutive walking sessions or two consecutive seated sessions, as well as a walking session followed by a seated one, all of which were anywhere from 5 to 16 minutes long, depending on the tasks that participants were asked to complete.

Three of the experiments tested the participants for divergent thinking creativity, which is the generation of ideas that results from thinking over a variety of potential solutions, and a large majority of the participants had higher scores on divergent thinking creativity when they were walking than when they were sitting.

In one indoor experiment where participants walked on a treadmill instead of sitting, their average score was 60 percent higher on divergent thinking creativity.

In a fourth experiment, which tested a more complex type of creativity, the researchers gave prompts to the participants that were designed to coax a complex response in exchange. As a result of this test, the researchers discovered that walking outside had 100 percent of the participants producing at least one high-quality complex analogy versus just 50 percent when they were sitting indoors.

Not All Thinking is the Same

Additionally, the study found that there were different ways of thinking that were not always the same. For instance, divergent and brainstorm thinking is different from convergent thinking that requires just single correct answers.

Productive creativity, on the other hand, involves multiple steps that start with creating ideas to implementing them, but such steps do not use the same kind of thinking process.

Dr. Oppezzo also pointed out that the study revealed that walking seems to improve the creative steps involved in divergent thinking the most, although Professor Schwartz admitted that more work is necessary to find the underlying causes.

However, Prof. Schwarts said that the results of their study provide a "very robust paradigm that will allow people to begin manipulations” in order to see how the body influences the thinking process.

SOURCE: 1. Stanford News Report, Stanford study finds walking improves creativity, published April 24, 2014. 2. Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking; Oppezzo, Marily; Schwartz, Daniel L.; Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition online 21 April 2004; DOI:10.1037/a0036577