“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.”
While at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, Oppezzo and colleague Daniel L. Schwartz, PhD, conducted studies involving 176 people, mostly college students. 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, according to the study published in APA’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.
While previous research has shown that regular aerobic exercise may protect cognitive abilities, these researchers examined whether simply walking could temporarily improve some types of thinking, such as free-flowing thought compared to focused concentration. “Asking someone to take a 30-minute run to improve creativity at work would be an unpopular prescription for many people,” Schwartz said. “We wanted to see if a simple walk might lead to more free-flowing thoughts and more creativity.”
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. If a response was unique among all responses from the group, it was considered novel. Researchers also gauged a participant’s total number of responses and whether a response was feasible and appropriate to the constraints of the task. For example, “Putting lighter fluid in soup is novel, but it is not very appropriate,” Oppezzo said.
Marily Oppezzo, Daniel L. Schwartz. Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking.. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 2014; DOI: 10.1037/a0036577