Walk this Way

Walking, it seems, is a tested method for coming up with creative ideas. It probably doesn’t surprise you that standing up and stretching your legs and getting some aerobic activity to move your blood around might help your brain to conjure up more options. But it’s not just anecdotal. New scientific findings back it up: Taking a walk can yield more ideas than sitting in your chair thinking.

The research study was conducted at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. Participants, mostly college students, were prompted with a question that required divergent thinking: to list all the possible uses for a common household item (Guilford’s Alternate Uses Task). They were asked to do this task while walking – outside or on a treadmill – or while seated or being pushed in a wheelchair. In every situation, the walkers generated more ideas than those who stayed in their chairs.

What’s so great about getting more ideas? It’s true that having an idea that’s novel and useful is the ultimate goal, but it’s easier to achieve if you generate a large number of raw possibilities and jot them down, rather than just hunting for that one big idea. New ideas are often stumbled upon and making a long list of them increases the chances of landing on one. That’s why there’s value in what walking can produce: the more ideas, the more likely you are to find one that is novel and can be made useful.

According to the researchers, Dr. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz, walking had a large effect on creativity. “For the three alternate uses studies, 81%, 88%, and 100% of participants were more creative walking than sitting. When walking, people generated more uses, good and bad…and more of those uses were novel and appropriate.”

Walking had an impact on the originality of the ideas as well as the volume. During one phase of the experiment, the students were given a prompt and asked to think of metaphors or similar images (Barron’s Symbolic Equivalence test). For example, the given term “robbed safe” led to “honey from a bees nest” or “loss of liberty.” Of the participants who did this while walking, 95% generated at least one novel high-quality analogy compared with 50% of those who did the exercise while sitting down. According to the researchers, “Walking had a strong influence on the expression of associative memory. People presented more ideas, and the ideas tapped each person’s unique associative network, which led to an increase in novelty compared with other people’s ideas.”

Incidentally, there was no difference between taking a walk outside and walking inside on a treadmill. In both cases, the participants came up with roughly the same number of ideas, and always more than those who were seated or being pushed in a wheelchair.

Some students were asked to do the creative task while walking and then while sitting. They generated fewer ideas in this second task than they did while walking, but they still scored higher than those who were only asked to do the test while seated. This suggests that taking a walk before settling in to do creative work at your desk may have an impact on your creative output.

Walking appears to help people diverge. But what about when you converge? Participants in the study were also given a task that required focusing: to come up with a word that could be combined with three given words (the Compound Remote Association Test), for instance salt, deep, foam can all be combined with sea. In this test, the walkers performed slightly worse than the sitters, demonstrating that perhaps walking is a boon to divergent thinking but not necessarily an activity that’s helpful during the convergent components of the creative process.

What this means to us: move when you need to get more ideas. In our workshops we try to facilitate this, asking people to change seating, to switch tables, to stand and work at the wall, go have a conversation with people on the other side of the room. We know that changing the scenery, even slightly, keeps people’s energy up. We often give participants an hour-long break, for time alone to think, or a chance to go for a walk with a partner and talk about ideas. Inevitably, people return with more ideas or more clarity about what they want to work on. We’ve always felt it makes a difference, to have a mid-workshop walkabout, but it’s nice to know that there’s data to support its value to the creative process.


Know Further:

More about the study here and here. Why walking helps us think. Michael Milchalko calls it a thought walk. Maria Popova on Maira Kalman and Walking as a Creative Device. Different ways to measure creativity. In the same way thinking on your feet helps creativity, we think playing with table toys or thinking with your hands can help, too.