by Kevin Schofield
It’s well known that there are plenty of health benefits to walking. People who walk regularly tend to live longer, and walking as exercise has been shown to improve several health indicators. Recently, it was also discovered that walking decreases the risk of dementia in one’s golden years.
But is there anything to the idea that walking can inspire your creative juices? Like many people, when I hit a creative block, I will often go for a walk to “clear my head” and try to get some fresh perspective. But is it really helping us — is there a “mind-body connection” between walking that improves creativity? This weekend’s read is a study from 2014 that attempts to test that question.
This research report is clever and breaks out of the classic “do one experiment and write about it” model for research papers; in fact, the researchers do a series of four different experiments that build upon each other to explore a possible connection between walking and creativity.
Before we dive into their experiments, however, we should spend a moment pondering another tough question: How do we define creativity? After all, if we want to be able to assess whether walking increases creativity, we need to be able to define — and measure — it. As with the definition of “intelligence,” the nature of creativity is something that psychologists (and philosophers) have wrestled with for many generations. Here’s where the researchers arrived:
We adopt an operational definition of creativity as the production of appropriate novelty. Creative ideas are not only relatively novel; they are also appropriate to the context or topic (e.g., lighter fluid is a novel ingredient for soup, but inappropriate).
They go on to discuss how a key component of creativity is “the initial generation of novel and appropriate ideas.” Fortunately, psychologists have invented a test for nearly everything, and in this case, the researchers adopted two tests to measure the creativity of their test subjects. The first is an “alternate uses” test, where a person is given an object and asked to generate a list of uses of the object other than the one it was designed for. The second is a “symbolic equivalence” test, in which subjects are given an analogy and are asked to come up with similar analogies with the same underlying idea. In both cases, ideas can be judged on whether they are accurate, but also on whether they are novel — did other test subjects generate the same idea, or was it uniquely one person’s? Also, for completeness’ sake the researchers included one more test, for the opposite of creativity: “convergent thinking.” In this test, subjects are given three words, such as “cottage,” “Swiss,” and “cake,” and are asked to produce a single word that combines with all three of them (in this case, “cheese”).
The first experiment they undertook is a simple and well-contained one, just to verify if there is an effect of walking that is worth further exploration. A group of test subjects were given tests of creativity and convergent thinking as a baseline, and then they repeated the tests with the subjects walking at a comfortable pace on a treadmill. The researchers found that walking substantially improved creative thinking, but slightly worsened convergent thinking. That alone is interesting: Exercise helps some kinds of thinking, but not all.
The second experiment repeated the basic experiment of taking the creativity test twice, but added some new scenarios. One group sat for both tests. One group sat and then walked. And a third group walked and then sat. The researchers discovered two important things: First, higher scores on the second test weren’t simply because people became more practiced at them; in fact, the people who sat for both tests actually did worse the second time they took it. Second, the benefits of walking persist for some time: Those who walked for the first test and then sat for the second one saw their scores go down a bit, but their scores were well above scores of the people who sat for both tests (and about the same as the scores of those who sat for the first and walked for the second).
In the third experiment, the researchers substituted an outdoor walk for walking on a treadmill indoors. And they found the same result: Walking outdoors improved creativity. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also found that test subjects generated more ideas that involved being outside than when they completed the test confined to a room.
And finally, in the fourth experiment, the researchers tried to isolate and measure the benefit, if any, of moving through a dynamic outdoor environment. They tested four scenarios: sitting inside, walking on a treadmill inside, walking outside, and “sitting” outside, in which a person in a wheelchair is wheeled along the same path as the people who walked outside. Again, sitting indoors was the worst; walking outdoors was the best, but walking indoors and sitting outdoors were approximately equivalent to each other and only slightly worse than walking outdoors. Both walking and being outdoors also increased the novelty of the test subjects’ ideas.
Their results tell us many things. Sitting indoors is bad for creativity — very bad, in fact. Both walking and being outdoors enhance creativity, but they mostly overlap in the benefit they provide: Doing both simultaneously only gives a small additional benefit over doing either one alone.
The researchers conclude their report by musing over why walking and being outdoors would enhance creativity, and while they have some ideas, there are no hard answers. They wonder if “engaging in a comfortable task,” and the decrease in stress levels that would accompany that, might lead to circulatory and perhaps even chemical changes in the body that would affect brain function. In a related notion, they suggest that mood might be tied to creativity — and exercise has been shown to affect mood. Finally, they speculate that the dual-task nature of walking while thinking “taxes” the brain’s executive function, and that might allow more creativity to creep into one’s thoughts (or prevent creative thoughts from being filtered out).
This research paper is a fun and easy read. It does a great job explaining how the various experiments were designed, as well as all the trouble researchers went to in order to ensure extraneous factors didn’t taint the results. We also get to see the progression of thinking and questions as the researchers move through their four experiments in succession.
And it turns out that walking — especially walking outside — does indeed enhance creativity, though it may not help with other kinds of thinking.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.
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